News that the Rudd government intends to dramatically change course on national security is extremely welcome. But it is not enough simply to work in areas which were neglected by its predecessors - the government will also have to dismantle or restructure much of what it has inherited from the Howard era. This requires the political and public debate over counter-terrorism to abandon the simplistic obsession with “toughness” which has been its hallmark to date.

The government’s intention to develop a holistic framework to protect the Australian community from a range of dangers - not just terrorist violence - is in step with trends overseas which stress the benefits of policy-makers and agencies being suitably flexible and ready to address major public emergencies. The chaotic response of American authorities to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster was a perfect illustration of the inadequacy of making plans and allocating resources with one kind of threat in mind - a threat that happens not to be the one which has just arisen.

More specifically, the government’s intention to combat terrorism at the grass roots by fostering social cohesion and inclusiveness among potentially alienated minority communities is absolutely essential. Although lip service was paid to this idea by the Howard government, its zealous pursuit of law-and-order populism with respect to terrorism obliterated any successes in better relations with Australia’s Muslim communities. In a speech to a major security summit in Canberra in December, the new attorney-general, Robert McClelland, indicated his understanding that investing in these relationships is the cornerstone to preventing the emergence of dangerous disaffection.

All this is impressive and long overdue, but the Rudd government must recognise that it will have trouble building anything positive on the questionable foundations laid by the previous administration. Large chunks must be repaired or even jettisoned before we can move forward on the goals Labor is keen to achieve.

The good news for the government is that the job of identifying the deficiencies and dangers in our anti-terrorism laws has already been done. In 2006 alone, three major reviews - one by a unanimous bipartisan parliamentary joint committee - were conducted into our anti-terrorism laws. But the previous government chose to ignore most of the recommendations contained in these reports.

Some of the problems are eminently practical ones - like that identified by the Security Legislation Review Committee in relation to the crime of “training” a terrorist organisation, which it found completely unworkable and in need of urgent amendment. But others go to the heart of Labor’s policy approach. The same committee, chaired by former NSW Supreme Court Justice Simon Sheller, emphasised that several of the laws - such as the crime of “association” and the attorney-general’s power to ban organisations - were of dubious effectiveness in protecting the public yet counter-productively fed feelings of alarm and mistrust in Australia’s Muslim communities. In short, the laws may have been “tough” as a matter of political grandstanding, but they were a hindrance rather than a help to keeping us safe.

The recommendations put forward by the Australian Law Reform Commission in its review of the controversial crime of sedition have also lain dormant, but the new government would do well to revisit this report as well. Some of the ALRC’s suggested changes to the offence - particularly those addressing incitements to racial violence - would actually assist in promoting the social cohesion which Labor rightly identifies as so important.

Additionally, there are other aspects of our current anti-terrorism laws which require a more substantial reappraisal than offered to date by these committee reports. The conditions upon which orders for the control or preventative detention of persons are issued - indeed, the need for their very existence in Australia - should be soberly reviewed and debated.

None of this is for a moment to countenance a softening of our disgust for terrorism nor the penalties which should be applied to those who seek to inflict it upon us. But it is to point out that several of the laws introduced by the last federal government are of dubious effectiveness. The worst among them foster executive overreach and feed hostility amongst the very groups with which we need to work to ensure that individuals are not drawn to political violence.

The embarrassing debacles of both the Haneef and ul-Haque cases are ample evidence of the deficiencies of the law and the culture it has produced. The damage which such injustices inflict upon public trust, particularly in minority communities, is exactly what Labor recognises we must avoid. But if the government wants to ensure such episodes do not recur and that it enhances our security, it must first attend to the existing flaws in Australia’s anti-terrorism laws before embarking on new initiatives.

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