Australia: Is it an oppressive democracy?

Australia's nanny state got a little bit bigger this year with its new "consorting" law

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Australia: The ultimate nanny state?
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David Atherton
On 20 August 2012 12:43

My eye was drawn this week to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, via Twitter – a rather generous tribute to our Olympic Games. Good reading it made too. From there, my mouse clicked onto “Grocery shopping led to my boy being jailed for consorting: mother.

A young man named Charlie Foster had just been jailed for nine months, merely for being in the company of someone who the state thought undesirable, under their new “consorting” law. The background to the story is that motorcycle gangs, or “Bikies,” are a perceived nationwide problem, especially active in West Sydney. 

They are involved in, inter alia, “…production and distribution of drugs, use and trafficking of illegal firearms, extortion, prostitution and robbery.” There have been drive-by shootings in turf wars and one particular distressing murder where in 2009, the “..Commancheros clashed with Hells Angels at Sydney Airport, and one man was beaten and stabbed to death in front of dozens of horrified passengers.”

Clearly then, they are criminal and violent, but the New South Wales’ Government has entirely overreacted this year by bringing in the “Crimes Amendment : Consorting and Organised Crime Law” on April 9th. The maximum sentence is three years. It gives the police and judiciary unprecedented powers to restrict the freedom of association of individuals and give exemplary prison sentences accordingly.

Foster appears to have been out on three grocery shopping trips with his flat mate Jack Hayes who was a Bikie. He certainly wasn’t involved in any criminal activity in his search for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread. Although he knew Hayes was a Bikie, Hayes “was a childhood friend”. Foster, apparently, was not a member of Hayes’s gang.

There is understandably great disquiet in New South Wales over not only this conviction but also the law itself. One law firm in Sydney, Proctor and Associates, has been successfully defending people and has a neat summary of how illiberal and intrusive the law is. Electronic communication, for example, can fall under the “consorting” law; email, Skype, Twitter, Facebook can all land you in hot water. The law also gives powers to the police to spy on suspects. They comment:

“This is rather Alarming!!! – ‘Police State’ legislation. Think about it: First, police can by-pass privacy laws and divulge to another, that a person is a convicted offender. There is no time limit of being a ‘convicted offender’. The convicted offender might have committed something as minor as ‘shoplifting’ 10 or 20 years ago.

Secondly, a person can be found guilty, not necessarily by having personal contact with the prior offender, but the consorting can be carried out by electronic communication such as telephone or email, to name two. The definition of ‘consort’ - means consort in person or by any other means, including by electronic or other form of communication.”

They conclude:

“This legislation attacks our freedoms of association and if not used discreetly by Police, could lead to a serious deprivation of civil rights not to mention the development of a police state. Of more important concern though, is the ability of police authorities to abuse their powers under the surveillance legislation with the suspicion of ‘consorting’ being the trigger for a Judge or Magistrate to issue a warrant for a surveillance device.”

You may be pleased to know that, on August 14th, Foster, who has learning difficulties, was cleared on appeal. The prosecutors seemed to acknowledge the police evidence was inadequate and stated that, “Judge Clive Jeffreys ordered the charge be tested again in a local court after prosecutors conceded the conviction relied on an inadequate police case.”

A little delve into the archives, with the help of blogger Dick Puddlecote, reveals that this particular law may in fact be part of a trend, rather than an anomaly. Indeed, here is a roundup of the coercion, intimidation and for-your-own-good nanny-statism on display down under.

- Bundanoon, in New South Wales, bans bottled water on the grounds of environmental impact.

- The Australian Classification Board for movies has banned models in their 20s from parading A-sized breasts,-- for fear of encouraging paedophilia – and depictions of female ejaculation.

- Certain segments of the hotels and hospitality industry have banned people showing visible tattoos so as to “keep out the riff-raff.”

- Video games such as Grand Theft Auto IV have been banned since one is able to solicit prostitutes as part of the game.  Similarly, Fallout 3 and Left4Dead have been banned for violence.

- Compulsory internet filters have been implemented which allow the Australian government to edit what you can and cannot see.

- Alcohol has been banned on beaches.  

- Carbon taxes have been infamously introduced which force around three hundred businesses to pay $23 a ton for pollution produced.

Alex Deane, when Director of the UK campaign group Big Brother Watch, was asked in debates whether he was being a bit precious when you consider that there are far worse places such as North Korea. His reply was “I am seeking a better best.” Rights are more easily given up than won and as Conservative MP David Davis once remarked: “If you give the government power they will abuse it.”

Fortunately, Australia does have Civil Liberties Australia, the excellent Tim Andrews of the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance, and the anti-nanny state campaigning group MyChoice Australia on its side. They are sharpening their pencils as I type. I wish them well.

I’ll allow the late Supreme Court judge Justice William O. Douglas to have the last word: 

“The privacy and dignity of our citizens [is] being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps. Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen -- a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of a [person’s] life.”

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking. Follow him on Twitter: @DaveAtherton20

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