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Arbitrary Detention and Magna Carta

Peter Ravenscroft | 01.11.2005 23:05 | Analysis | Anti-racism | Repression | World

Below is a copy of an open letter re the proposed new anti-terrorism bill, sent to all premiers, chief ministers and the leader of the opposition. It is not overly complimentary.

Proposed new anti-terrorism bill
Proposed new anti-terrorism bill

The Premier, Wherever.


AUSTRALIA: Perhaps some rear-view vision may help you when considering the laws now being proposed regarding arbitrary detention. It is somewhat gratifying that international treaties are belatedly being cited as reasons to oppose this slide into dictatorship, but it is odd that no-one seems to remember what underpins our personal freedom here and the whole of our legal system.

In 1225 in England, the royal seal was affixed to what is generally seen as the definitive version of Magna Carta by the clerks of King John, a somewhat controversial monarch, as is his namesake, our current de facto one. Chapter 39 is now regarded as perhaps the main clause of that document. It states that "no freeman can be arrested, imprisoned, deprived of his property, outlawed, exiled or "in any way destroyed" except by "legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." It forgot to mention the ladies. It is clear that the law of the land was not meant to be amendable so as to negate the intent of that chapter.

You are in the process of assenting to laws that will negate the intent of that clause, arguably the most important in the legal system that is ancestral to our own. What do you think you are doing?

If you assent, you will be seen by history as the exact opposite of the men who opposed arbitrary power at Runnymede, and posterity will not think much of you. Many of us in Australia have lately come to expect the worst from that weird campsite behind Lake George. The worry in this matter is the apparent consent of you lot, the state premiers and territory chief ministers.

Magna Carta in its final draft came just under 160 years after the Norman invasion of England, to a country plagued perhaps since the withdrawal of the Roman legions, by strife, invasion and civil unrest. Through the turmoil of several civil wars and much unrest since, it has never been revoked, though it has often been neglected for a time. Mr Blair, who apparently believes he derives his authority from an authoritarian antique sky god, rather than from the customs of his country, is the latest challenger. I suggest, on historic and statistical grounds, that he is unlikely to find long-term favour with either his appointed boss or the future citizenry of Britain. For the present population of Britain, Magna Carta is apparently too far back, the nightly TV dosage of "Plod is my Shepherd" having reset people's brains towards a craving for authoritarianism.

The revocation of Magna Carta's core provision is now being proposed in Australia, a bit over 200 years after the invasion of Australia by the British, to a country that seems remakably peaceful once you turn off the TV and the radio. As we are all (detained refugees and other state serfs excluded), now free men and woman in Australia, why are you now proposing to add a new category of citizen, the disappeared, to our ranks?

At the time of Magna Carta, as a trivial aside, by family legend my lot were on the side of the dictatorship, seizing other folks' property for the king. We are not proud of it. We did a bit better under South Africa's apartheid and opposed that, though ineffectually. In the end, though, 20 million people there said enough. So the laws you are now apparently about to assent to here are unthinkable in South Africa at present.

So here we go again. The language and provisions and likely outcomes of this new anti-terrorist bill are all very familiar, from apartheid days in South Africa. There, arbitrary detention was used as a cover to murder many folk. I knew some of the people who were found guilty. They did not seem remarkably different from their counterparts in the overt and covert police here. They were dedicated people, doing what they felt was right for their community. A few were even likeable. But hundreds were still tortured and murdered under cover of that arbitrary detention. We already have arbitrary detention, in our refugee camps, here and on once pacific and hospitable islands and it has been disastrous in its implementation. Also, in the self-interest stakes, Australia is on the nose internationally because of it. Why do you suppose this will be any different?

The reason for the present wave of fear re terrorism is, as everyone with two neurons to rub together knows, the invasion of Iraq, almost certainly illegal in international law and hence also (curiously), illegal in Australian law. As a people we seem hell-bent on what is now legally serial murder. New Zealand is not threatened by Islamic terrorists; their last problem was with the French. Can we as a community still not see the connection?

If you wish to protect the people of your state from indiscriminate terrorism, several things have to be done.

First, the Prime Minister has to be stripped of his power to send Australians to war without community assent. Then Australia might be on it's way to becoming a genuine democracy. At present it is, I suggest, best described as a brown-bag party dictatorship, badly out of control.

Australia's remarkable historic belligerence probably harks back to the wish for preferment and wealth through foreign campaigns, of the naval and military officers stationed here in the early days of British settlement. This was a dead-end posting, so all foreign campaigns were welcomed by the establishment, military and civil. That set the pattern and we have hence missed very few opportunities to attack faraway folk, since the Maori wars. This must stop, if not for reasons of common decency, then because attacked faraway folk and their militant supporters, aka what the bunyip from behind Lake George defines as terrorists, are getting slightly disgruntled. There is nothing wrong with that definition except that it excludes our own government-sponsored killers.

Wars should not be launched without the consent of the people in a referendum. Without that, this will never be a real democracy and in the end our colonisation of this continent will probably fail in consequence. We will eventually be overrun by an enemy we need never have made, while being abandoned by our hoped-for bully-boy protector for its own domestic reasons. We are inevitably a third-rate power, apparently in the incurable habit of attacking other third-rate, second-rate and occasionally even first-rate ones. This seems to be a sort of national death-wish.

We should switch to building a genuine defence force, that would make Australia unassailable. We should not be a spare attack-puppy for whoever is the current international rotweiler, such as we are now. Then we should be scrupulously neutral. Our armed forces should become in their offshore capacity, wholly and solely international disaster-relief forces. We could lead the world in that. Our recent effort as a nation in helping after the big tsunami, was a far better way to go in winning friends and long-term security, than our recent attacks on the people of the Middle East, or our habit of forever celebrating our past killing of Turkish people in their homeland. That way, the ordinary people of the world might eventually come to like and appreciate us rather than our wallets. As we are going now, proposing for instance to train very unpopular government forces in the southern Philippines, we will merely make ever more enemies, all with long memories. I have met farmers in the backveld in South Africa who are still very bitter about Australia helping the British with its war, concentration camps for women and farm-burning there, in 1899-1902. Those are the ones who don't play cricket. Live by the sword ...?

You will not bring this country security by throwing away the core provision of Magna Carta. You will though, if you can persuade it to stop attacking faraway folk and blowing their kids arms off with airforce bombs and assault rifles. Our heroic government pilots and SAS soldiers in the Middle East, of whose exploits we curiously hear so little, are other people's deeply-hated terrorists. We are waging an illegal war on people who have never troubled us and we then pretend to be surprised that they retaliate by killing our citizens and other ordinary folk in nightclubs and the like. Are we as a people quite simple?

I suggest that your personal duty re this terrorism legislation is very clear. Shirk it, and history almost certainly will regard you and you fellow premiers and chief ministers as either spineless or very poorly informed. I hope this letter will help remove the second excuse. It is an open document and copies have gone to all the other premiers and chief ministers.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

In no way yours, or your admirer regarding you conduct on this matter to date.

Peter Ravenscroft.

Peter Ravenscroft


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  1. They can't even get the date right — sceptic