These are the freedoms we cherish: the freedom not to be asked for identification for no reason, the freedom not to be suspected of being an enemy of the state. The freedom not to be frogmarched out of an airport terminal. The freedom, when asked for identification, to say no. The freedom not to be found guilty until proven innocent.
That was then.
This is now.
Thanks Peter Dutton. Thanks Malcolm Turnbull. The government has announced new measures to improve, in their words, national security. As well as police at airports being able to ask for identification for no other reason than being there (which is an interesting existential paradox in itself), greater scanning, including 3D imaging, is to be introduced.
Now, of course, it cannot be a bad thing to strengthen the arsenal to prevent terrorism, but it cannot be a good thing to subvert a basic freedom (one that is cherished in this country, well used to be) that the individual enjoys in a society, that is, the right not to be a vassal to the state.
The charitable view of this proposal is that the cause and effect of this new power obviously has not been thought through. It is, in essence, a mark of a police state. And who, of sound reason and mind, would want to be part of that?
The citizenry, who as Turnbull concedes, are not required by law to carry ID, will be required, when asked, to prove who they are or lose their freedom, albeit for a small time. They will be marched out of the terminal. The time, however, is not the point. It is that troublesome concept: the principle of the thing.
Until now, ID could only demanded if police had reasonable grounds to suspect someone of criminal activity. Now, we’ll all be criminals.
Turnbull defended the changes by citing the experience in another country: Indonesia, which has been hit by fatal terrorist attacks in recent days.
He told 3AW: “There is no law that requires you (to carry ID) but it’s hard to think of anyone that wouldn’t have some ID and wouldn’t be able to say a bit about themselves. There is no place for ‘set and forget’ in defending Australians.”
But John Coyne, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Fairfax Media that “there’s no clear, substantial increase in security and it just ends up in providing a number of negative impacts”.
Greens senator Nick McKim said: “Demanding people produce documents on the spot is a hallmark of police states.”
He’s right. It is. But to Homeland Affairs supremo Dutton the present situation where “certain conditions” had to be met before police could stop someone was an “absurdity”. The government was “addressing an anomaly and a deficiency in the law”.
Until now, ID could only demanded if police had reasonable grounds to suspect someone of criminal activity.
Now, we’ll all be criminals. What does this bring into play in the relationship between state and individual? Mistrust, fear and the loss of the presumption of innocence. It does not create an air of greater safety. From now, no one is safe from being asked to prove who they are even if they are not doing anything wrong. That denial is a bulwark of democracy.
Dutton, Turnbull, et al, will argue that there is a greater duty demanded of them to safeguard lives. Of course there is. The government has many weapons it can deploy to make good that duty. In doing so it should not be, however, at the expense of the freedom it purports to protect.
It may seem a small matter in the larger scheme of things, such that people may give a collective shrug of the shoulders and get on with worrying about mortgages and cost of living expenses – the immediate, tangible things in their lives.
But that is the insidious nature of power over the person; it eats into the fabric of freedom, largely unnoticed and unremarked upon, until it is too late to be stopped.
And then freedom becomes just another word for nothing left to lose.
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