Australia's National Party deserves praise for vetoing police state

The National Party is a very conservative, rural-based party

THANKFULLY, a draconian law backed by WA's Liberal government has been thwarted. WHILE most political commentary is understandably focused on the national stage as Julia Gillard tries to hold together her loose alliance of Labor, Greens and rural independents, last week another minority government faced a split of its own. It was an important moment for good law-making in this country.

In Western Australia, the Nationals refused to support Colin Barnett's controversial stop-and-search provisions, the Criminal Investigation Amendment Bill. It was the minor party's finest hour, exposing the heavy-handed and out-of-touch willingness of the Liberal government to trample on the civil liberties of its citizens.

In this column last year, when the issue began to be debated, I wrote about the dangers of the proposed stop-and-search laws, aimed at giving police the powers to frisk anyone in certain parts of Perth without the centuries-old requirement of reasonable suspicion.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. The Liberal government in WA wanted to give police the power to frisk and search whoever they wanted: a good-looking woman, a kid who looked at them the wrong way, or a couple that for no particular reason the police officers just didn't like the look of. It is one hell of a law for a government to try and inflict on the population that elected it.

The stop-and-search bill was a ham-fisted effort by Police Minister Rob Johnson and Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Johnson is a maverick from way back. He has variously advocated crushing cars and leaving them on speeding drivers' front lawns, chemical castration for sex offenders, and the re-introduction of the death penalty. While extreme, at least none of these targets innocent bystanders, as the stop-and-search provisions would have.

But what on earth is the more rational Attorney-General doing supporting these laws? Porter studied for a masters in political philosophy at the London School of Economics. He understands the writings of 18th and 19th-century thinkers such as Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill, writings about rights and freedoms basic to Western democracies. He should hand his qualification back.

The Johnson and Porter argument is that the intention of the law isn't to do anyone harm. Rather, it is to make crime trouble spots safer. But that misses the point.

History is littered with examples of well-intentioned moves that led to unintended consequences. As the 19th-century writer Thomas Aldrich noted: "The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man." Police in WA shouldn't be put in the situation where they have such powers.

Just to be clear, the laws, had they come into effect, would have meant an innocent couple walking through the streets could be stopped simply on a police officer's whim. The woman (or man) would then receive a full body frisk, the contents of her purse could be tossed and both parties would be ordered to turn out their pockets. For doing what? Based on what suspicion of wrongdoing? Nothing and none are the answers.

It could be an older couple out for their anniversary, a woman going to church, a young couple on their first date. Anyone and everyone becomes a target.

And people wouldn't have needed to be walking through one of the no-go areas to be violated. While driving through the suburb (perhaps without the intention of stopping in the area), they could have been pulled over and subjected to the treatment outlined above, with their car being thoroughly searched as well.

If that isn't the stuff of a police state, then I don't know what is. No wonder the opposition and the Nationals refused to support the bill. It is hard to believe educated legislators could come up with such a law, much less get into a situation where the entire Liberal parliamentary party endorsed it.

Another argument used to justify the laws by their proponents is that it is no different to giving police the powers to conduct random breath tests. Apart from the fact you don't get felt up in a random breath test, there are other important differences, too. When you drive a car or take an aeroplane flight, you effectively sign a contract with the state that you will play by the road or air rules, such as being breath-tested or walking through metal detectors. But the stop-and-search provisions would have applied to anyone who simply wanted to walk on the streets. It would have been a contract with the state that no citizen could have chosen to opt out of, a contract would have allowed police to frisk you at will, unless you wanted to stay housebound for the rest of your life.

Removing the reasonable suspicion test from policing is draconian. Anyone who enjoys basic freedoms should be affronted by the Liberal government's attempt to introduce such laws, and the desire to do so by the Liberal Party leadership group should lead to more questioning about other legislative initiatives it pursues. If Barnett is prepared to do this, what else might he be prepared to do?

The Nationals took the view that the bill should be opposed on the back of an upper house committee that considered the proposal for 12 months. Despite many submissions to the committee raising concerns about the proposed laws - with the one exception: the police union (surprise, surprise) - the Liberals on the committee fell into line with the desires of their executive and recommended the bill become law.

The Labor, Greens and, most significantly, Nationals members on the committee disagreed, and Nationals MP Mia Davies managed to convince her colleagues to join her in opposing the proposed law, thereby killing it off. For that, West Australians, should be eternally grateful.

It isn't just that the laws would have violated the rights of free citizens. Overseas evidence suggests such laws don't work anyway.

Britain trialled similar laws to deal with terrorism. But it's terror law watchdog, Lord Carlile QC, found them "poor and unnecessary". In 2008, British police used the powers on 170,000 occasions without one conviction, but with many complaints registered.

That's what happens when people are stopped without reasonable suspicion: citizens lose confidence in the state and the state doesn't improve its policing, because it isn't targeted.

WA has dodged a policy bullet, but the public should never forget what their government tried to do to them.


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