Last week, the Queensland Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee tabled its report on some proposed amendments to Queensland terrorism legislation. The Committee was tasked with reviewing the Counter-Terrorism and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, and recommending whether the Parliament should pass it or not. Despite noting the extensive criticisms made of the Bill by opposition parties and civil society, the Committee recommended that it be passed.
The Bill would make important changes to Queensland’s anti-terror laws, including laws dealing with terrorist emergency declarations, preventative detention, police liability, and corrective services.
Chief amongst these changes is the introduction of so-called “information requirements”. This amendment would allow police officers to require people to provide any information deemed necessary for the management or resolution of the emergency. It would be an offence to refuse to provide the information, or to give false or misleading answers.
However, these changes were uncontroversial compared to the proposed powers for the Premier and other relevant Ministers to be able to extend ‘states of emergency’ indefinitely without parliamentary supervision.
Amendments to the Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 allow declarations of terrorist emergencies – previously limited to seven days – to be extended by ministerial fiat for up to 14 days, and thereafter up to 28 days by regulation. There is no limit on the number of times regulations can be introduced extending a period of emergency, so, theoretically, a Queensland government could perpetually extend the declaration, provided they “were satisfied” that it was necessary. These declarations are the triggers for augmented emergency police powers.
Other amendments include expanded stop-and-search powers for police dealing with vehicles in and around a “declared area”, expanded powers to control the movement of people during a terrorist emergency, and expanded seizure-of-property powers.
Criticisms of the Bill
The amendments have received relatively little media coverage, and have not generated as much comment as changes to anti-terror laws have done in many other state and federal instances. However, opposition parties and some media outlets have harshly criticised the amendments.
The introduction of ‘information requirements’ was singled out by the Queensland Greens, arguing that:
Such a system is quite clearly open to abuse, especially in the emotionally charged environment of an emergency.
The Greens also criticised the seizure-of-property powers, saying that:
Lowering the [statutory] requirement for seizure…renders the legislation so vague that seizure of property becomes completely arbitrary.
The Greens also argued that:
Any decision to extend the duration of a terrorist emergency must be subject to judicial oversight.
The Courier Mail was more colourful in their opinion, but also criticised the Bill, saying these changes:
Hand unbridled powers to police and politicians, and were introduced with barely a whisper… Civil liberties go out the window.
Terrorism and the rule of law
The Committee’s task was to review these significant amendments, and decide whether their introduction was warranted or not. They acknowledged at many points during their report that the new police powers, as well as the changes to corrective services, police liability, and the preventative detention regime were controversial, and implicated many common law rights and freedoms. Amongst these were the presumption of innocence, the privilege against self-incrimination, freedom of movement, property rights, and judicial review of government action.
However, the Committee ultimately came down on the side of the proposed amendments, arguing that some safeguards were built in, and, in any event, the preservation of public safety was paramount. The Committee pointed out that Queensland’s preventative detention laws and terrorist emergency powers have never had to be used; however, the possibility for the exercise of these extraordinary powers remains open. Due to Queensland’s unicameral system, the Bill is almost assured to pass.
The rule of law supports the deterrence and prevention of unlawful behaviour, like terrorism, just as much as it supports common law rights and freedoms, like the presumption of innocence. The Queensland Government will have given its politicians and police extraordinary powers, and must bear the heavy burden of responsible use that goes with them. Commentators will be watching closely to see how the new powers are exercised.
— William Shrubb
Report by the Qld Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee
Explanatory Memorandum for the Counter-Terrorism and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016
Second Reading Speech for the Counter-Terrorism and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016
Timebase article on the Bill
Courier Mail article on the Bill