“Stronger action needs to be taken on migrants and refugees who come to the attention of Australian security forces. Those on watch lists who are not Australian citizens need to be deported and those who are, interned to neutralise their possible harm to this country.”
That’s Pauline Hanson in an open letter to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, published on her Facebook page.
On Monday, former Australian army general Jim Molan used a News Corp op ed to propose “security cleared tribunal[s] consisting perhaps of a judge but also of non-jurists” to mandate the detention without trial of those who, as he puts it, have “come to [the] attention” of the police.
4BC radio host Ben Davis likes the idea. “It’s about having a watchlist and being able to act on it”, he explained to Seven’s Sunrise show.
To no one’s surprise, Alan Jones agrees.
“I’m saying if they’re a suspect – and that’s good enough – round them up whether the evidence is there or not. … Intern them somewhere remote and leave them there or get rid of them.”
Overseas, you can hear variants on the same rhetoric coming from former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, far right provocateur Katie Hopkins and US shock jock (and Trump favourite) Michael Savage.
During the world wars, of course, Australia interned those deemed internal enemies – leading, in both instances, to historic injustices.
I’ve written previously about the xenophobic hysteria that swept the nation during the first world war, a very Hansonite paranoia that led local councils to rename Teutonic sounding streets (thus Weinberg Road in Melbourne’s Hawthorn became Wattle Road) and spurred concerned citizens to denounce Lutherans for praising the Kaiser from the pulpit.
Eventually, some 7,000 people ended up in detention, many of them simply because they were unfortunate enough to have German ancestry.
“The situation in the German districts gives great anxiety to British residents,” it explained, “and the best way of relieving their anxiety, as well as of keeping German residents in check, is to intern occasionally a few leading German residents.”
Lesbia Harford’s novel The Invaluable Mystery offers a contemporary account of how, to relieve the anxiety of those troubled residents, the lives of detainees were ruined.
If anything, the policy during the second world war was worse.
A few years ago, the South Australian parliament unanimously acknowledged the injustices done to Italians wrongly interned during the war. Many were farmers, rounded up and transported away from their families, for no other reason than their ethnicity. In the process, anti-fascists were detained alongside supporters of Mussolini and Hitler, with the predictable result that some of them were murdered.
When Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis arrived on the SS Dunera, they, too, were herded into the Hay internment camp.
Some 300 Indigenous people were imprisoned simply because they’d lived on a mission at Cape York run by a German pastor. Most were never permitted to return home.
Mind you, that, at least, took place during a major war.
Hanson’s proposal seems more akin to Robert Menzies’ 1949 effort to ban the Communist Party and “affiliated groups”, through legislation criminalising anyone judged to be supporting or practising the “objectives, policies, teachings, principles or practices of communism, as expounded by Marx and Lenin”.
Though the high court declared the scheme unconstitutional, we know that Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, the head of Asio, prepared a list of 7,000 people to be imprisoned in army camps, should the need arise. Menzies himself gloated that his law would have applied to a number of Labor parliamentarians.
The files declassified since the cold war give a chilling glimpse of what interning those on Asio “watchlists” actually means.
In 2014, the NSW Parliamentarian Meredith Burgmann edited a book entitled Dirty Secrets, containing articles by prominent Australians who had, to use Molan’s phrase, come to Asio’s attention. In her introduction, Burgmann describes a file on the early feminist Lucy Woodcock, compiled in 1950. It reads: “Mrs Reed very militant, active … Son Jonathan (4 ½ years old) an active school propagandist … Organises groups away from teacher’s grasp.”
Would little Jonathan have ended up in Spry’s camp? Who knows – but Burgmann’s book includes Justice Michael Kirby, feminist Anne Summers, Indigenous historian Gary Foley, film critic David Stratton, Labor leader Clive Evatt and TV gardener Peter Cundall.
They were all on Asio’s watchlist. By Hanson’s logic, they all should have been behind bars.
You might think Asio is better now. You might think it doesn’t make mistakes, that it’s sufficiently dependable that we can blithely lock up anyone in whom it takes an interest.
Well, tell that to Bilal Daye and Fatme Iali, the couple who received an undisclosed settlement for wrongful detention, false imprisonment, trespass and assault after Asio agents and federal police officers held them at gunpoint for an hour, before realising they’d come to the wrong address. Tell that to Izhar ul-Haque, the student who, according to Justice Michael Adam, was subjected to “the criminal offences of false imprisonment and kidnapping at common law” by Asio agents identified only as B15 and BI6. Tell that to Mohamed Haneef who was eventually paid about $1mn in compensation after his wrongful detention on terror charges in 2007.
In all other contexts, rightwingers insist that the nanny state can’t be trusted, that the government’s not capable of running schools or hospitals or social services. Why, then, are they prepared to give secret state-run bureaucracies the authority to throw people in jail?
The answer is simple. They know that such powers will never be used against the likes of them.
In her open letter, Hanson urges the prime minister to change the law so that the final decision in cases pertaining to immigration and refugees sits with the minister and not with those she calls “unelected lawyers and bureaucrats”.
Now, back in 2003, Hanson, along with her then associate David Ettridge, was found guilty of electoral fraud and obtaining property by deception. Yet she only served eleven weeks of a three year sentence. Why? The convictions were overturned on appeal.
“It was a sham”, she says now. “The whole thing was an absolute political witch hunt to destroy me. … It took me a long time to get over it. I blame Tony Abbott [and] John Howard for my imprisonment and no one will ever change my opinion about that.”
In other words, when it comes to her own affairs, Hanson relies on lawyers. She doesn’t want politicians adjudicating her guilt or innocence.
You can see why. In recent months, One Nation’s accumulated an impressive fresh set of legal problems, what with the recordings of James Ashby proposing to charge candidates inflated prices for campaign material and the vexed matter of that allegedly donated plane.
How did Alan Jones put it? “If they’re a suspect, … round them up whether the evidence is there or not. … Intern them somewhere remote and leave them there”.
If that logic applied to politicians, the One Nation leadership would already be in the gulag.
But fortunately for Hanson, that’s not (yet) how the legal system works. Over the past centuries, we’ve established a series of principles (trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, the separation of powers etc) that, at least in theory, provide everyone with protection against arbitrary persecution.
That’s because we have accumulated hundreds of years of experience to demonstrate that accusations aren’t the same as proof, that authority can’t always be trusted, that unchecked power results in injustice and oppression rather than peace and security.
Does anyone really think that revisiting the ad hoc incarcerations associated with the first half of the 20th century will contribute to social harmony? Is it not, in fact, infinitely more likely that a regime of secret tribunals and Guantánamo-style prisons would foster alienation, resentment and a spiral of intensified violence?
If Hanson is so keen to undermine the very foundations of liberal jurisprudence, maybe she, as someone embroiled in legal difficulties, should set an example. Maybe she should sack her own lawyers and abandon any attempt to clear her name. Maybe she should march herself off into a camp somewhere. Maybe she should stay there for the foreseeable future just to neutralise the possible harm she might cause to the country.
If she’s not prepared to do that, maybe she should accept that immigrants and refugees and everyone else are just as entitled to basic rights as she is.