Even when the police foil massacres before they can happen and the prosecution obtains convictions, sentences are likely to be far less than what a reasonable person would regard as appropriate. Terror has changed the way we live. It should also change the way we think about punishment
Some may find it reassuring that the car bombing of the Australian Christian Lobby headquarters in Canberra was ” not politically, religiously or ideologically motivated”. Most would not. This finding by the ACT police was the result of a short interview in hospital of the vehicle’s alleged driver. It is surprising that the Canberra police could have come to this conclusion on the basis of one brief interview conducted as the driver was lapsing into a coma. Even more astonishing, they chose to make this finding public. Are they ruling out the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that further evidence will be forthcoming in this case?
Some of us were similarly surprised by the Canberra police on Australia Day 2012, when angry protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy surrounded the Lobby Restaurant where the Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were attending a function. The protesters were angry because a member of Ms Gillard staff had told them, untruthfully, that Tony Abbott had said in a media interview that he wanted to close the Tent Embassy. Instead of taking firm action to ensure there would no riot, the police decided the Prime Minister should take flight.
As a result news broadcasts around the world showed the police half-carrying/half-dragging Ms. Gillard, who had lost one of her shoes, with her face almost scraping the ground. At the same time they dragged Mr Abbott towards his car. The cars then sped off. When Australians saw how our country was being portrayed overseas, they must have wondered why the Canberra police decided to react this way.
There was a time when the police would have reacted with firm resolve to calm the situation, quelling what could have become a riot, just as there was a time when police would not, on the basis of one interview, so quickly come to a conclusion concerning the motivations of a suspect.
These are fortunately isolated instances. The police normally perform superbly, as the Federal and Victorian police did in thwarting a Christmas Eve outrage at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and its nearby precinct.
The problem remains that even when the police act as they did in Melbourne, when the prosecution is then able to present evidence to a jury and the jury convicts those who would commit or have committed appalling acts of terrorism, the sentence can be far too light.
Take the case of one ”MHK” who was sentenced by Victorian Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry on December 7, 2016. Born in Australia to Syrian parents, he was planning to explode bombs in the Melbourne CBD, on a train or a police station. The bombs were to be filled with screws so that the explosions would kill and cruelly maimed large numbers of people.
In what Gerard Henderson notes is a disturbingly light sentence, he received a minimum term of five years and three months before he will be eligible for parole. Admittedly, he pleaded guilty and expressed regret and Lasry believing he had good prospects for rehabilitation. The judge would also have been guided by rulings of the superior courts.
Apart from the almost universal trend towards lighter and lighter sentences, the public are also understandably concerned by the apparent over-generous availability of bail, which was not in issue in this case. There is no doubt that the deaths at the Lindt Cafe would not have occurred had the terrorist Man Monis not been out on bail, something which for many of us remains inexplicable, given his record and the other charges pending against him.
The maximum penalty for committing a terrorist act, which includes planning one, is life imprisonment. This could be made mandatory by Parliament so that a judge would have no option but to impose one. It will be argued that, faced with a mandatory sentence, offenders would be less likely to plead guilty. The solution could be to involve the jury so that a mandatory sentence would only apply if the jury so recommends. This would mean that in such matters a jury would always have to be empanelled, even where the accused pleads guilty.
It could also be made clear by legislation that such life sentences would only end with the death of the offender. At least in wartime, we will also at some time have to reconsider the abolition of the death penalty, at least for treason and similar treachery . This should always be a decision for the people. How can we possibly expect our soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses to risk their lives and not impose the maximum penalty for treachery directed against them at home? It is, of course, elementary that a government has a fundamental duty to act against such treachery to the armed forces, something which did not always happen in the Second World War, as revealed by Hal Colebatch in 2013 in Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II
Attempted terrorist acts should also attract a minimum mandatory penalty — say, 20 years. Again, this could apply only if the jury recommends as much. During the serving of such a sentence the government would be in a position to determine whether Australian citizenship can and should be removed and the offender deported at the end of the sentence. It is also important that the government ensure that those in gaol do not have the opportunity to convert others to their cause. Accordingly, convicted terrorists should be kept in an isolated and remote prison where they cannot infect the gullible.
The incidence of terrorism of course raises again the issue of the incompetent and, indeed, negligent administration of the immigration power by some governments and individual politicians. This is and always was totally unacceptable.
We’ve far too often seen politicians bringing in immigrants who do not contribute, who will not assimilate, who will be a burden on the taxpayers and many of whom will engage in crime. This was certainly not the case in the exercise of the immigration policy down to the latter part of the 20th century. It had nothing to do with colour or race; it had to do with ministers exercising their powers with a degree of professionalism. The first significant failure was that by Malcolm Fraser in the so-called Lebanese concession. The results were so appalling that the government had to withdraw this. In addition, citizenship should be earned and not distributed like confetti. Its award could even involve public participation, as in Switzerland, where such applications are determined at a public meeting in the relevant local government area.
We do have to quell the need on the part of politicians to use immigration to make themselves feel good, particularly in relation to problems overseas. When a photograph of the sad little body of a drowned boy went around the world, there was a knee-jerk ill considered reaction by too many politicians to increase immigration from Syria. A few days later it was revealed that the family was not in fact composed of refugees and that the father, who had already obtained refuge in Turkey, was attempting to move to Germany because of their free dental services and for other economic reasons. The point is surely that a politician’s first duty is to Australia and to Australians.
In a recent discussion about the increasing lack of confidence in the politicians revealed in the Australian Election Study, it was seriously proposed that federal parliamentary terms be extended to four years. The argument – no doubt presented with a straight face – is that this would increase the quality of government. If we learned anything from increasing the terms of state parliaments to four years, it is that this clearly did not improve the quality of government. In fact, it may well have had the opposite effect .
What is needed is for governments and individual politicians to be made more accountable, as they are in Switzerland and in some American states. This is especially achievable through voters being able to put proposals for legislation to the people directly though citizen initiated referendums.
David Flint presents ‘Safe Worlds -Conversations with Conservatives’ on Safe Worlds TV and You Tube. This includes an interview with Jack Hammond QC on superannuation and the election