Prime Minister Tony Abbott was yesterday out recruiting for “Team Australia” among Sydney’s sceptical Islamic leaders, who fear proposed tightening of the nation’s anti-terror laws will target local Muslims.
He will be doing the same in Melbourne, hoping to calm a backlash against legislation to be put before Parliament next week and bring Muslim communities on board.
The proposed laws will among other things require internet service providers and telecommunications companies to store their clients’ metadata for two years.
Although the Government has been struggling to define the term, metadata records web and email addresses, but not the content.
Muslim concern has focused on proposals aimed at blocking the return of radicalised jihadists fighting in such conflicts as Syria and Iraq after the emergence of Australians among prominent radicals in the extreme Isis (Islamic State) army.
About 150 Australians are either fighting in the two countries, have tried to travel there to join the war, or are supporting extremists from Australia.
Counter-terrorism agencies have warned that returning jihadists pose a serious threat to the nation.
The proposed laws will give authorities greater power to identify, charge and prosecute people who have trained, fought with or supported terrorist activities abroad.
This includes a reversal of the onus of proof, requiring suspects to prove they have not been involved with terror groups while visiting designated hotspots.
The Government will also be able to strip people considered as threats to national security of the dole and other welfare payments.
Abbott tried to soften criticism by dropping plans to water down racial vilification laws, a move bitterly opposed by Muslims and other ethnic groups. “When it comes to counter-terrorism everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’,” he said.
“I have to say that the Government’s proposals to change 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect.”
Muslims were not convinced.
The National Imams Council, which promised a “vigorous” campaign against the laws, said the move would severely impinge on the rights and freedoms of all Australians but “especially those of Muslim faith”.
The Lebanese Muslim Association said the proposed laws appeared to target Muslims and were more destructive that the now-axed weakening of racial vilification legislation.
Yesterday, as he prepared to meet Sydney’s Islamic leaders, Abbott returned to his “Team Australia” theme, which can’t help but stir memories of the 2004 satirical movie Team America: World Police about an elite counter-terrorism organisation.
“Everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first,”he told Sydney radio 2GB. “What we need to do is to encourage the moderate mainstream to speak out.”