“THE Federal Government has agreed to a number of amendments to its tough new anti-terrorism laws under heavy pressure from its back bench, including softening its contentious sedition provisions.
The changes, agreed to by the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, after a day of meetings with the Government’s back-bench committee, were rushed through a special meeting of the Coalition parties last night.
One of those in the negotiations said the "vast majority" of the 52 amendments recommended by a Senate inquiry into the legislation had been accepted by Mr Ruddock and the Prime Minister, John Howard.
There will be a higher standard of evidence required before people suspected of terrorist involvement can be subjected to continuing preventive detention or control orders. Previously, hearsay evidence from security agencies would have been admissible; now it will not.
However, Mr Ruddock refused to move significantly on two main issues. He insisted on retaining a 10-year sunset clause on the legislation, in spite of a recommendation by the committee that it should lapse after five years.
He also rejected a push by the committee to have sedition offences dumped from the legislation pending a review next year. However, it is understood that the sedition provisions will be amended to stress that any incitement to terrorism, violence or hostility to Australian troops be intentional, not merely reckless, for the laws to apply. Mr Ruddock has also agreed to greater safeguards for the media, inserting a provision that any publication made in good faith, and reporting or commenting on any matter of public interest, will be protected.
The sedition laws will still be subject to review early next year.
Among the new checks and balances, people subject to a continuation of preventive detention will have to be supplied with a full statement of the facts that form the basis of the order. Before the change, they could have been left not knowing what they were suspected of, and thus unable to defend it. Other changes sought, and understood to have been accepted, would stop 16- to 18-year-olds from being housed with adults if detained in police custody, and would oblige the authorities to provide a lawyer, as well as an interpreter, if a detainee had poor command of English or mental or physical disabilities.
There had been concerns that minors taken into preventive detention would be allowed to tell only one parent, who then would have committed a crime if they passed it on to the other parent. Mr Ruddock has softened this to allow communication.
> Sedition provisions amended to stress that incitement to terrorism, violence or hostility to Australian troops is intentional.
> Hearsay evidence to be inadmissable for continuing preventive detention or control orders.
> Those aged 16 to 18 not housed with adults if detained in police custody.
> Before continuation of preventive detention, a full statement of facts forming the basis for the order to be given to detainee.
> Six-monthly reviews by Parliament of preventive detention and control orders.