EDITORIAL THURSDAY 05.03.09.
While we all want to be able to feel safe in our community, and to feel that police have the powers and the resources that they need to keep us that way, it can be a mistake to allow police to have too much power to intrude into the lives of ordinary people. The New South Wales government has introduced legislation to give police the ability to conduct covert searches of suspects homes while withholding notification from the suspects for up to three years. It is intended to be used against serious criminals who commit offences which are punishable by at least seven years jail, and in particular is aimed at criminal gangs. When it is put like that it sounds as if it is easily justified in the name of clamping down on organized crime and keeping the community safe. Unfortunately, things are not as simple as that.
The new laws, if passed, will give police unprecedented powers, subject to a warrant issued by the Supreme Court. These are powers even more extensive than those provided to Federal Police by Commonwealth national security and anti terrorism laws. This is a step which is not to be taken lightly. The Premier has said, “If you are a serious criminal in NSW you should not sleep easy. These laws will enable our police force to inspect your home without you knowing.” But that is the problem. Take away the preface and the message is clear. Police can enter your home when you are not there and they don’t even have to tell you they have been there.
Obviously, the government will tell us that this measure is for our own safety and security and many of us might even believe them. We will be told that we can trust the police to exercise their powers responsibly, and that the innocent have nothing to fear. The problem with that argument is quite simple. If they already have the proof that you are not innocent, why do they need to secretly search your house? If a trail of evidence leads erroneously to your door, being innocent won’t protect you from being secretly searched, and having your privacy breached. While it is important that a Supreme Court Warrant is required and it will provide some protection against inappropriate searches, it won’t stop all mistakes, and it may not prevent abuses.
No matter how sincere our government is about targeting the guilty, no matter how principled and well intentioned our police might be in exercising these powers, it is the system itself which creates the framework within which abuses of power can develop over time. It’s all very well to say that we can trust the police and officials we have now, but what if at some time in the future less scrupulous people find themselves in these positions of power. What would prevent them from circumventing the ever diminishing checks and balances and turning the system to their own ends?
We know from past experience that this is what happens. When law enforcement agencies are allowed greater and greater powers, they gradually become laws unto themselves. We know from past experience that while the strong measures can have success in combating organized crime, that success can subsequently evolve into control of crime, so that a kind of uneasy co-existence develops. Where abuses of power gradually become normal, it’s only a matter of time until those who are good cops find themselves increasingly alienated and ultimately outside the loop. We know from past experience that giving police more power, simply makes the police more powerful. It doesn’t necessarily make them better police. That’s why it is the system itself which must provide protection from abuses of power, not just the integrity of those who have the power.
And as for targeting serious criminals, the opposition has pointed out that anyone who is a serious criminal will simply take additional precautions to thwart any attempts to search their premises. Simply introducing more aggressive laws is unlikely to bother anyone who disregards the law in the first place. But those who are peaceful law abiding people are the ones who are being conned into giving up their rights to privacy, freedom of movement and freedom of speech by the incremental introduction of increasingly draconian laws which could pave the way towards a police state.