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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 12:32 GMT
Australia split on new terror laws
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Sydney's iconic Opera House (R) and Harbour Bridge (C), are outlined by a brilliant sunset, 12 September 2005.
Sydney is home to several possible terrorist targets
Australia once enjoyed a sense of isolated security.

But in the wake of Tuesday's arrests of 17 men on terrorism charges - and as the government pushes through tougher anti-terrorism laws - this is now an increasingly nervous country.

Opinion polls suggest there is broad support for the uncompromising stand of Prime Minister John Howard, who says new legislation is vital to protect the country from attack.

"I think John Howard's doing a great job," said one early morning swimmer at Sydney's Bondi beach.

Another, Adele, an immigrant from Russia, said: "The raids have made me feel afraid. But I feel happy with what John Howard is doing to look after the people of Australia".

It's becoming more dangerous, and I think John Howard is to blame for aligning himself with America
Michael Pryce

But Mr Howard's critics are not so happy. They wonder why the new laws are needed, if current provisions are doing the job.

"These arrests have taken place under the present structures of laws, which proves that these laws can tackle this issue adequately," said Ameer Ali from the Federation of Islamic Councils in Australia.

The government's supporters would argue that Tuesday's raids in Sydney and Melbourne - described as the biggest counter-terrorism operation in Australia's history - may not have been possible without a slight amendment to these laws this week.

This allows the police to detain suspects even if they do not yet have a target to attack.

Do we want things that happened in London [and] over in Bali - do we want that to happen out here? Surely not
Les, Sydney

Even so, Aldo Borgu, a terrorism analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that the government still needed to convince the country that the proposed new anti-terrorism measures were needed.

"One of the dilemmas the government is facing [is that] the police have proven that they can actually disrupt and foil alleged terrorist attacks with the existing legislation slightly amended, so the onus will be on them to prove why they need the wider laws," he said.

The argument is a simple one for Mr Howard.

He believes that Australia will remain vulnerable to attack if the police and the intelligence services do not get enhanced powers.

Under the proposals, which the government wants to be law by the end of the year, the police would have greater authority to monitor, search and detain terrorism suspects. There are also wide-ranging provisions covering sedition.

Experts say these changes are far less strict that those being considered by the British government.

'More debate'

Even so, critics say this raft of new measures is draconian and will erode human rights.

I don't trust Howard at all and I think an attack is just around the corner
Mel Logan, artist

"I'm not in favour of them," said Lesley, a Sydney-based lawyer. "I don't like living in a police state. I think there should have been a lot more debate about what rights we're losing and our existing laws are very adequate in my view," she said.

"I don't trust the government," said Mel Logan, an artist. "I don't trust Howard at all and I think an attack is just around the corner. Sydney's a great target," she said.

Others insist that far from making Australia more secure, the prime minister's foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has made this vast country more vulnerable to terrorism.

"We were a relatively safe country in Australia at one point. Now it's becoming more dangerous," said Michael Pryce, a 50-year-old tradesman. "And I think John Howard is to blame for aligning himself with America."

But supporters of the new measures, like veteran beach-lover Les, are unconvinced by the criticism.

"The only people saying [the measures are] harsh are the people that have got something to hide," he said.

"You've got to do something. Goodness gracious! Do we want things that happened in London [and] over in Bali - do we want that to happen out here? Surely not," he said.

There has never been a major terrorist strike in Australia, although Australians have suffered in bombings overseas, most notably in Indonesia.

This is a country that is well aware that the threat may now be a lot closer to home.

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