Dutton’s Airport ID Checks Are Ripe for Abuse and Take Us Closer to a Police State

9 October 2018

“Your papers please!” It’s a phrase associated with workings of a police state.  It’s a trope favoured by Hollywood movies, but it’s an expression that can trigger dread for those who have had the misfortune to encounter the arbitrary power of an authoritarian government.  And it’s a phrase you may soon hear when you arrive at one of Australia’s major airports. 

Airports are part of everyday life for many of us.  Even when not travelling ourselves, trips to the airport are routine as we meet or farewell friends and family.  Soon, however, you will be well advised to check that you are carrying photographic identification because you may well be stopped at the airport by an Australian Federal Police officer and asked to identify yourself.  If you not prepared to do that, you’ll face fines of up to $4200.  If you can’t identify yourself to the satisfaction of a police constable, or if you are judged in some way to pose a problem for aviation security, you’ll also be at risk of being banned from your flight and/or being summarily ejected from the airport– banned from the premises for up to 24 hours. 

These new police powers will be available to the Australian Federal Police of Parliament passes Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s latest piece of national security legislation, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Police Powers at Airports) Bill 2018.  When introduced by Mr Dutton some three weeks ago, the Bill attracted little media attention and was quietly referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence Services for an inquiry.  The Government argues that expanded police powers at airports are necessary to disrupt security and criminal threats.  It is certainly the case that our airports are terrorist targets and focal points for criminal activity, especially drug trafficking.  At present police can ask for someone to identify themselves if they suspect that person may committing or about to commit a crime.  Of course, if you are driving a vehicle you may also be required to produce your driver’s licence.  However, Minister Dutton argues that existing identity checking requirements are no longer adequate. He insists that police have “no intention of checking the identity of people at random”.  Instead they will rely on police intelligence together with “specialist expertise and training”. 

The Federal Labor Opposition hasn’t yet declared its hand on these new police powers.  As has often been the case with other national security bills, they will most likely agree with the government.  Before they do, however, they might like to consider some problematic elements of the Bill.  Junior police officers – constables - will enjoy a large measure of discretion to demand identity checks and to expel people in order to “safeguard aviation security”.  Although expulsion from an airport for more than 12 hours will require approval from a police sergeant or more senior officer, the potential for the arbitrary exercise of power is considerable.  Missing a flight may involve significant cost for a person who has broken no law, but by virtue of background or associations falls within an intelligence risk profile, but they will have little if any redress. 

Police intelligence is far from 100 per cent reliable.  Moreover these new powers may easily be focused on particular ethnic and religious groups.  Some political figures will no doubt be keen to encourage that.  The demands of far-right Senators Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi for a burqa ban may well be advanced through this legislation.  Deliberate or de facto ethnic profiling is an obvious risk. 

The Federal Police and other law enforcement agencies will also ask in due course, why stop at airports?  Much the same security considerations apply to railway stations, bus interchanges, sporting matches, music festivals, or indeed any crowded shopping mall.  No one should be surprised to find the current federal legislation being used as a precedent for state police forces to expand their powers.  Suspicion of criminal activity will no longer be the threshold, just an assessment of what may required for “security”. 

Minister Dutton and others will argue that expanded identity checks are essential for public safety.  We may indeed all be “safe”, but with each successive tranche of security legislation there is an incremental but profoundly significant change in the relationship between citizens and government operatives.  Privacy and freedom of movement will no longer be rights, but subject to the discretion of law enforcement, security and intelligence bureaucrats.  Parliament needs to consider this bigger picture. 

Australia is a long way from being a police state.  But rest assured that if our politics ever do take an authoritarian turn, much of the necessary infrastructure will be in place.

This piece was published by The Guardian on 9 October 2018.

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