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Government needs to clarify metadata stance

It's not clear if Tony Abbott's suggestion that metadata be used to fight general crime is consistent with government policy says Shadow Assistant Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.

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Terror tourism is hardly new. A good argument can be made to simply let any Australians who want to fight overseas to go - and hope they wind up dead.

Stripping wannabe terrorists of their passport only makes for more expensive surveillance operations at home.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis.

The Abbott government must make a better case for the new laws. Photo: Andrew Meares

And this $600 million funding boost to national security agencies is very much about having enough resources and personnel to keep a watchful eye.

But it’s not merely a numbers game. The Australian government has a responsibility not to knowingly allow its citizens to wreak bloody havoc in the world.

With upwards of 150 Australians suspected of fighting in Syria and Iraq, there is also the threat posed should they return home.

But again, this type of danger is not without precedent. The concern in years gone by was over Australians fighting in Afghanistan or Somalia. Similarly, the Brits had a serious challenge with radicalised young men with family ties to Pakistan.

As a result, Western security agencies have become pretty adept at monitoring borders and spotting the international links that are usually needed to draw people to the fight.

What has changed in recent times - aside from the location of the conflicts - is the numbers of those involved, increasing the chance of someone with malevolent intent slipping by.

That makes for an understandable case to increase the resources for security agencies.

But not a convincing argument for dramatic changes to the law, especially on the need to store massive amounts of personal data about Australians (an idea on the backburner, for now).

The internet has long harboured a dark side of extremist propaganda. Without doubt, the sharing of graphic images on social media has increased the potential audience. But there is a big difference between idiots gawking at violence and actually planning an attack.

Invoking the threat of “lone wolf” terrorists seems especially overblown. Terrorism is an act of political violence and while that does not preclude someone acting alone, a cell of like-minded conspirators is far more likely to encourage, plan and execute an attack.

The criminal code has proved well equipped to deal with individuals.  

This is not to be ignorant of the huge moral challenge if security agencies believe extra powers can save lives.

But the Abbott government must make a better case for new laws and be mindful of its conservative predecessor, to be alert and not alarmed.

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