Sydney

Australian Prime Minister John Howard appears to have his head in the sand of Cronulla beach here where several thousand booze-fueled mates rampaged against “Lebs” and others of Middle Eastern descent in December. “I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country,” said the PM, many of whose young Muslim constituents begged to differ by retaliating for the beach attack, marauding through the city’s upscale, predominantly white suburbs beating random individuals and smashing windows in homes and cars.

Howard argues that Australia has had an enviable record of welcoming several million new citizens from all over the globe since World War II, which is true enough. But he is also the man who, during a decade in office, has repeatedly refused to apologize to the nation’s Aborigines for two centuries of brutality at the hands of Australia’s British settlers and their descendants. Like the Aborigines, hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned newcomers have remained second-class citizens–unwelcome at certain beaches, restaurants, night spots and in many jobs and neighborhoods in a nation of 20 million that, for all its open doors, remains 92 percent white. For Australia’s estimated 300,000 Muslims, discrimination has escalated since 9/11 and the Bali bombing of October 2002, in which eighty-eight of the 202 people killed were Australians.

Then came raids on November 8, a swoop by some 500 local and federal police and agents of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). The largest such operation in recent memory here, the nighttime strikes on twenty-three houses in the Sydney and Melbourne suburbs–launched after what officials said was a sixteen-month investigation–netted sixteen alleged Muslim terrorists and many more stout headlines. “I’m satisfied that we have disrupted what I would regard as the final stages of a large-scale terrorist attack, or the launch of a terrorist attack,” declared New South Wales police chief Ken Moroney.

Did the raids prevent a catastrophe? To date, Australian officials have released little information, much of it vague. They said they found weapons, as well as chemicals of the kind used in the London Underground bombings in July; that some of those in custody had received military-like training in rural parts of the country; that Abdul Benbrika, an Algerian-born cleric sometimes known as Abu Bakr, was the ringleader; that he, along with the others, has been charged with being a member of a terrorist organization, one that planned, in the words of prosecutor Richard Maidment, to kill “innocent men and women in Australia.” Just where, when and how, he and the police have yet to reveal.

Days before the raid Parliament, prodded by Howard, had passed amendments to existing anti-terrorism laws to make it easier to prosecute anyone planning a terrorist act: Suddenly, authorities were able to arrest suspected terrorists without having evidence of a specific threat. In pushing hard for the amendments, Howard maintained that the government did have hard intelligence that an attack was coming; the arrests, he then insisted, vindicated the stampede to get the tightened provisions on the books.

Perhaps. Regardless, the amendments were only a preamble to Howard’s main security agenda: new, sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that sparked a rancorous nationwide debate and drew thousands of protesters in Sydney, Melbourne and the capital, Canberra, concerned that civil liberties were in serious jeopardy and that the government was edging toward a police state. Parliament passed the legislation December 6, just a few days before the forty-eight hours of mayhem here. Even the nation’s most senior police official, Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, fears that more anger and mistrust will develop in the Muslim community because of the draconian new law, which

§ allows police to hold terror suspects for up to twelve months without charge if they have trained with a terrorist organization overseas;

§ permits authorities to fit suspected terrorists with tracking devices and to impose bans on where they may travel and with whom they may associate;

§ permits preventive and secret detention for as long as fourteen days of people suspected of having information about terrorist threats, and makes it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison even to reveal that a person has been detained;

§ makes special search warrants for the ASIO valid for three months rather than the present twenty-eight days; for six months for mail and delivery-service intercepts; and indefinitely for the seizure of material deemed necessary for purposes of security;

§ makes it a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment to recklessly finance terrorism;

§ upgrades the penalties for sedition to include jail terms of up to seven years for urging the overthrow of the commonwealth by use of force or violence.

The sedition provision particularly outraged the legislation’s opponents, which ranged from backbenchers in Howard’s own Liberal Party to Nationwide News Pty. Ltd., Rupert Murdoch’s media giant. They argued that the sedition law, which has been in force since 1914 but unused since the ’50s, is “archaic” and a “dead letter” and needed not strengthening but repeal. In testimony before a Parliament committee, Robert Connolly, representing the arts and creative industries of Australia, pointed out that sedition laws no longer exist in the United States, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa and Taiwan but still apply in China, Cuba, Syria, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Singapore. “I know which list most Australians would like to be on,” he said.

The committee received almost 300 submissions, virtually all of them critical of the legislation in general and the sedition section in particular. This moved Howard’s attorney general, Philip Ruddock, to promise that he would review the sedition provisions after they became law. Mark Day, who writes about the media for The Australian, observed tartly that passing a law known to be flawed and then agreeing to give it a second look is, at best, “cockamamie policy.” Under intense pressure, Howard and Ruddock agreed to a few minor changes–for example, the insertion of a “good faith” defense for news organizations that report in the public interest. This is less cockamamie than cynical, since it is the government that will decide just what constitutes good faith and the public interest.

As the legislation moved toward passage, the loyal opposition proved–like the feckless US Democratic leadership in the months after 9/11 and in our Iraq debacle–loyal indeed. Kim Beazley, Labor’s shadow PM, rolled out a few token criticisms of the sedition provisions, but he put his party squarely in the government coalition backing the legislation. In the words of one columnist, he is at heart just another “anti-terror Tarzan, thumping his chest with all the other alpha males.” After the November raids and arrests, Beazley said, “Lock down Lakemba,” referring to Sydney’s Muslim neighborhood.

In his “war on terror,” Prime Minister Howard seems determined to keep in lock step with Washington’s fearmongering triumvirate of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and not just with the new anti-terrorism strictures. In November the government’s defense minister, Robert Hill, asked Parliament for $1.8 billion (all figures are in Australian dollars) for the biggest overhaul of the army since World War II, a radical restructuring aimed at making the forces more agile and adaptable to combat terrorism and fight modern wars. Meanwhile, the country is building a $210 million, 800-bed “immigration reception and processing center” on Christmas Island, an Australian territory 870 miles off the country’s northwest coast. Many of the remote island’s 1,500 residents, including that shire’s president, Gordon Thompson, see the center as Australia’s Guantánamo Bay in the making. These developments, too, anger many Muslims and others of Middle Eastern origin, most of them already disaffected by Howard’s tight embrace of the Bush Administration and willingness to send Australian soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Christmas approached, right-wing shock jocks and text-messaging neo-Nazi groups continued to egg on their anti-Muslim sympathizers. Ordinarily, sunbathers and surfers would be flocking to the beaches at this holiday season, in this city often touted as among the most livable on the planet. Instead, thousands have heeded official warnings to stay away, a message reinforced by some 2,000 police patrolling on and around the sands. As of this writing, no new confrontations had occurred, but it will take more than the police, tough anti-terrorism laws and immigration centers in the Indian Ocean to head them off. The PM may say no underlying racism exists in Australia, but at year’s end a poll showed that three of four voters disagree.