Federal Parliament will need to sit in a locked-down Canberra over the next fortnight, with the government in a race against time to extend control orders on people considered a terrorist risk that will otherwise expire early next month.
Eight individuals are currently subject to control orders under the nation’s anti-terrorism laws, which will expire on September 7 unless the House of Representatives convenes before then to extend the sunset clause.
The national capital has been in lockdown since last Thursday night. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Control orders are used on people the Australian Federal Police believes may commit a terrorist attack. They heavily restrict the movement, communications and associations of suspects without the need for criminal prosecution.
The Senate passed legislation last Thursday extending the control order regime to December 7, 2022, which did not leave enough time for the House of Representatives to wave it through before the end of the sitting week.
Parliament is due to sit next week and the week after, but some federal MPs are uneasy about reconvening while the nation’s capital is in lockdown after the first outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the region in 12 months. The legislation waiting to be passed by Parliament would also extend a range of other powers.
These include “declared area” provisions, which make it a crime to enter designated zones overseas controlled by terrorists. While there are no declared areas in place at the moment, the government could use the provisions in parts of Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taliban. They were previously in place for areas in Syria and Iraq at the height of Islamic State’s presence.
It would also extend “preventative detention” orders, which allow for the detention of an individual if there are reasonable grounds that they are about to commit a terrorist attack, as well as a range of “stop, search and seizure” powers.
Labor’s legal affairs spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, said the government had known “for years” these powers would expire on September 7.
He said it was “more incompetence” from the Morrison government to risk leaving it to the last minute to ensure they remained in place.
Dozens of federal MPs from both major parties have remained in the locked-down capital since the announcement of the local outbreak, with officials ensuring enough stayed for Parliament to sit next week. The House of Representatives requires a quorum of 31.
Among the options that could be considered if the ACT coronavirus caseload grows is a sitting period of just a few days that could deal with critical legislation before releasing MPs to return to their home states.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday no decision had been taken and at this stage, he was planning for Parliament to proceed as scheduled next week.
“We’re continuing to work through those issues with the Chief Medical Officer and [the ACT] Chief Health Officer,” he said. “A quorum of officers have been here in Canberra, they’ve been here in lockdown. There won’t be a problem of enough members to sit in Parliament next week if we progress with that.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who has not returned to his Sydney constituency of Grayndler since it went into lockdown, said on Tuesday he had had no communication from the government.
“There’s no reason to suggest that Parliament won’t sit next week. And so, I await that,” he said.
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