Alternative Law Journal
by Jude McCulloch; Melbourne University Press, 2001; 304 pp; $34.95, softcover.
Jude McCulloch has performed a service by bringing to public attention, and meticulously documenting, the creeping paramilitarisation of the police forces in Australia over the past three decades.
She points to what is a major shift in the apparatus of rule, from civilian policing to increasing reliance on paramilitary and military squads. Her research and analysis are all the more important given the legislation introduced by the Howard government in 2000, and passed with Labor Party backing, to allow government ministers to call out the armed forces to deal with so-called 'domestic violence' (see M Head, 'The military call-out legislation - some legal and constitutional questions',  FedLawRw 1; (2001) 29 Federal Law Review 1).
McCulloch's thesis is summed up on the opening page:
The units-such as Victoria's Special Operations Group - are paramilitary: they train with the military, include former members of the military, use a wide range of military weapons and equipment; they train with and use extremely high levels of force. In short, the units straddle the line between the police and military and blur the traditional distinctions between the two organizations.
As McCulloch states, the police function has never been a neutral factor working for the common good, as presented by the official establishment, not to speak of the media and the all-pervasive glorification in TV and movie productions. 'The history of the Victorian Police well demonstrates that it is not and never has been a people's force. Policing in a class society "means stabilising an existing social order, according to the requirements of particular class interests".' (The quote is from a study of policing in New York during the 1990s) (p.218).
Police forces have always defended and protected a system of class rule, for the benefit of the owners and controllers of society's wealth. McCulloch reviews the systematic use of police against socialists and militant workers in Australia from the 1880s. Nevertheless, the turn to more military forms of rule is highly significant. It indicates that those in ruling circles anticipate social unrest and conflict that conventional police forces are no longer adequate to control.
The author records a little acknowledged but telling fact. Government and police authorities cited the need to combat politically motivated terrorist violence as the rationale for establishing paramilitary squads, yet in reality these squads have not been used for that purpose. 'According to the Victoria Police 1995 review of the SOG, none of Australia's PTGs has ever been used to combat an act of terrorism as defined by the Commonwealth' (p.73).
In considerable detail, McCulloch examines many of the killings, other violent operations and attacks on political demonstrators conducted by the police paramilitaries. These included mobilisations against building workers during the deregistration of the BLF, gay nightclub patrons, and protesters fighting school closures. An appendix lists the 44 fatal shootings by Victoria Police between January 1981 and June
1998, and the 10 in which the deceased was shot in the back.
McCulloch traces the rise of paramilitary police units from 1973, when the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments endorsed a National Anti-Terrorist Plan after a meeting between all Police Commissioners and Commonwealth officials. Interestingly, the author does not make the point that this occurred under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, generally regarded as civil libertarians.
McCulloch suggests that the first practical implications of these arrangements - the conducting of joint anti-terrorist exercises - emerged in 1976 under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. She does not examine what role the police and military played in Governor-General Sir John Kerr's dismissal of Whitlam's elected government in November 1975. It is known
that, facing mass protest demonstrations and strikes, Kerr secretly placed the armed forces on alert.
The author documents how, before the mysterious Sydney Hilton Hotel bomb blast of 1978, the federal and State governments moved secretly to establish paramilitary police units, such as Victoria's Special Operations Group. Following the bombing - which remains unsolved to this day, after the collapse of two police frame-ups of members of the Ananda Marga sect - the mass media and the federal and State governments declared that the 'age of terrorism' had arrived in Australia With the support of New South Wales Premier Neville Wran, Prime Minister Fraser called out troops to patrol civilian streets for the first time since Federation.
The bombing was used to dramatically restructure the police-military apparatus, including a significant boost to the powers of the political police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the establishment of the Federal Police, the creation of SWAT-style squads in every state police force and the formal involvement of the army's SAS in 'counter terrorism' operations. Crisis Policy Centres were set up to facilitate the pro vision of 'military aid to the civil power'. They are police-military nerve centres, run by the Protective Security Co-ordination Centre (PSCC), which included representatives of the Prime Minister's National Security Council, the Office of National Assessments, ASIO and ASIS (the external intelligence service), the military and the federal and state police.
Today, once again, government leaders and media proprietors have seized on an act of terrorism - the terrible events of 11 September 2001 -to justify a major expansion of police and intelligence powers, including giving ASIO the right to detain people and hold them incommunicado for interrogation for 48 hours. The Howard government is preparing legislation to widen the definition of terrorism and make related offences punishable by life imprisonment. As McCulloch notes, the National Anti-Terrorist Plan already defines terrorism very broadly, as acts or threats of violence 'for the purpose of achieving a political objective in Australia or in a foreign country'.
Michael Head teaches law at the University of Western Sydney.