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Rattled by terror plots, Australians seem ready to trade freedom for security

After a knife attack by an alleged Islamic State sympathizer this week, and a massive anti-terror raid last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the balance between civil liberties and public safety may need to shift. 

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    Police talk as they guard a house that was involved in pre-dawn raids in western Sydney Sept. 18, 2014. Intelligence "chatter" has revealed that militants plan to attack Australian politicians and government buildings, the prime minister said on Friday, a day after hundreds of police carried out a sweeping counter-terrorism operation.
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It is the biggest event of the year in Melbourne – 100,000 fans are expected to attend this weekend’s big football match between local team Hawthorn and the Sydney Swans. 

But the festive mood has been overshadowed by the killing Tuesday of an alleged Islamic State sympathizer, shot in a Melbourne suburb while trying to stab police officers. As the first such Islamist-linked attack here, it means more security on the ground for football fans. 

Australia is not immune to terrorism. Over 200 of its nationals perished in the 2002 Bali bombings, and 36 were killed in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July. But Tuesday's stabbing is the first of its kind in Australia, and it follows the largest anti-terror raid in Australian history last week to foil an alleged IS plot.

In response, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said this week that the "delicate balance" between freedom and security at home "may have to shift" in light of a heightened terror risk.

“Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we’re used to, and more inconvenience than we’d like," he told Parliament. 

So far, the concept of sacrificing some personal freedoms for security has produced little outcry among Australians, says Dr. Sev Ozdowski, Australia's former Human Rights Commissioner. 

“Australians don’t have a civil rights culture. [Ever] since white settlement our culture has been about equality, its been about having a fair go, and more recently it’s been about non-discrimination,” he says. “Americans put civil liberty ahead of equality. Australians put equality ahead of civil liberties.”

Anti-terror laws 

Police say that Abdul Numan Haider, the man shot dead on Tuesday, was under investigation for his links to terrorist groups and had his passport cancelled. He was seen last week in a shopping mall brandishing what was reported to be an Islamic State flag. 

The government raised its terror threat from medium to high on Sept. 12, six days before foiling what it said was a plot by IS sympathizers to behead a randomly-selected Australian. 

This week, Abbott's administration proposed new anti-terror legislation. The proposed laws would require Australians returning from certain conflict zones to prove they hadn't joined militant groups; expand police powers to arrest and detain suspects, secretly seize passports and search properties without advance warning; and allow intelligence agencies greater scope to access online communications. 

The opposition Labor party and a number of smaller parties have said they will back the overall thrust of the laws.

Public response

A poll published in the newspaper The Australian in August found 77 percent of respondents were in favor of the proposed restriction on returnees from conflict zones. That view – and broad support for security services – is echoed by several fans attending this weekend's football grand final, which is played under Australian rules and similar to rugby. 

“It’s a fine line, sure, but one of the joys of living in a democracy is to have freedoms. I don’t have a problem if we have to put new laws in place to protect us from those who might threaten those freedoms," says Mark Goodwin, a manager at the household appliances firm Electrolux who is flying from Sydney to attend the match. 

Carrie Hutchinson, a Melbourne-based travel writer, says she was “shocked and horrified” by Tuesday’s attack, but believes it was an isolated incident. “It didn’t feel like this was the start of some great campaign of attacks. It felt more to do with the mental state of the individual involved.”

She has no qualms about the extra security at the match. “I’ve never had a problem with having to wait longer at airports because of increased security, and I’ll won’t mind the extra wait on Saturday to get to the game if it means the public will be safe.” 

Dr. Ozdowski, the former Human Rights Commissioner, says he understands the government’s actions. “Suddenly the terror threat has reached our shores. It’s become a battle about our lifestyle. Australians would expect their government to take action and the government is doing just that.” 

“We have enough checks and balances in the system to ensure the laws will not be abused and will be used very sparingly,” he adds.

Heated atmosphere 

Not all rights advocates are so sanguine. Dr. Lesley Lynch, secretary of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties worries that about passing new security laws in such a heated atmosphere. "Australia already has one of the most extensive regimes – if not the most extensive regime – of counter-terrorism laws among liberal democracies," she says.

"Yet we are rushing to legislate two significant tranches of new counter-terrorism laws which cumulatively will greatly extend the powers and immunities of our intelligence agency and impinge greatly on the liberties and rights of Australians."

About half a million out of Australia's 23.5 million are Muslims. Intelligence agencies believe around 60 Australians are fighting in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with around 100 more working in support roles within Australia.

Police have appealed for calm amid fears that the wider Muslim community will now be targeted. Two mosques in the northern state of Queensland were defaced in recent days and there have been reports of Muslim women being abused for wearing the burka. The grand mufti of Australia has spoken out against Tuesday’s attack.

Abbott has committed Australian troops and aircraft to fight in Iraq. Addressing a special United Nations Security Council session on the foreign fighter terrorist threat on Wednesday, he said IS had declared war on the world.

“The Australian government will be utterly unflinching towards anything that threatens our future as a free, fair and multicultural society; a beacon of hope and exemplar of unity-in-diversity,” he said.

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