SYDNEY, Australia – Australia is at risk of a terrorist attack and tough laws are needed to protect the nation, Prime Minister John Howard (search) said Wednesday as he defended his push to give authorities unprecedented powers to track and detain suspected terrorists.
The country's state and territory leaders agreed this week to help the federal government enforce tough new anti-terror laws that could include allowing security forces to hold terror suspects without charge for 14 days and track people suspected of involvement with terror groups for up to a year, including using electronic tagging.
While there was broad political support for the tough moves, civil liberties and Muslim groups have condemned the proposed laws as an affront to civil rights.
"I don't like having to introduce these laws," Howard told Macquarie radio (search) on Wednesday. "But I have believed for a long time that this is a threat and it's going to be with us for some years."
"The London bombing was a wake-up call that there could be people who are living in our midst who might be capable of a terrorist act," Howard added, referring to the July attacks on London's public transport system (search).
The proposed laws have drawn heavy criticism from legal and civil liberties groups who say they give the government unprecedented powers to undermine basic rights.
Although Howard's government can pass laws covering most of the measures, he needed cooperation from state governments to ensure the new laws are enforced across the country.
The state leaders, who all come from the center-left Labor Party, said they agreed to the measures after being assured that the laws would be reviewed after five years and expire after 10 years.
Muslim groups have suggested that Australia's Islamic community would be unfairly targeted under the new laws — claims Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty rejected Wednesday.
"These laws are about people who are about to commit or who are prepared to commit terrorist offenses in our community. They are in no way directed at the Islamic or the Muslim community," he told reporters in Canberra.