Prime Minister John Howard rejected as "ridiculous" Thursday claims that his warning of a possible terrorist attack on Australia was timed to deflect attention from two controversial pieces of legislation.
Speaking before the nation Wednesday, Howard warned that Australian officials had received "specific intelligence" that terrorists were plotting an attack on Australian soil, but refused to give any details about the threat, saying he did not want to jeopardize counterterrorism operations.
The announcement came as Howard's center-right coalition government was preparing to introduce legislation overhauling Australia's labor laws in Parliament on Wednesday. Howard has come under fire from labor unions over the proposed reforms, and polls have suggested the public is deeply suspicious that they will reduce job security and work conditions.
Senators and callers to a conservative talk show program on Thursday suggested Howard had timed the terror warning to draw the public's attention away from the proposed laws, a notion Howard soundly rejected.
"The idea that yesterday was some giant manipulative conspiracy is ridiculous," Howard told Sydney radio station 2UE.
"I'm proud of the workplace relations changes, I didn't want them to receive less publicity," Howard added. "So the idea that in some way something I've believed in very strongly for more than 20 years I would want to smother is in itself absurd."
Following Wednesday's terror announcement, Howard introduced a minor amendment to the country's current terror laws to boost intelligence agencies' powers to prosecute terrorists before an attack occurs. The measure was passed by a special sitting of the Senate on Thursday. Under the amendment, authorities prosecuting someone for planning a terrorist act would not have to identify a specific terrorist act. The amendment also allows groups to be banned based on intelligence that they are preparing an unspecified terrorist act rather outlining details of a specific terror plot.
Howard said he could not introduce the amendment without explaining the possible risks to the public. "There's no way that I could get up in the Parliament and say, 'Look, we're going to change this law but we're not going to give you any reason,"' he told the radio station. "People then would be entitled to say I was being arrogant and treating the Parliament, and even more importantly the public, with contempt."
The government also introduced to Parliament Thursday a package of tough new counterterrorism measures which Howard wants passed before Christmas.
The proposed measures 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 electronic tagging.
"The bill ensures that we are in the strongest position to prevent new and emerging threats to stop terrorists carrying out their intended acts," Attorney General Philip Ruddock told Parliament. The leader of the center-left Australian Democrats party, Sen. Lyn Allison, described Howard's announcement Wednesday as a stunt, reports the AP. I.L.
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