George Dickson. Photograph by Hugh Riminton
George Dickson’s minor act of rebellion, and the state’s major overreach
One morning at the tail end of the recent bushfire summer, hundreds of commuters emerged from Sydney’s Museum train station into the sticky air of Elizabeth Street. Among them was a tallish man with a strong physique rounding a little with middle age. If anyone’s glance had lingered on George Dickson, it might have been for the dreadlocks that hung neatly down his back, or the vigorous goatee sprouting from his chin.
His clothing signalled a man of no great wealth. His short-sleeved shirt was unironed. His trousers were faded and baggy. His heavy black shoes were neither well-made nor fashionable. At 43, Dickson’s working life had been patchy. At times he had slept rough. A homeless man.
He was, on his own account, a dope-smoking hippie.
But Dickson carried two things that set him apart. The first, hidden under the folds of his pants, was an ankle device designed to monitor his every move. The second, impossible to see but weightier than the anklet, was his status under New South Wales law.
Dickson had been designated an “unacceptable risk” to Australian society. Despite never being charged with a terrorism offence, or anything like it, Dickson was officially listed as a “high-risk terrorist offender”. Consequently, he lived under control orders that affected every aspect of his life.
Having waited for the light to change, Dickson joined the river of pedestrians crossing Elizabeth Street at the south-western edge of Hyde Park. He turned right and entered the white marbled foyer of a legal office. His goal was the cramped, second-floor workspace used by his solicitor, Mark Davis, whose bills for Dickson’s case were being paid by Legal Aid.
He wasn’t expecting to find me there. Dickson’s government-issued phone was monitored by police and security agencies. Neither Davis nor I wanted them sticking their nose in.
As Dickson entered, I rose to meet him – this man believed by the courts to be capable of terrible violence.
“Should I be scared?” I asked.
A hint of a smile.
“I wouldn’t think so, no.”
In the nearly two decades since Al Qaeda used hijacked passenger jets to attack the United States, the Australian federal parliament has enacted more than 80 substantive anti-terrorism laws. Other laws have been toughened through amendments. University of New South Wales professor George Williams has calculated that between September 11, 2001, and the day it lost office in 2007, the Howard government passed a new security law every 6.7 weeks. More laws followed under both Labor and the Coalition, as well as at the state and territory level.
This year, governments introduced a new series of laws to curtail personal liberties. In the name of community health and safety requirements due to COVID-19, they enforced social distancing, limiting movement and everyday activities in ways previously unimaginable.Given the nature of the pandemic, the laws were widely accepted. Millions of Australians also signed up to a tracing app on the promise that governments would not abuse the powers the app delivered. How these laws and limitations are rescinded we don’t yet know. New anti-terrorism laws were also introduced to parliament during this period. The case of George Dickson is a useful reminder that security powers can all too easily morph from protecting citizens to preying on them.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has identified the most prominent terrorism threats to Australia: Islamist extremism and right-wing, white supremacists. George Dickson had no interest in either. His political interest was in seeing cannabis legalised. But he became a “terrorist” under the law simply because he was caught up by the NSW Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Act 2017. Without that law, there was no legal structure that could possibly have lumped a man like Dickson with Australia’s most dangerous extremists.
Almost entirely unnoticed by society, and to the total bewilderment of its target, the law had elevated a low-level political activist to the same tier as potential mass killers.
How did we get here?
On December 15, 2014, a lone gunman named Man Haron Monis took 18 people hostage inside the Lindt cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place. Sixteen and a half hours later, police stormed in and shot Monis after he murdered the cafe manager, Tori Johnson. Another hostage, barrister Katrina Dawson, died from the ricocheting fragments of police bullets.
The public wanted to know why Monis had been out in the community. He was facing dozens of sexual assault charges. He was also on bail for being an alleged accessory to the murder of his former wife. She had been stabbed multiple times and set alight. Monis had also already been convicted of sending vile letters to the families of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan.
A coronial inquest into the Lindt cafe siege ground on for two years. Reputations were damaged in both the NSW government and the police force. When the coroner’s final report was published on May 24, 2017, the government got straight to work to put things right.
By November, the NSW attorney-general, Mark Speakman, had introduced the Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Bill. Its aim, he said, was “to protect the community from offenders who … pose an unacceptable risk of committing a future serious terrorism offence”.
Labor waved it through.
George Dickson would soon discover the astonishing extent of its reach.
Dickson describes his origins as middle class. Born in South Australia, he moved while still young to Queensland. By 15, he was at a private school near Toowoomba. Then, for reasons that seem a little vague, his mother abruptly ended his schooling.
“Back in my day, that was just the thing that happened,” Dickson told me. “You take your child out of school and you’d get a job.”
He saw it as no great loss.
“Like most kids, I didn’t really enjoy school. I was fairly pleased with the idea of not having to go again.”
But Australia was experiencing the recession Paul Keating said we had to have. There was no job. By his 16thbirthday, Dickson was back in Adelaide, homeless, staying in a shelter and stealing to survive. “It was hard just to get anything together to eat,” he recalled.
It was in this period, Dickson said, that he was offered his first joint. “I’d lived a fairly sheltered life. I actually didn’t know what it was.”
He said it had no effect. But before long, marijuana had become his abiding interest. He credits it with turning him away from alcohol and tobacco, making him healthier and a better citizen. “Alcohol tends to make people do crazy things. Cannabis tends to just make you a little sleepy.”
At his peak, he was smoking 30 bongs a day. Allowing for sleep, that amounts to two hits an hour. “It didn’t harm my life. It has never been a harmful or an unwanted thing in my life.”
His police record suggests that self-medication might indeed have been beneficial. After regular trouble in his late teens, for nearly two decades his police record was silent.
Then, in 2016, Dickson was charged with cannabis possession. He chose to defend himself, claiming he was entitled to the drug. The magistrate didn’t accept the argument and imposed a $150 fine. Although it was a light penalty, something about that conviction triggered Dickson.
The following month he wrote to the South Australian Attorney-General’s Department, warning that police would be “at their own risk” if they continued “their hostile attacks on the citizenry”. Hundreds of letters and emails would follow, including one to the then NSW police minister, Troy Grant, warning of “lethal force”. Dickson launched a street-poster campaign, trying to encourage others to even up the score in the “war on drugs”.
“Fight back against that war with any level of force you require,” he urged.
Dickson told me he badgered “every minister in Australia who had an email address online”.
Many of his letters and emails, reproduced later in court, seemed garbled and nonsensical, with threats appearing alongside oddball attempts at humour. In some emails, he referred to actions “we” might take, as though he were the head of some organised gang. In fact, he had no followers.
At one point he declared his support for Domenic Perre, the man charged over the 1994 fatal bombing of the National Crime Authority office in Adelaide.
“Domenic Perre is a hero to our cause,” Dickson proclaimed. Perre had never heard of Dickson.
The police appeared initially to treat Dickson as a bonged-up crank. They took no action against him. They did not charge him under any of the laws available
for making threats or harassing or menacing people online. But the letters stayed on file.
Sitting in his lawyer’s office, Dickson insisted to me he never called for the initiation of violence. “I don’t believe [the letters and emails] suggest that a person should use violence against someone else. [ They are] suggesting that if someone defended themselves against violence, that would be … legitimate.”
Dickson appeared unaware that serious alarms might reasonably have been raised by his language. “I’ve always tried to be polite. I have certainly not been abusive or used vile language … I’ve not said that I will harm you, or I will do this to you, or I will harm your family or any type of thing like that.”
Somewhere out there was a line. Neither the police nor Dickson seemed concerned that he had crossed it. That would soon change.
In the 1970s, the counterculture arrived in the north-eastern NSW town of Nimbin. The first Aquarius Festival held there in 1973 was an outgrowth of the peace, love and ganja movement of the times. Every May since 1993, Nimbin has hosted MardiGrass, a street festival celebrating cannabis and pushing for law reform. It swells the town’s population from a few hundred to several thousand.
In early May 2018, Dickson set off from Adelaide on a 2000-kilometre pilgrimage to the MardiGrass festival. He arrived at the Nimbin campground and settled in with the crowd. His pestering of politicians and law-enforcement agencies had not abated. He presaged his arrival in Nimbin with an email to the Lismore Court House, 30 kilometres away. In part, it warned “any police armed forces engaging in violence relating to their ongoing drug war against the people of the island of Australia will be treated as lethally armed and hostile military forces”.
On Friday May 4, a police patrol reported Dickson had yelled “Fuck the police” and thrown a piece of paper at them. It appeared to have been a protest flyer. Police issued him infringement notices for offensive language and littering.
On the following Monday, police approached Dickson at the camping site. There was a verbal altercation and officers “formed the view” that Dickson was under the influence of a drug. A small amount of cannabis was found nearby. The drugs weren’t his, Dickson told me, but only because he had already smoked his stash.
According to the police, Dickson became aggressive. He was charged with cannabis possession, refusing to comply with a police order and resisting arrest, and was carted to the police lock-up in Lismore.
Police say at 10pm that night Dickson was released on bail. Dickson himself says it was past midnight and he didn’t want to go. He wanted to remain in the lock-up until daylight. He was barefoot, in jeans and a T-shirt. The night was cold and he was 30 kilometres from his tent. Police refused to drive him back.
Turfed out of the station, Dickson was frustrated, tired and cold. Two police vehicles were parked unattended in the darkness. They proved too tempting a target.
“I picked up a rock that was sitting in the garden there and I have walked over and I have struck the vehicle.”
In fact he struck both of them, smashing the front and back windows. “I didn’t think $800 worth of damage would get me onto a terrorist watchlist,” he told me. “I haven’t realised it would be the rest of my life.”
Re-arrested, Dickson allegedly argued it was the police who had “started the war”. They say he refused to walk to the charge room. As he was being dragged in, he allegedly kicked a police officer in the stomach. This time there was no talk of bail. For the first time in his life, George Dickson was looking at potential jail time. But his path onto the terrorist watchlist would require one more twist.
By July 2018, Dickson was still on remand for the Lismore offences but had been moved to the John Morony Correctional Complex on the north-western fringe of Sydney. He joined about 20 other inmates for a mandatory “communication session” led by a program officer.
Each inmate was asked to introduce himself before being encouraged to open up about a time they had communicated poorly.
According to the program officer’s notes of the session, Dickson said, “I am a political activist and member of the Marijuana Party. I want to set fire to each police station in the state and country to teach the state and country a lesson and hit them where it hurts financially. I would like to blow up Parliament House.”
“That quote has been quite a burden to me,” Dickson told me, with significant understatement.
He insisted he never used those words, describing a far less threatening exchange. “I said we should fight back against parliament. One of the gentlemen beside me [a fellow prisoner] said we should set fire to all the police stations, and I’ve laughed and agreed with him.”
Dickson said the program officer simply mistook the tone of the banter.
“I think she doesn’t remember exactly the words that I have used. Hours later … she’s written it down to the best of her memory.”
As for blowing up Parliament House: “I never said that. Even the idea of doing it is not really reasonable.”
In evidence, the program officer stood by her recollection of events. For the police and the state of NSW, any patience they had for this troublesome character had evaporated. They had a new law in their hands, and in Dickson, they believed they had a clear case.
Dickson was never charged over his alleged comments in the prison group session. But, after defending himself in court, he received an unusually severe two-year prison term for his resistance at the Lismore police station and for breaking the car windows.
By the time he organised a lawyer and filed an appeal, months had passed. The appellate court reduced his sentence effectively to time served. By late 2019, Dickson was due for release.
He was keen to return home to Adelaide. His father was dying, and he was also anxious to be reunited with his mum, sister and partner.
Other than the disputed comments in the group session, Dickson’s jail time had been uneventful. He was described in a psychiatric report as “behaviourally settled”, and showed “no symptoms of mental illness”.
But days before his release, NSW police triggered the Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Act.
In an initial hearing, NSW Supreme Court judge Mark Ierace was satisfied Dickson sufficiently met the law’s definition of a “high risk terrorist offender”. Judge Ierace placed him under an interim terrorist control order, despite acknowledging “it is not suggested that Dickson has been, is or is likely to be, a member of a terrorist group”.
In a low and quiet voice, George Dickson told me the interim supervision order made things very difficult.
“I was almost more free being in prison.”
In addition to the monitoring device on his ankle, he had to live where he was told – in his case in Western Sydney, in a homeless shelter. If he socialised with anyone, he had to report their name, address and date of birth to corrections officials. They had the power to ban any contact. He was not allowed a smartphone, but simply a basic call-and-text phone that could be examined by police at any time. If he wanted to go anywhere, even to the shops, he had to book the trip up to a week in advance. A map was then agreed upon, giving precise routes and times. If he strayed in any way, a private security team contracted to the government was onto him immediately.
While we spoke, I received a real-time education on the difficulties. Because Dickson’s lawyer’s office was so close to the train station, the GPS signal from Dickson’s phone had alerted his surveillance team to the possibility that he was “loitering” around public transport. It took assurances over the phone from his lawyer to avoid a terrorist emergency being declared in the Sydney CBD.
The control order also effectively forced a separation between Dickson and his partner. “I’ve seen her twice in the last three months,” he told me.
Sadder still, he was not allowed to see his father before he died, or to attend his funeral.
“That’s an opportunity I’ll never get back,” he said. “It wasn’t just hard for me … he’s got other family, other children, and they expected me to be able to be there and support them. It has been hard for them as well.”
There is another concern, which his lawyer shared with me.
As a listed terrorist, any traffic stop or routine encounter with police could see his name flash up as an active threat. Dickson worried that he could be shot.
Beyond that, he was simply bemused.
He claimed he was only “vaguely” aware of the 2014 Lindt cafe siege. But he had clear memories of John Howard’s firearms reforms in 1996, enacted after the Port Arthur massacre. He remembers the protest rallies.
In Gympie, Queensland Firearm Owners’ Association frontman Ian McNiven proclaimed freedom could only be won back “with blood”. Effigies of “Jackboot Johnny” were paraded around as McNiven warned the gathering Howard was “launching a brutal, totalitarian attack” on shooters. Parliament, he said, would have to be purged of “left wing traitors”.
Howard, on security advice, addressed one crowd wearing a bullet-proof vest.
“I can’t even remember the number of people who wanted to shoot that man [Howard],” Dickson said. “All of those people [would be] terrorists now.”
George Dickson had one more card.
The interim supervision order can only be rolled over for three 28-day periods. Beyond that the Crown had to apply for an “extended supervision order”.
As Dickson’s interim supervision order had reached this point, he now had a rare platform to argue he was not, and never had been, a genuine threat.
His lawyer was the unusually courageous videographer and journalist Mark Davis. Davis’s work had been recognised with Australia’s highest journalistic prize, the Gold Walkley, one of five Walkley awards he received during a career with SBS’s Dateline program, which also took in stints at the ABC’s Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent.
By 2019, Davis had dusted off his law degree and had a new career. The Dickson case crossed his desk. Well versed in real-world abuses of power, Davis viewed NSW’s Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Act as “an outrageous law”. In his view, “once you give a power like that it is going to be applied, and it’s not going to be applied to the people we first thought it was going to be applied to”.
The original NSW Supreme Court is one of the loveliest judicial buildings in the land. Built by convict architect and forger Francis Greenway in the 1820s, it was refurbished in 2003 to its original dark-wood splendour. In Courtroom Three on Valentine’s Day 2020, the case of “George the Terrorist” was brought back before Judge Ierace. The state was sparing no expense, hiring former NSW senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC.
It was essential, Tedeschi argued, that Dickson be kept under control orders in NSW and not be allowed to return to South Australia. He argued that “South Australian authorities … are likely to have a much more relaxed attitude”.
In his key argument, Tedeschi submitted that “a threat to carry out a terrorist attack is itself a terrorist act”. Dickson, he argued, had made a series of such threats leading up to and including the one against parliament. But this time the judge appeared unconvinced.
“A threat is not a threat unless it carries an intention to carry out that threat,” he reflected. “I’m not so concerned with the prospect of the offender carrying out that threat but that he might return to his campaign of uttering threats.”
Tedeschi countered. Even if it was not in Dickson’s character or history to carry out violence himself, he might incite others to violence.
“Is there an unacceptable risk he’ll commit an offence to get access to jails in order to propagate his views?” Tedeschi posed to the judge.
The hearing broke for lunch.
Dickson’s partner had travelled from Adelaide to support him. They wandered across a tree-shaded plaza between Francis Greenway’s beautiful St James church, and the multistorey Law Courts building. A couple of hundred metres away was one of the headquarters of Australian Catholicism, St Mary’s Cathedral. A similar distance in the other direction was the NSW parliament, on Macquarie Street.
Dickson and his partner queued patiently at an open-air cafe filled with well-suited lawyers and their clients.
In court, the state of NSW had been arguing that this man was such a danger he was a serious terrorist threat to those around him. But he had no police escort. There was clearly a disconnect between what the state was telling the court it feared about this man, and the way it was content to let him walk freely amid the high-value targets of the legal and parliamentary districts.
To me, watching, it didn’t add up.
When the court resumed, Dickson’s barrister, Emmanuel Kerkyasharian, argued that Dickson used hyperbolic language exactly as the state did when it spoke of a “war on drugs” even though there was no actual war. Both, he argued, used overstated language to make their point.
“If the government is given allowance that these statements are not taken as literal war, why not give the defendant the same allowance?”
The NSW Act, he argued, “is a serious piece of legislation that is meant to be used for serious purposes … not for a guy who smokes marijuana and might write some letters.”
Giving expert opinion, forensic psychiatrist Anthony Samuels felt Dickson had “the potential to be an ongoing nuisance”. But he added, “I don’t think he wants to kill people or cause major harm.” Samuels pointed out that he would get at least one patient a month who would make some kind of threat against the government.
Dickson, in his view, was “not overly charismatic or engaged with other people … He’s running a one-man protest.” He was confident Dickson lacked “the resources, capacity or motivation to carry out these threats”.
The judge adjourned to consider his decision.
On February 20, George Dickson was called back to hear his fate. His legal team felt it likely the judge would maintain some control orders, but might ease others.
Against his lawyer’s advice, Dickson turned up in a T-shirt emblazoned with a cannabis leaf. It is doubtful Judge Ierace even noticed. He walked to his place behind the burnished wooden desk, spoke for a few seconds, got up and walked out again.
“What just happened?” asked Dickson.
“It’s over,” said Mark Davis. “No orders. Free to go.”
Three blandly dressed men at the back of the court rose and removed the monitoring device from Dickson’s ankle.
In his written reasons, Judge Ierace rejected the state’s core argument that a threat of a terrorist act itself amounts to terrorism. “I am of the opinion,” said the judge, “that at the time the defendant sent and posted the offending material, he did not intend the acts of
violence threatened therein … It would not constitute a terrorist act without the requisite intent.”
Accordingly, he said, “I am not satisfied to a high degree of probability that the defendant poses an unacceptable risk of committing a serious terrorism offence.”
George Dickson emerged from the court a free man for the first time since his ill-fated visit to Nimbin almost two years before. The experience, he said, had been “hugely traumatic”.
He would continue to advocate for cannabis law reform, but would “pay more attention to the exact wording or what I say and do in the future”. The world now seemed “more colourful, more brighter, the air is sweeter. And there is not the constant threat that I am going to
be living under this sort of order for the rest of my life.”
Davis declared it “a great outcome”. But he also said that “there’s still something very sinister about what’s happened here. When this legislation was first mooted this was to stop Al Qaeda … not to turn upon marijuana activists or people who perhaps are rude or abusive to police.”
The NSW attorney-general, Mark Speakman, the original author of the law, was not happy with the judgement. “These extraordinary powers are designed to keep the community safe from those who pose an unacceptable risk of committing a serious terrorism offence,” he said in a statement.
Despite his professions of anger, Speakman did not proceed with an appeal.
Weeks later, it is a cheery George Dickson who picks up the phone in South Australia. For a man recently deemed an imminent threat to everyone around him, he appears to have dropped off the security radar. “I have had no contact whatsoever from the police,” he said. “I thought I might get something, even just a hello. I think with coronavirus and everything they have got other things on their mind.”
“I’m having a great time,” he says with a laugh. Social-distancing rules and restrictions on movement that have chafed so many people present no burden to Dickson. “It’s not such a shock to me. I’m kind of used to it.”