Changing Australia’s national terrorist threat advisory system
24 Jul 2015|
Terror threat alerts

Along with the release this week of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy: Strengthening Our Resilience, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced an overhaul of Australia’s public terror alert system.

The changes were agreed at the 40th meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), which focused on the threat of violent extremism. The current National Terrorist Threat Advisory System has four levels:  low, medium, high and extreme. The new system will have five levels: not expected, possible, probable, expected and certain. The Government’s expectation is that this new language will be easier for the public to understand.

An upgrade in the threat level would be accompanied by a statement explaining what the new threat means, where this could be coming from, what are potential targets and how an attack could potentially be carried out. It’s not clear if there would be a similar process for a potential downgrade in level.

By making an announcement at COAG and expressly referring to the approval of state and territory leaders, the Prime Minister sent a clear message about the importance of drawing in the various state jurisdictions into counterterrorism decisionmaking and processes. That’s vital for a country as big as Australia.

The announcement reinforces the findings of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet’s Review of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Machinery released in January. The Review suggested that revising the levels with clearer language may make the system easier to understand. The Review also stated that more levels might make it easier to raise or lower the alert to better respond to changing circumstances.

The government should be commended for its commitment to maintaining a public terror alert system. Terror alert levels are no perfect science, and changing threat levels is a complex decision. But as Anthony Bergin and I outlined in Sounding the alarm: terrorism threat communications with the Australian public, we’re better off having some sort of system than having no attempt to inform the public of the terror threat.

The new system will be introduced at the end of this year, subject to community discussion. It’s heartening to see that the public will be consulted to confirm that they find the new language useful. As we recommended, testing the terminology could avoid the use of arbitrary or ambiguous language. We need to know how the public will interpret directions and ensure that they understand what to do in the event of an attack. This could also take into account regional or ethnic variations in how risk is perceived.

Another change to be commended is the collapsing of the Public Alert system and the classified ASIO threat level into one public system. The Review found that having public and private levels systems was unnecessarily complex, recommending they be collapsed into one; there’s no reference as to whether this will occur. Some commentators were confused when the classified level was announced a day before the public level was raised to High last year. Combining the two systems may reduce public confusion over assessment of our national security.

But the Prime Minister’s announcement failed to consider other recommendations from the Review.  Despite announcing the agreement of state and territory leaders, there’s no reference to whether the new system might feature different warnings for different regions of the country. Again, this is particularly relevant for a country as big as Australia: an attack is Melbourne is not necessarily likely to warrant a similar heightened threat to Darwin. In our ASPI report and accompanying opinion piece, Anthony Bergin and I recommended that geographically-targeted information could better prepare different regions for a relevant threat.

We also advocated the adoption of a sunset clause for raising the terror alert. There’s an inherent difficulty in lowering the terror level—an attack shortly after the scaling down of the threat would be a national security nightmare, not to mention a political one. But a sunset clause requiring an alert to be scaled down after six months in the absence of an attack, or new intelligence, might prevent an environment of high alert being ‘the new normal’.

This might help in ‘depoliticising’ the terrorism issue. Both the Prime Minister and Attorney-General George Brandis stressed after the level was raised that this was a decision based on intelligence rather than political will. Politicians might be pleased to have the task of changing the terror alert taken out of their hands.

It’s pleasing to see the government take steps to improve our public terrorism advisory system. Consistent assessment of the way we communicate the threat of violent extremism is vital to staying on top of the complex and changing risks to our national security.

But despite worthwhile changes, the system is still no perfect science. It’s important to consider other ideas that could compliment the changes the government has announced. Further reform could enhance the government’s ability to make the best-informed assessments of the terror threat to Australia.