Counterterrorism: acting without thinking?
30 Jun 2017|

While Australia faces complex prickly national security challenges, our Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers continue to paradoxically announce quick fix policy measures in response to terrorism and crime. From cement bollards in Sydney and Melbourne, new bail arrangements for terrorists across the Commonwealth, legislating social media censorship in the cyber world, and greater access to assault rifles for NSW police, our politicians seek to regulate the minutia of domestic security rather than deal with the root causes of these prickly problems.

The problem with these kinds of quick fixes is that getting tough with security measures has more to do with addressing Australians’ lack of trust in governments than addressing today’s complex security problems. And this needs to change.

On face value, the Victorian government’s decision to construct bollards to prevent vehicle attacks in Melbourne makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that there is any strategic logic to their deployment. Arguably, the erection of cement bollards in places like Melbourne’s Federation Square will only send would-be attackers elsewhere: and block first responder vehicles during an emergency. The return on investment from these measures, in terms of security, is arguably low. Moreover, this money could perhaps be better spent on intelligence, investigation and early intervention counter-terrorism strategies.

Earlier this month, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, showed he was getting tough on terrorism when he stated that Melbourne airport should have ‘a dedicated 24/7 tactical response provided by the Australian Federal Police’. Interestingly, this statement seems to be at odds with the experience from the recent MH 128 incident. This incident was resolved without casualties, and showed, despite delays, that the current arrangements work. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to diagnose if, and what, the security shortfalls are at our airports and identify cost-effective solutions to them before prescribing a costly ‘quick fix’? Let’s not forget that the last independent review of Australian airport policing is now 12 years old.

At June’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), leaders agreed with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he stated that ‘there will be a presumption that neither bail nor parole will be granted to those who have demonstrated support for, or have links to, terrorist activity’. While this is a solid counter-terrorism measure, it doesn’t deal with the multifaceted problems with parole and bail in Australia’s legal system more generally. High profile cases, such as the September 2012 Jill Meagher murder, have consistently illustrated that some criminal offenders and alleged offenders present an unacceptable risk to our community if they are released from prison on bail or parole. If Turnbull is trying to protect the community from individuals who present an unacceptable risk, he needs to tackle the broad problems with our bail and parole arrangements: not one of its symptoms.

There should be little doubt that criminals, including terrorists, regularly use social media as a means of communication. Similarly, the anonymity and protection offered to social media users allows those with extremist beliefs to spread their messages far and wide. Little surprise then that our federal government is seeking to pierce social media’s encryption veil, and pressure its operators to censor their platforms. While on the one hand, such developments are certainly a step in the right direction, on the other hand, given the complexity of the encryption debate, and the widespread use of social media, such demands are rather hollow in terms of implementing meaningful policy.

On the 7th of June, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, not to be left behind on the getting tough bandwagon, announced that officers of the state’s Public Order and Riot Squad will have access to semi-automatic assault rifles. While this will provide NSW police with additional capability, it’s not clear how such a decision fits with, or provides any advantage over, existing capabilities.

For governments across the western world the argument is that in times of uncertainty, people expect and value steadfast resolve when it comes to terrorism. Let’s not forget that the ‘security theatre’ associated with getting tough on terrorism also has some deterrent effects. In 2015, Anthony Bergin argued that outcomes from such thinking creates another paradox: ‘the more we’re spending on national security, the more our community seems to feel apprehensive about its safety’.

In the face of recent terrorism tragedies, both at home and abroad, it’s understandable that our leaders want to appear tough on security. Nevertheless, they need to resist the urge to deploy reactive security measures in response to complex and emerging threats. Instead, our governments, and their bureaucrats, need to focus on delivering better long-term security policy and strategy.

The first step in meeting this requirement is for our COAG leaders to focus their domestic security thinking in terms of how their decisions will support the detection, disruption and/or mitigation of risks. This kind of thinking needs to be underpinned by high quality intelligence and evidence based policy that examines the root causes of threats and risks as well as their symptoms. Specific security measures need to be examined from a range of perspectives including their opportunity costs and return on investment.

Some might consider it politically naïve to recommend that Australia’s politicians play a more reserved role in our national security theatre. It would appear many politicians fear the fact that their electorates have a zero tolerance for terrorism attacks. No one is suggesting that we should downplay our terror threat. However, if polls are anything to go by, the current round of decisive security announcements are having limited impact on threat fatigued Australian’s sense of security and voting preferences.