The forgotten actor in Australia’s counterterrorism plans
12 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Diego Zoghbi

Malcolm Turnbull has requested that Australia’s counterterrorism agencies develop a strategy to prevent rapidly radicalised terrorists from carrying out Nice-style attacks in public areas. Senior sources have told The Australian that the Prime Minister is particularly concerned about an attack that uses a vehicle as a weapon, which could cause devastating casualties.

Prime Minister Turnbull has directed counterterrorism coordinator Greg Moriarty to quickly identify lessons for Australia arising from the Bastille Day attack in Nice. In particular, Moriarty will advise government on how vulnerable Australia’s public areas are, and how authorities can protect open areas where large numbers congregate. Given the history of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on soft targets , it’s absolutely critical Australia looks to protect such venues and spaces.

But our record in this area is mixed: it’s not clear that we’ve got a nationally consistent approach to safeguarding mass gatherings, despite the publication five years ago (PDF) of national guidelines by the National Counter-Terrorism Committee.

Mass gathering protection is fundamentally focused on counterterrorism and public safety. As the public’s vulnerability at such events is high, the level of residual risk to places of mass gatherings—such as sporting events and entertainment precincts—is more often much higher than other infrastructure, such as power stations, transport or water facilities. Compared to infrastructure protection, it’s probably fair to say that protecting mass gatherings has been the area least amenable to national leadership.

Some jurisdictions  have seen the problem simply as one of community policing and working with those responsible for occupational health and safety issues.

We need a nationally consistent approach when it comes to information sharing and pooling of knowledge between business and governments at all levels on this issue. It’s helpful that we have a Mass Gatherings Advisory Group (MGAG) that sits under the Australian New Zealand Counter–Terrorism Committee, and the Mass Gatherings Business Advisory Group, that feeds into the MGAG.

But the forgotten actor here is local government: when it comes to consequence management, resilience lives locally, so the importance of local government shouldn’t be overlooked.

Australia has about 560 local government bodies—and their responsibilities go well beyond the traditional functions of rates, roads and rubbish. While the states have the primary responsibility for most emergencies, it’s at the local level where responders will be first on the scene.

Local government can promote the importance of security at places of mass gathering within their communities. It can also promote a nationally consistent approach to protecting places of mass gathering at the local level.

The Nice attack showed that it’s not always capital cities that are the location of attacks. When you get out of Australia’s major cities, local government is really the primary governance actor in many of our regional areas. For instance, they’re heavily involved in approvals for major events, such as festivals, sports carnivals and working with police, contractors and the private security sector. They’re often responsible for road closures and CCTV in areas where there’s public safety risks.

Local government is the level of government closest to where the population lives and works. It’s responsible for the provision or coordination of local resources. There’s little doubt that terrorist attacks will occur in local government areas and will have a direct social, economic, psychological and cultural impact on that local area.

It’s unclear what involvement local government believes it currently has in counterterrorism planning, prevention and response or what role the federal government sees for local government in counterterrorism planning, prevention and response. Local government isn’t mentioned in the most recent COAG national counter terrorism strategy (PDF), nor in the guidelines on the protection of places of mass gathering from terrorism.

The local government peak body—ALGA—has been involved in discussions around natural disaster management in Australia, and is represented on COAG’s Law, Crime and Community Safety Council. But there’s no evidence that ALGA’s had any involvement in broader counterterrorism strategy.

It’s unclear what assets and resources local government can provide before, during and after a terrorist attack—physical, social, intelligence, plant, medical-mortuary, personnel, local knowledge and so on. It’s also unclear how extensive local government resources in mental health and youth work can contribute to countering violent extremism by making young people feel part of a local community. There’s been little attention given to determining the consequences for local government of a terrorist attack: financial costs but also damage to social and economic systems, to structures, to regional reputation.

More work needs to be undertaken to identify the capability of local government in relation to counterterrorism and how local government could be better integrated into our counterterrorism plans.