The Lindt café siege: lessons from the coronial inquest (part two)
14 Jun 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Kate Ausburn.

ADF ‘call out’ was a headline issue from the coronial inquest into the Lindt café siege.

Counsel assisting the coroner raised it during hearings in May last year, speculating that ADF special forces might have resolved the siege better than NSW police, and—unusually—urging anyone who knew more about the topic to come forward. The Commonwealth government quickly responded by calling for a review of Defence support to counterterrorism operations, which is still to be completed.

Yet, despite the headlines, there was little on ADF call out in the inquest report, and no demand for substantive change.

This second in a series on the siege and the inquest’s findings explores the issue of Defence support.

Call out refers to the mechanisms under Part IIIAAA of the Defence Act 1903 in conjunction with s.119 of the Constitution which allows a state to request assistance from the Commonwealth to protect it from ‘domestic violence’. The Commonwealth may agree if it’s satisfied that the state can’t defend itself.

Coroner Michael Barnes SC rightly found, in this regard, that the threshold for call out hadn’t been met ‘because the NSWPF considered it had the capacity to respond effectively to Monis’ actions and did not advise the NSW government otherwise’. While Mr Barnes made a series of findings on shortcomings in the police response, he didn’t find they lacked the capacity to have responded effectively.

One telling finding that should give pause for review, however, is that tactical police told the inquest they didn’t know how to seek the support of the Army’s east coast Tactical Assault Group (TAG East). This isn’t because the police specialist response units and TAGs don’t work together—on the contrary, they are closely engaged through exercises, briefings and a range of other activities—but because the call-out decision itself isn’t well-practised. And for a matter involving constitutional powers, this shouldn’t be left to the operators alone: appropriate authorities at all levels of government need to truly understand, through experience, how this works.

There’s a need for regular and realistic decision-making exercises for all authorities involved in the response to a terrorist incident. These need to simulate the ambiguity and fluidity of a developing possible terrorist scenario, and to require hard decisions to be made. Each Cabinet in Australia should be knowledgeable, familiar and practised in that form of emergency decision making, including linking in to counterparts across the federation. That type of decision-making exercise is different from roundtable briefings on generic responses—which do occur—as it pushes authorities and agencies to make difficult decisions and to encounter assumptions and problems. The exercise’s value is in teaching responders how to deal with a crisis in a safe environment, and how to identify and work through issues.

A real crisis isn’t the time to learn about crisis decision-making.

The coroner also went a step further to ask whether the ADF should have been called out, concluding only that the forthcoming Defence review provided an opportunity to consider this. Indeed, if the benchmark for ADF response to a terrorism incident is the Lindt siege, then this raises serious questions about Australia’s overall CT capability. After all, the siege involved a single armed offender in the CBD of Australia’s largest city and home to Australia’s largest and best-equipped police force. TAG-E happens to be located in the same city, but its proximity isn’t replicated around Australia.

The terrorist threat to Australia includes coordinated mass-casualty, multiple-location explosives and firearms, and our first responders need to be prepared for that, as well as lower-level and single actor attacks such as what occurred at the Lindt café.

There’s a role for the ADF TAGs and other elements to provide supplementary support, but this must be balanced with a reasonable expectation about how they would complement the police role and, in extremis, be the last resort for use of lethal force.

While ADF tactical response through call out has received the most attention, the coroner highlights shortcomings in other areas of Defence support that will require the government’s focus. Part IIIAAA refers to unspecified ‘support’, not just tactical response, and the coroner notes a range of areas where there was, or could have been, contact with Defence, where additional support could have helped the police. The report suggests this support was either not forthcoming, or was otherwise deficient.

The police plan for ‘deliberate action’ (DA) is a key focus for the inquest. The coroner was scathing about both police DA planning capability and the decision to not carry out a DA to resolve the siege. The DA plan was shared with TAG-E, which advised that the DA was ‘technically feasible’. The coroner found that Defence could and should have provided greater assistance to the police by identifying vulnerabilities in the DA and advising improvements. Throughout the siege the police understood Monis had explosives, and the coroner stated Defence could have provided additional support on that threat, through the Special Operations Engineer Regiment located with TAG-E.

An ADF Liaison Officer—with supporting staff—was embedded with the NSW police, but the inquest showed there appeared to be little understanding about the officer’s role beyond keeping TAG-E informed of what the police were doing. The coroner suggests the liaison role might be better used to facilitate Defence support to the police.

The picture emerging from the inquest is one of two very separate entities—NSW police and TAG-E—joined only by tactical-level information being passed from the incident site to keep the special forces unit aware of developments. There’s no sense of a broader understanding by any parties of Defence support beyond the TAG-E. The complexities of the current and emerging security environment calls for best and complementary use of all capabilities available. The Defence CT support review should look broadly to the range of capabilities it could provide to assist in preventing and responding to terrorism. Of concern in an environment of widespread debate about use of call out powers—even including calls to change the legislation—there’s no mention of any consideration of the decisions and mechanisms for call out at higher levels of authority in the NSW and Commonwealth governments. Before considering changing legislation, we should look at whether decision-makers and operators are both educated and trained in how the existing legislation works.