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The Australian National University

Abbott strikes measured note on fighting terror

Critics of the PM's high profile on security matters should remember that trust and social cohesion are always the first casualties that terrorists try to inflict.

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Image on Flickr by Kel O'Shea

Most Australians are still coming to terms with the reality that we now live in a country facing the constant and rising possibility of terrorist violence.

This is not the Australia we knew. It is not the Australia we wanted. But it is the Australia we now have.

Such a sense of denial explains part of the context for the scepticism and resistance that the Commonwealth government’s intensified counter-terrorism efforts – especially the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday – will doubtless meet.

The other part of the explanation is, of course, the Prime Minister’s own political woes, and the suspicion that he is playing the national security card to escape them.

Such cynicism in natural in Australia’s unforgivingly democratic public culture, but it is not entirely fair. Nobody can question Mr Abbott’s longstanding seriousness about national security. There can’t be many more votes to garner in that space.

Of course it is proper to wonder about the politics of yesterday’s statement, such as how far a democratic system can go in tilting away from the presumption of innocence, and whether it is better to use public rather than private channels to urge Muslim leaders to define their religion as one of peace.

Yet critics of the Prime Minister’s policy focus on counter-terrorism need to ask a few uncomfortable questions of themselves too.

Would they be so opposed if the same security concerns and initiatives came from any other Prime Minister, Liberal or Labor? Faced with the same evidence of a growing terror threat, how differently would be the response of any mainstream political leader who cared about the national interest?

What alternative policy solutions do the critics offer for reducing the real and growing risk of terrorist attacks on Australian soil?

And, in the aftermath of Martin Place, how much harder would it be to restore trust and cohesion in multicultural Australian society were there to be more, and potentially larger, atrocities?

The alarming revelation that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has no fewer than 400 high-priority terrorism investigations underway is a sign of the high likelihood of more attacks, which it is a prime duty of government to seek to thwart.

Those observers who fixate on statistics about the small numbers killed by terrorism relative to other causes of death and suffering are ignoring the deeper and even more sinister metric of political violence. That is its impact on people’s willingness to trust one another and thus on the capacity of a democratic society and a globalised international order to function.

The principal threat to Australian social cohesion is neither government policy nor the more questionable elements of its rhetoric. Rather, it is the prospect of sudden acts of carnage of a kind intended precisely to destroy our country’s core principles of tolerance and trust.

Of course none of this means that every new idea our national security community contemplates in the name of stopping terrorism is the right policy choice.

Notably, the review of Commonwealth counter-terrorism arrangements, released yesterday, suggests that most of Australia’s responses in this field are proving their worth. It warrants close reading, including its explanation of why a Department of Homeland Security is not the answer.   

It includes commonsense recommendations such as appointing a senior counter-terrorism coordinator and ensuring key security agencies – plus the nation’s intelligence accountability inspector - have the resources they need.

In his statement, Mr Abbott said the government was looking for ways to stop organisations that incite religious hatred or violence.

In particular, he named the extreme views of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, although he stopped short of confirming that his government would move to ban them.

An outright ban could backfire by giving propaganda points to extremists – already a Hizb ut-Tahrir figure has, however unconvincingly, accused the government of trying to ban an ‘idea’. As the Pakistani experience has shown, every time an extremist organisation is proscribed, it resurfaces with a new name.

The Prime Minister also used his statement to reinforce his call for parliament to support the government’s data retention legislation. This is aimed at improving the abilities of security agencies - within privacy bounds - to investigate and prevent terrorism and other crimes.

It is unsustainable to imagine that a free society can allow its most powerful tool of free expression to be used by its self-declared enemies for permanent advantage.

The government is now placing a welcome and overdue emphasis on countering jihadist propaganda online and through community initiatives.

This ‘counter-narrative’ will only stand a chance of success if it draws support across partisan lines and from a wide circle of influential Australians, well beyond politics – community and business leaders, even cultural, media and sporting figures, with a campaign of seriously smart advertising thrown in.

The core message needs to be about the responsibilities as well as the rights of Australian citizenship, a gift that most of us have borne so lightly for so long.


Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 24 February 2015 and is re-published here with permission.




Updated:  24 February 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College