Opinion published in the Mercury, 3 August
The latest government announcements about counter-terrorism are unwarranted and will do nothing to make Australian people safer, says Andrew Wilkie
Let’s be clear about something: Australian security agencies are competent and Australia is a relatively safe place. Indeed only four Australians have been killed by “terrorists” on Australian soil in the last 20 years, and even that figure is likely overstated seeing as some of Australia’s so-called terrorists would be better described as crazies.
To put that in perspective, more than 30 people have been killed by sharks over the same period.
Of course that’s not to say there won’t be another terrorist attack in Australia. Of course there will.
What it is to say though is that some politicians need to stop hyperventilating over terrorism or taking every opportunity to frighten the daylights out of people as they exploit national security for cynical political gain.
Nor is it to say there’s any excuse for Hobart airport being the only capital city airport without a permanent Australian Federal Police presence.
The fact is the Airport is an iconic high-profile facility and it beggars belief that the Federal Government thinks budget savings are more important than public safety.
The problem is that national security has become a political plaything. Indeed just recently Australians were subjected to the spectacle of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a media conference flanked by camouflage-clad special force soldiers with gas masks and machine guns.
So arresting was the image that if you were watching the TV with the sound turned down you might have thought World War III had broken out.
The menacing theme continued the next day with the Prime Minister announcing plans for a Home Affairs Department combining the AFP, ASIO, Border Force, parts of the Immigration Department and a number of smaller security agencies into a super security ministry headed by Peter Dutton no less.
Surely this is one of the most nonsensical and alarming ideas to come out of Canberra in recent years.
I can only assume it’s all to do with trying to grab a halfdecent opinion poll or justify a ministerial reshuffle.
In any case it’s more about keeping Mr Turnbull’s leadership safe amid threats from his party’s hard-line Right faction, than it is to do with keeping Australia safe.
For a start this new super security department is unnecessary. I was a senior analyst in Australia’s peak intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, or ONA, just after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.
I saw first-hand the work done to enhance interconnectivity between agencies to ensure that intelligence and lawenforcement information could be shared better and more quickly.
There can be no doubt that enormous effort has gone into the enhancement of our security services and I’m satisfied that our federal agencies are working well together.
Moreover the establishment of a super security department is risky because why would you, when you have agencies workingwell together, turn them all on their head and instigate deep reform?
Frankly it seems that instead of improving things, what we’re doing instead is destabilising, creating disruption, encouraging personality clashes and searching for inefficiencies.
According to media reports the latest alleged terrorist plot, to attack an Australian aircraft, was detected only last week and our security agencies responded immediately.
It doesn’t bear thinking about what might have happened if the relevant agencies had been distracted and missed the signs of
trouble. Or if the focus had been on Hobart Airport where there’s no permanent police presence.
The bottom line is that Malcolm Turnbull’s latest security “reform” is just theatre, and the result in the short- to medium-term is that the disruption will actually make us less safe.
The risk of groupthink in particular is greater in a sprawling department and the critical contestability of advice can be easily lost.
It’s telling that the Prime Minister announced his Home Affairs Department at the same time as releasing a review of Australia’s intelligence agencies.
The L’Estrange Review made several sensible recommendations including better resourcing intelligence capabilities, beefing up cyber security and creating an office of national intelligence.
Yet nowhere on the list of recommendations was the idea of a super security department.
A super security department is not a new idea and variations have emerged in countries like the United States and United Kingdom.
It’s reported that Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Kevin Rudd were all fans of the idea at one time or another.
But like just about everybody else who’s ever considered it they all rejected the idea because Australia is not the US or UK and our security framework is different.
National security is a complex business needing a sophisticated response. It must be based on the best expert advice available and never politicised. But regrettably here in Australia many of our politicians think they know better or get a thrill living out their testosterone-fuelled fantasies. Unfortunately we’re less safe because of them.
Andrew Wilkie is the independent member for the federal seat of Denison.
Surely this is one of the most nonsensical and alarming ideas to come out of Canberra in recent years … it’s more about keeping Mr Turnbull’s leadership safe amid threats from his party’s hard-line Right faction, than it is to do with keeping Australia safe.