If Turnbull’s plan becomes law – and the prospects of the Opposition stopping anything to do with ‘fighting terrorism’ are remote – we can expect a terrorist attack to trigger an emergency response from the Special Operations Command, whose officers will have to be trained to shoot to kill other Australians.
Now that we have concrete bollards in Martin Place and Swanston Street and on Capital Hill, as well as fences to stop citizens strolling or rolling over the Parliament House grass, you’d think that in exchange for the aesthetic damage inflicted on us we must be safe. After all, Australia has had only five fatal terrorist attacks since the mysterious Hilton Hotel bombing in 1978. The risks we face from lightning strikes, sharks and crocodiles, or indeed bee-stings and falling furniture, are incomparably greater.
But terrorism is serious political business and once the threat of an attack is officially listed as ‘probable’, no government is brave enough to reduce it. Politicians have to be seen to be responding robustly to the danger. After a terrorist attack on Canada’s Parliament, they fortified it, and we now fortify ours. After a truck kills scores on a boulevard in Nice or on London Bridge, the authorities barricade our CBD pedestrian spaces (but not yet the Bondi esplanade and the Manly Corso, which would seem more likely targets). The Americans and British detect a plot to use I-pads and laptops to trigger midair explosions, so we too will have to put them in the hold (but a remote command from a passenger could presumably make them work there just as well).
Other governments respond differently. Some take the legal route: after the dreadful Paris attacks in November 2015, President Hollande declared ‘We are at war’, and a state of emergency has been in place ever since; and after hundreds were killed in Marawi in 2016-17, President Duterte imposed martial law in the southern Philippines. When three killings occurred in as many months in the UK, Prime Minister May said ‘Enough is enough,’ police were deployed in large numbers, and inquiries began. But with the experience of worse IRA bombings in mind, Britons stiffened not their laws but their upper lips, and business resumed as usual in the Borough Markets. London Bridge and the Palace of Westminster remained unfortified.
After Manchester, Prime Minister Turnbull echoed Britain, asserting that Australia would not allow terrorists to change our ‘way of life,’ as if Manchester’s way of life was like Australia’s. Yet as a conservative economic commentator observed, our way of life has already changed: security checks, bollards, invigilation, and more expenditure on fighting terrorism (Judith Sloan, ‘There’s a heavy price for our changing way of life,’ Weekend Australian, 24-5 June 2017: 22). The National Security Statement (June 2017) revealed that since August 2014, Australia had invested $1.5 billion in law enforcement and security agencies to combat terrorism. An additional $321 million were to develop specialist capabilities in the AFP, above what the State and Territory governments spend, and not counting the annual defence budget of $34.6 billion, or $88.7 million a day (Peter Jennings, ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2016-7).
Now, following the Sydney siege coroner’s report, Turnbull has announced what his government has for months been contemplating, and softening us up to expect. He and Defence Minister Payne will move to allow the ADF to fire upon Australian citizens in a terrorist event (‘Military gets new powers on terror,’ SMH 17 July 2017: 1, 3) The mainstream media were not outraged, and gave it thin coverage. Nor did anyone speak up for civil liberties or the presumption of innocence, or point to the dangers of collateral damage and a police state, as they did two years earlier (Mark Kenny, ‘Expanding security state inevitable as death, taxes’, SMH 12-13 December 2015: 8). Another ASPI commentator is not concerned about the overnight loss of citizens’ protection against the government’s armed force, which took our ancestors centuries to achieve, but about whether the ADF has too little capacity to respond to terrorism in our major cities, and whether it can do so quickly enough. John Coyne (ex-AFP) admits that police officers are committed to protect life while the military are focussed on taking it, and that deploying the ADF in an Australian city ‘could potentially negatively impact on community safety.’ (‘Army no magic bullet to terror,’ SMH 18 July 2017: 17) Which in ordinary parlance means the Australian army can kill Australian citizens.
If Turnbull’s plan becomes law – and the prospects of the Opposition stopping anything about ‘fighting terrorism’ are remote – we can expect a terrorist attack to trigger an emergency response from the Special Operations Command, whose officers will have to be trained to shoot to kill other Australians. They will remember this training after they retire when, let us hope, they don’t have gun licenses. As Australia becomes increasingly militarised, it is possible that the Tactical Assault Group could be called out for an anti-war demonstration, anti-mining protest, or industrial strike, and may be told that the people it confronts are enemies of the state and therefore terrorists. It makes me think of those signs you see on American suburban lawns: ‘Beware, Armed Response.’
Dr Alison Broinowski was an Australian diplomat and is Vice President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform.