IAN McAULEY. Dutton’s extended police powers won’t be confined to airports

May 22, 2018

Dutton’s proposal to allow police to stop people at random at airports has little if anything to do with community safety, and everything to do with his desire to extend police powers and to help the government in its bid for re-election.

In 1985 the Hawke Government proposed to amalgamate various forms of government identification into a single identifier known as the “Australia Card”. Although the government’s specific concern was with tax and welfare fraud, the proposal met with strong opposition from groups all along the political spectrum, and the government dropped the idea.

Now, in the context of the government’s $300 million “enhancing aviation security” package, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton proposes to allow police at airports to stop people at random and demand identification, even if there is no indication that those so targeted may be about to commit a crime. In other words, there would be no legal threshold to allowing police to stop and question people. And by implication there could be unpleasant consequences for those who do not carry ID.

Unlike the strong opposition to the Australia Card, this proposal has met with little resistance. Perhaps it’s because the same partisan media that jumped on the Hawke Labor Government in 1985 is giving the Coalition Government an easy run in 2018. Or perhaps it’s because there’s a hyper-awareness of airport security, so in that context it must be OK.

But it’s not OK, because there is nothing about a supposed need applying to airports that would not apply more generally to all public spaces. There is nothing special about airports.

Introduced under the guise of airport security, Dutton’s proposal would easily morph into a situation where Australia becomes one of those countries where one may not venture into public space without ID. Public space, already under assault from commercial interests, would become space one uses only with the permission of the state security apparatus.

It’s hard to see how this proposal has anything to do with keeping us safe from terrorism. Rather it seems to be a political move to extend Dutton’s assault on civil liberties and to shore up the Coalition’s pre-election stocks.

Terrorists operate on two general principles. They seek “soft” relatively undefended targets, and they seek spectacle.

There is no shortage of soft targets. Any place where crowds gather is promising. It’s all the better if they are places where young people congregate, such as a rock concert, or where people come out to celebrate, such as a community event. We can recall the 2015 attacks in Paris on the Stade de France and the Bataclan Theatre, or the 2016 attack on Berlin’s Weihnachtsmarkt. The attacks were specifically designed to make people fearful of coming together. In Australia we can recall the successfully thwarted Anzac Day plot in 2015.

Apart from the 2016 attack in Brussels, airports are no longer terrorists’ prime targets. Because governments have focussed on aviation security there have been no passenger lives lost through hijacking since the 9/11 attacks. Hijacking was in fashion in the 1970s, but it has been on a downward trajectory ever since.

That is not to advocate complacency: there are still many terrorist attempts. We are fortunate that last year the Federal Police successfully thwarted an attempt to blow up an Etihad flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, but it seems that their success was based on intelligence gathered well before the two brothers got anywhere near the airport.

The point is that if police can be justified in arbitrarily stopping people at airports, which have become relatively safe from terrorism, then there is a strong case for extending those powers to other areas that have become relatively more dangerous, not only from organised terrorist attacks but also from wannabe terrorist cranks, from drivers zonked on ice, from belligerent drunks and other menaces.

Like extreme right ideologues throughout history (and let’s be frank, these thugs are on the far religious right), terrorists see the destruction of civic society as one of their prime objectives. It’s not just the body count they’re after; rather it’s about raising fear and mistrust in the community, and in this regard those politicians who overstate the risk of terrorism and raise fear in the community play right into their hands.

Admittedly aviation still has appeal for terrorists because in terms of impact there is probably nothing more spectacular than flying a plane into a high-rise building, or as a second-best blowing it up in mid-flight. The terrorists are also helped by some people’s fear of flying. But there are other opportunities for gruesome spectacles: as an engineer trained in explosives I could nominate three or four.

The spectacle of aviation-related terrorism has appeal not only for terrorists, but also for conservative politicians. Conservatives use fear as a powerful political weapon. Fear of aviation-related terrorism, even if the actual risks are vanishingly small, is an opportunity to be exploited.

In economists’ terms we are almost certainly seeing diminished returns for each dollar spent on aviation security, while neglecting opportunities for risk reduction in other areas of our lives. That means because of politically-motivated resource misallocation, the community’s overall risk of death from violence is higher than it could be. Every cop who is patrolling the beat at an airport isn’t out there in other public places and isn’t on the roads protecting us from more real dangers.

For example, researchers found that as a consequence of airport security measures introduced in the USA after the 9/11 attacks, more people were deciding to drive rather than to fly over medium distances – an understandable decision in reaction to higher air fares, greater inconvenience and longer check-in times. It didn’t take long before the number of extra road deaths so induced surpassed the 9/11 fatalities, but these deaths didn’t have the political vividness of aircraft deaths.

It’s notable that in Australia much more attention is to be paid to security at non-metropolitan airports, and surely these costs will be passed on to people living in or visiting rural cities who already face outrageously high air fares. Having lost their railroads many years ago, their only other option is to drive. (But the people of Mildura may rest assured that there will be even less likelihood of a crazed jihadist taking over a Beechcraft King Air and smashing it into the Grand Hotel.)

The only compelling reasons for the government’s moves on airport security are political. If it really wanted to improve airport security it could do a great deal without spending any money  and without weakening our civil liberties. Our capital city airports have become vast shopping malls, mainly on what is known as the “airside” of airports – that is the area restricted to those who pass through security screening. Anyone who regularly works on the airside – pilots, baggage handlers, shop assistants – must hold an Aviation Security Identity Card, issued after a process of security screening. The ASIC system has certain weaknesses – no security system is perfect – and the more people are permitted to work “airside” the greater is the security risk. It seems that the Commonwealth, in its deals to privatize airports, has allowed the commercial interests of airport owners to override security concerns.

It’s fairly clear that the government has put Dutton’s ideological obsessions and its own re-election ahead of protecting the community from violence.


Ian McAuley is an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development.


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