SAUL ESLAKE. The quest for ‘security’ – is it rational, has it made us safer, and at what cost?

In November last year, I gave an address to the Royal Society of Tasmania – the oldest such society ‘dedicated to the advancement of knowledge’ outside of the United Kingdom – at an event hosted by the Governor of Tasmania, Her Excellency Professor Kate Warner AC, at her official residence in Hobart.  In this address I posed, and sought to answer, three questions:

  • How significant a risk is the threat of terrorism in Australia, both in absolute terms and relative to some of the other risks and threats on our horizon?
  • How effective in reducing that risk have the various measures enacted in the name of ‘security’ actually been? and
  • How does whatever reduction in the risks posed by terrorism which has been obtained compare with the costs, broadly defined, of those measures? 

These questions are worth exploring because all too often (in my view) the mere mention of the word ‘security’ is widely seen, especially but not exclusively by those responsible for ‘security’, as an indication that the rest of us should suspend all of our critical faculties and accept without demur whatever is deemed to be necessary in the interests of ‘security’.

We don’t do this in other areas of policy-making and I don’t see why we should do it in this context.

The full text of this address can be found here.

I don’t deny for a moment that terrorism presents a threat to the safety and well-being of Australians. But I also believe that the magnitude of that threat has been greatly exaggerated. In Australia, as in most other ‘western’ countries, it is less of a threat than it was three and four decades ago – although the same cannot be said of a number of other parts of the world.

With the conspicuous exception of 2001, the number of terrorism-related deaths in ‘Western’ countries has been lower, on average, so far this century than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. There were fewer terrorist incidents in ‘Western’ countries in the five years to 2016 than in any five-year period between 1970 and 2000.

It is hard not to be struck by the difference in the public, and political, reaction to incidents of terrorism and the casualties which result from them, to the corresponding reactions (or lack of them) to other incidents which cause no less tragic loss of lives, or life-changing injuries, rather more frequently than terrorism does.

This has been particularly apparent in the United States. Americans have in recent years been almost six times as likely to be killed by another American with a gun as they have been to be killed by a terrorist.

Yet while billions of dollars have been spent, new ‘security’ procedures have been introduced, tighter restrictions on both visitors and immigrants to the United States have been imposed and enhanced powers conferred on security and law enforcement agencies with a view to reducing the risk of terrorism, nothing at all has been done to reduce the ability of people with a history of mental illness, people who nurture grievances against estranged family members or people affiliated with domestic extremist groups from procuring weapons whose sole purpose is killing.

More than 2,800 people have been shot and killed by the police in the United States during the past three years (including 847 so far this year). That’s more than 100 times the number of people who have been killed by terrorists. But, again, very little if anything seems to have been done to reduce the incidence of shootings by police.

Here in Australia our police are, thankfully, much better trained, and much more restrained, in their use of firearms than their American counterparts.

And the Howard Government, to its great credit, was prepared to tighten Australia’s gun laws (even at the risk of alienating some of its core supporters) in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 – and subsequent governments have, for the most part, resisted intermittent pressure to water down those laws. Largely as a result, there haven’t been any more mass shooting deaths in Australia since then.

Nonetheless, we too in Australia have something of a double standard in how we respond to different causes, actual and potential, of death and injury.

Statistically you’re much more likely to be killed in a road accident on your way to the airport than you are as a result of anything that might happen after you get there. But if something does happen to you on the way to the airport, blame will be sheeted home to your driving, someone else’s driving, the condition of the road or the weather; whereas if you happen to die as a result of a terrorist attack on the airport, or on the plane you’re flying on, much of the resulting blame will be assigned to the government.

That’s why politicians say things like, “we don’t want to look back tragically and say ‘what could we have done to prevent something from happening’ ”, as New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said when agreeing last year to hand over to the Commonwealth photographs of everyone in her State with a drivers’ licence, so as to create a national database that can be combined with facial recognition technology to assist in the speedy identification of suspected terrorists (and, importantly, for other purposes).

Yet you almost never hear or read of politicians saying that they wouldn’t want to look back and wish that they had done more to reduce other, much greater, risks to the lives and well-being of their citizens – risks which they could do more to reduce, if they thought it was sufficiently important to do so.

On the contrary, some politicians appear to see some political advantage for themselves in exaggerating the threat of terrorism and in suggesting that only they can be trusted to ‘keep people safe’; while others fear that questioning either those exaggerated threats, or the necessity of actions proposed with the aim of reducing them, will result in them being portrayed as ‘soft on terrorism’.

Much of what is being done, in Australia no less than in other countries, ostensibly with a view to reducing the risks posed by terrorists, in fact does very little to reduce what is in reality a relatively small set of risks and has instead had the effect (as it may indeed have been intended) of making people think the risks associated with terrorism are greater than they really are.

Most of the measures which are visible to the public – such as those that people encounter at airports or at major public events – have been imposed in reaction to things which terrorists have done, or attempted to do, irrespective of whether those attempts had been ‘successful’ from the terrorists’ perspective.

Governments and their advisors are fond of saying that “all government spending, whether for day-to-day operations (recurrent) or capital, should be closely scrutinised for its quality” (the most recent set of budget papers) or that “no policy areas should be immune from proper appraisal – ex ante and ex post” (the Productivity Commission’s first five-year review of Australia’s productivity performance, published last year).

When it comes to matters of ‘security’, however, any idea of ‘close scrutiny’ or ‘proper appraisal’ seems to go entirely out the window – often accompanied by the suggestion that any suggestion that measures proposed with the aim of enhancing ‘security’ should be thus scrutinized is tantamount to treason or, at the very least, evidence of being ‘soft on terrorism’.

The resources which have been committed to dealing with the inflated risk of terrorism are depriving us of opportunities to address other, more serious, issues adversely affecting the well-being and in many cases the lives of large numbers of Australians.

I am dismayed at how lightly we in Australia, and people in so many other ‘Western’ democracies, have acquiesced in the erosion of liberties and freedoms that we used to hold dear, that we say to ourselves were what our forebears have fought and died for in foreign fields, that distinguished us from our one-time adversaries.

By some reckonings, Australia has passed more anti-terrorism laws than any other country. And unlike other ‘Western’ countries, Australia neither has any bill or charter of rights nor has it incorporated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into Australian legislation, which means there is no way for citizens to challenge the erosion of civil liberties through legal processes, as there is in other countries.

I don’t blame security agencies for seeking additional powers – it’s in their DNA. Rather, I worry about the unwillingness of our political leaders at least occasionally to ‘push back’ against those requests – and the lack of any mechanism for genuinely independent review of the decisions which political leaders make in this context.

I’m old enough to remember that one of the reasons why we could be sure, during the ‘Cold War’ era, that the Soviets were the ‘bad guys’ was because they were the ones who tapped their citizens’ phones and read their mail, who could arrest their citizens without charge and detain them indefinitely without needing to prove them guilty of any crime – and ‘we’, by contrast, did not do any of those things. We didn’t do them in the 1970s and 1980s when there were more terrorist incidents in ‘western countries’, and more deaths resulting from them, than there have been in recent years.

But now we do.

I find it particularly striking that the Liberal Party, which, for most of the past 40 years has proclaimed the virtues of ‘smaller government’, has done so much to expand the powers of the state over individuals in the last sixteen years; and that the Labor Party, for whom the protection of civil liberties used to be a talisman, has more recently been so supine in their defence.

Terrorism is a crime – some instances of it have been monstrous crimes. It would have been far better – it could still be far better – if we treated it as such, rather than allowing it to become, or become even more of, a political football.

Saul Eslake has previously been Chief Economist of the ANZ Bank and of Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia, a non-executive director of the Australian Housing & Urban Research Institute and a member of the Rudd and Gillard Governments’ National Housing Supply Council. He is currently a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania, and a non-executive director of Housing Choices Australia (a not-for-profit provider of affordable housing), as well as running his own independent economics consulting business. 

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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