Beware the politics of panic in terror alerts
If no attack is imminent and Abbott says it is not, then why bother to make the announcement? asks Greg Barns.Today's
announcement by Prime Minister Abbott that he is raising Australia's
terror threat level from medium to high should be treated warily.
Politicians have a habit of raising fears of terrorist attacks on
Australian soil when the evidence suggests that this is a case of
rhetoric and reality not meeting eye to eye.
Back in November 2005 former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and Police Commissioner Christine Nixon announced
that an imminent terrorist attack on Melbourne had been thwarted by the
arrest of a number of young men and a self-styled sheikh in Melbourne. I
acted for one of those men in a subsequent Supreme Court trial in 2008 and
can tell you that the evidence presented to the court in that case
suggested nothing of the sort. There was no planned terrorist attack by
members of this group, just chatter and some bonding activities that
made the police and ASIO nervous about their intentions.
because ASIO and police might have heard some talk about terrorism and
terrorist attacks by individuals does not mean that those individuals
have any means of carrying out an attack. But it will be enough for ASIO
and police authorities to jump and tell the PM that a terror alert
ought to be issued, because these organisations are suspicious by nature
and often read more into things than might actually be the case.
The Prime Minister says that there are people with the "intent and capability" to
carry out a terrorist attack in Australia. Of course there are. There
always have been and there always will be. Whether that intent amounts
to anything and whether the capability is actual rather than simply
perceived by jumpy spooks is the question. If no attack is imminent and
Abbott says it is not, then why bother to make the announcement?
political reasons that's why. Nothing like panic and fear to trample
liberties and freedoms. Remember the aftermath of 9/11 when the
Coalition and ALP both supported appalling new laws that criminalised
thought and word in the guise of offences such as support for a
This time around Attorney-General George Brandis wants the Senate to pass laws that would see journalists and editors in jail for revealing illegal activities
by ASIO and which would protect ASIO from scrutiny when it bugs phones
of foreign leaders (as it did in Indonesia) or bugs the cabinet rooms of
a neighbour (as in East Timor). Mr Brandis has also mooted draconian
powers, such as cancelling passports of Australians travelling to Iraq
and Syria if ASIO thinks they might be supporting ISIS in some way.
of the consequences of Abbott's scare politics will be increased
harassment of Australians from the Middle East and of Muslims. The
racism and prejudice of Australia is unfortunately tattooed across the
underbelly of this land and as we saw when the Howard government reacted
to 9/11 it did not take much for irrational attacks on Muslims and
Australians from the Middle East to ramp up.
Work carried out the years after 9/11 by Edith Cowan University found:
a result of personal experiences, Australian Muslims seem particularly
susceptible to feelings of fear and anxiety about being objects of
concern and suspicion in an increased security environment.
very aware of the possibility that the Prime Minister's announcement
today is not based on the strongest of evidence but is rather
politically useful. Some of us have seen terror threat announcements
before and we know that this is an area where politicians and some in
the media don't mind gilding the lily.
Greg Barns is a barrister and a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance. View his full profile here.