Australia's hard line on terrorism risks dividing society

by Bernard Lagan / 09 August, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Australia

Police during a hostage situation at Lindt Cafe in Sydney in 2014. Photo/Getty Images

The faddish inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills is a cycling haunt of mine most Sunday mornings. Its corridors of coffee shops are among the city’s first openers, catering for righteous early risers and the wasted tumbling from the locale’s pubs and clubs.

Early on the last Sunday in July, the police were swarming. Cleveland St, the old neighbourhood’s still winsomely slummy thoroughfare, was blocked by the riot squad’s black Land Cruisers as forensic officers in white plastic overalls crawled all over a grey terrace house.

It was there that they recovered the elements of a homemade device, intended to be smuggled aboard an aircraft departing Sydney, to be activated inflight to gas everybody aboard.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would later tell a press conference that Australia had unmasked an Islamic extremist plot to bring down a plane; he was, it would emerge, not quite right. A British intelligence agency’s intercept of Syrian communications had unearthed the plot. So alarmed was the British Foreign Office that it prepared to issue a travel warning to UK nationals. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, police were then forced to move on the Sydney plotters – possibly ahead of their preferred timetable. At time of writing – 72 hours after the raid – three men of Middle Eastern background remained in custody. A fourth had been released without charge.

It was the 13th significant threat that police claim to have thwarted since Australia raised its terrorist-threat level in 2014. Other attacks have been carried out, including Sydney’s late 2014 Martin Place siege, when two cafe hostages taken by an Isis-inspired gunman died. In October the next year, a 15-year-old Isis-infatuated killer stalked a western Sydney police headquarters and murdered a police accountant.

Clearly, Australians are in the sights of extremist Islamic sympathisers. That is unsurprising given the heavy Australian contribution – six jet fighters and an early warning and control aircraft – ordered to the Middle East by hawkish former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. They have been finding and attacking Isis targets in Iraq and Syria for three years.

No one could seriously dispute that terrorism vigilance is needed in Australia’s larger cities. The May budget allocated a $470 million spending increase for intelligence agencies and counterterrorism policing. Three weeks ago, Turnbull and his border control minister, one-time Queensland policeman Peter Dutton, unveiled a new US-style home affairs super ministry that will take over immigration, border protection and domestic security agencies.

Ministerial oversight for the national spy agency, ASIO, its 1800 staff and the 6500-strong Australian Federal Police will no longer be with the Cabinet’s legal guardians – the Minister for Justice and the Attorney-General. Instead, it will go to Dutton, the chief enforcer of Australia’s hard-line policies towards asylum seekers, would-be permanent migrants – and Kiwis he judges to be recalcitrant.

After the latest terrorist incident, the Government revealed Australia is moving towards a probationary system for all new migrants that will impose a waiting period for social security benefits – despite a leaked Cabinet report’s fears that the resulting two-tier society could add to violent extremism.

In mid-July, when Turnbull gave Australia’s military new powers to become involved in at-home terrorist incidents, he went to the Holsworthy Army Barracks outside Sydney to make the announcement surrounded by special forces troops wearing gas masks and cradling machine guns.

There are votes to be mined by acting tough when the populace is troubled. The risk is that in a spooked Australia, tolerance withers and new arrivals suffer.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Winston Peters meets with leaders alone
81642 2017-10-18 06:39:27Z Politics

Winston Peters meets with leaders alone

by Sarah Robson

NZ First leader Winston Peters has met with Bill English and Jacinda Ardern in one-on-one meetings, as the party's board leaves with no decision made.

Read more
The legacy of NZ’s departing environmental watchdog Jan Wright
81635 2017-10-18 00:00:00Z Environment

The legacy of NZ’s departing environmental watchdo…

by Rebecca Macfie

After 10 years as the country's environmental watchdog, Jan Wright is bowing out, having shaken up a lot of our complacency about being clean & green.

Read more
How Amazon's Australasian invasion will change the way we shop
81604 2017-10-17 00:00:00Z Business

How Amazon's Australasian invasion will change the…

by Mark Broatch

The global online sales giant is preparing to set up down under, and life for shoppers and retailers is about to change big-time.

Read more
Bird song or squawk? Why some birds sound flocking awful
81489 2017-10-17 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Bird song or squawk? Why some birds sound flocking…

by Margo White

There's a bit of difference between a tui or kokako's call, compared to a mollymawk or shearwater. Just ask RNZ's Morning Report fans.

Read more
I came, I sawed, I conquered
81613 2017-10-16 16:51:07Z Life in NZ

I came, I sawed, I conquered

by Greg Dixon

Tree down! It’s time to pull on the fluorescent orange and crank up the chainsaw – one page at a time.

Read more
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America – book review
81586 2017-10-16 13:30:02Z Books

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class …

by Linda Herrick

The ultimate meritocracy was class-ridden from the get-go and Donald Trump exploited the fact.

Read more
NZME-Stuff media merger saga goes to court
81581 2017-10-16 12:54:33Z Business

NZME-Stuff media merger saga goes to court

by Colin Peacock

New Zealand's two biggest publishers of news go to court today to try to overturn the competition watchdog's refusal to green-light a merger.

Read more
The living hell experienced by Rohingya Muslims
81556 2017-10-16 11:02:05Z World

The living hell experienced by Rohingya Muslims

by Kate White

Kate White, a co-ordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières, describes daily life for Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh - and how you can help.

Read more