Australia's hard line on terrorism risks dividing society

by Bernard Lagan / 09 August, 2017
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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.

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