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Canberra's 9/11 decade: Bureaucracy

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15 September 2011 16:00

Part II of a series on Canberra's 9/11 Decade; part I is on the ADF.

This is 'Lubyanka on the Lake', Canberra's most expensive public building since the new parliament.

ASIO's new HQ isn't quite the proudest and most prominent spook-catching construction in the Western world: that title still resides with its sister agency, MI5, resplendent in Thames House, on the river just down from the British Parliament. Yet the imposing ASIO pile facing across the Lake to the High Court and parliament will stand as a symbol of what 9/11 did to Canberra. 

So, also, will the shift of the Australian Federal Police from a relatively small HQ in Civic to the Barton Building in Kings Parade, just down from parliament. In the geography of Canberra power, the AFP has shifted from the periphery to the centre, and ASIO now sits on a high hill. The buildings are part of Canberra's new counter-terrorism edifice, built and growing on the conviction that the jihadist threat is 'persistent and permanent'.

At the start of the decade, the elements of the edifice cost $1 billion. By the end, it was $4 billion. After 9/11 and the Bali bombing in 2002, Canberra was driven by a dreadful fear, expressed in the statement that a terrorist attack on Australian soil was only a matter of time. This sense of inevitability has slowly faded, but the fear has driven policy shifts that continue. Here is Dr Chris Michaelsen, of NSW University Law Faculty, on the 9/11 decade

ASIO's budget has increased by 655%, the Australian Federal Police budget by 161%, ASIS by 236% and the Office of National Assessments by 441%. The legislative response has been unprecedented, too. Since 9/11, Federal Parliament has enacted more than 40 pieces of 'security legislation' which ensure that Australia has some of the most Draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world. In fact, it is the only Western liberal democracy that allows its domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are actually involved in any terrorist activity. This gigantic policy response has been at odds with the reality of the risk of terrorism in Australia. To date, not a single person has been killed in a terrorist attack on Australian soil in the post-9/11 era. About 100 Australians have died in terrorist attacks overseas, most of them in the Bali bombings. Indeed, chances of dying in a terrorist attack in Australia are close to zero.

If that 'close to zero' moment does happen in Australia, it seems certain it will be caused by Australians. That was another big shift over the decade. At the start, Canberra looked outward for the threat, to Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. Now it looks inward at its own people. In a speech looking back at the 9/11 decade, the Attorney-General, Robert McLelland, said the focus is on the danger posed by Australians who become radicalised: 

Since 2000, there have been four major terrorist plots disrupted in Australia. To date, 38 individuals have been prosecuted as a result of counter-terrorism operations and 23 have been convicted. Significantly, 37 of the 38 people prosecuted are Australian citizens and 21 of the 38 were born in Australia.

Just as America needs to worry about how so much of its foreign relations is now run by its military, Australia needs to contemplate the way 'security' drives its decisions and policy options. Canberra's counter-terrorism edifice forms part of the national security complex that is seeking to consolidate after an extraordinary period of growth.

Those inside it prefer the term 'national security community', but the always-present elements of competition as well as cooperation mean that 'complex' is a more accurate description. The competition is inevitable because cash does not flow equally to all parts of the complex. The loser in Canberra's security decade was Foreign Affairs, as the Lowy Institute has charted in detail. Agencies like the Australian Defence Force, ASIO and the AFP thrived in the 9/11 decade while DFAT lagged.

Just to tilt that image a little, though, consider the point that one of major winners was not an obvious member of the security complex. Over the decade, the cash cascaded consistently into aid, and its custodian AusAID. The aid budget doubled in the 9/11 decade and will do it again this decade. The Howard Government put weak and failing states in the same frame as terrorism, and suddenly international aid looked like a good investment.

Photo of the new ASIO headquarters in Canberra courtesy of ASIO. ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.

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