Sunday 24 Feb 2019 | 01:42 | SYDNEY
Sunday 24 Feb 2019 | 01:42 | SYDNEY

First thoughts on Abbott's National Security Statement



23 February 2015 12:48

A few initial reactions to Prime Minister Abbott's National Security Statement, delivered this morning at AFP Headquarters in Canberra.

'The terrorist threat is rising at home and abroad', said Abbott in his introduction: this claim is really the bedrock of the speech and the various policy measures announced in it — after all, none of this would be necessary if the terrorist threat was diminishing.

Let's focus on the 'abroad' part of the claim. According to the Global Terrorism Index, '17,958 people were killed in terrorist attacks last year, that’s 61% more than the previous year.' Which is horrific, of course, but 82% of those deaths occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. As you can see in the graph, deaths from terrorism in the rest of the world have been pretty stable since the peak in 2001:

Still, the PM's claim that ASIO has over 400 high priority cases under investigation — double the number from last year — is alarming. And of course the rate of deaths from terrorism does not take account of plots that were foiled, of which Abbott listed several. Note though the words of former National Security Legislation Monitor Bret Walker this morning, who said Australia was not facing a terrorism crisis, but rather that the terrorist threat was a permanent state of affairs that requires continuous effort to counter.

'In Australia and elsewhere, the threat of terrorism has become a terrible fact of life that government must do all in its power to counter', said Abbott. Just like when an airline tells you that 'safety is our number one priority', this is one of those reassuring statements which doesn't actually withstand much scrutiny. If airlines made safety their top priority, their planes would never leave the ground. And if governments did all in their power to stop terrorism, we'd be living in a police state with a dying economy. As Abbott acknowledges later ('We will never sacrifice our freedoms in order to defend them'), the fight against terrorism is, like all public policy, a trade-off. We can't have perfect security, just as we can't have perfect freedom. We would have a much saner public discourse on terrorism if our leaders acknowledged this simple fact from time to time.

It would also help if governments stopped constantly elevating terrorists to a status they do not deserve. Why did Abbott need to refer to the Martin Place siege instigator as a 'threat to our country'? He was merely a criminal, and our leaders should take every opportunity to point this out, so that copycats get the message that there is no glamour attached to such acts. As Paul Buchanan has argued, terrorism should whenever possible be treated like a crime, not elevated to a war-like act.

On the proposal regarding dual citizenship, I would point readers to two Interpreter pieces from immigration expert Peter Hughes, who argues strongly that the policy is a weak weapon against terrorism.

Abbott's lines about Islam are going to make waves:

 I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it. I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’. In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt ’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking.

Note the sceptical tone around that 'religion of peace' reference. Even George W Bush routinely used that line, yet Abbott can't bring himself to endorse it. Instead he calls for Islam to undergo a 'revolution', with a supporting quote from none other than that noted Islamic scholar and political moderniser, Egyptian military strong-man al Sisi.

Abbott closes with the claim that 'My government will never underestimate the terrorist threat.' Is that really a concern for anyone? For those worried about the erosion of civil liberties, about the growth of our intelligence agencies, about military adventurism in the Middle East, and about the distortion of our national security priorities (why is a speech billed as a 'National Security Statement' devoted solely to jihadist terrorism? Is that the only threat to Australian security?), overestimation of the terrorist threat is a more serious concern.

Side note: it's a dreadful shame this speech was not delivered to parliament. Abbott clearly saw it as an important and even solemn task. Why would he not honour Australia's most important national institution — its parliament — by delivering his remarks there? Our democracy is slightly diminished as a result.

You may also be interested in...