The Left and Security


It is accepted wisdom, confirmed in opinion polls and celebrated by Right wing elites, that an outstanding strength of the Howard Government is its tough stance on security. So much so, that State Governments have rushed to establish their own credentials with legislation curtailing civil liberties, and the Labor Opposition seems to accept that on this issue they must concede to the Government.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Those who question the Government’s actions on security are labelled ‘Howard haters’ rather than critics concerned for our safety. They are labelled as being soft on terrorism as if all of Howard’s opponents would welcome bomb-bearing fanatics to our shores.

This muzzling of dissent is dangerous.

Without doubt, there is an elevated threat of terrorism today. But we have lived through periods of threat before for instance, the early 1970s (an era brilliantly portrayed in the film Munich). And as in the past, such times demand a measured response. One crucial difference between now and the 1970s, however, is that security has moved out of the realm of professional policing always subject to dispassionate benefit-cost considerations into an emotive manipulation of people’s fears to help sustain governments in office.

The strongest example is in aviation. There has been a massive tightening of security in aviation, but has it gone past the point of diminishing returns to the point of negative returns? Why would a terrorist try to penetrate the aviation security wall when there are so many unguarded ‘soft’ targets in any developed country which would not even require the sacrifice of a suicide bomber?

Further, in letting our airports become massive shopping malls, thousands of people now need to be cleared for access to secure areas the risk of infiltration being directly proportional to the number of people who need security clearance.

Worse, by adding to the costs of air travel, security measures can lead indirectly to more deaths. Small regional airlines and charter operators have had huge cost imposts, such as the requirement to fit reinforced cockpit doors, adding to weight and cost and reducing payload. One well-researched result of increases in rural airfares is a substitution of driving for flying a far more dangerous way to travel. A proper cost-benefit approach would balance the risk that al-Qaeda is, for example, planning to hijack the Griffith to Mildura Hill flight and fly it into a local building against the probability of increased road fatalities on the same route because of increased traffic.

Public policy has not been driven by cost-benefit analysis. It has been driven by the desire of governments to be seen to be doing something the more visible the measures the better for their political fortunes.

The biggest misallocation of resources has been our deployment of soldiers to Iraq. Outraged by the September 11 attacks, Australians strongly supported the campaign in Afghanistan. That campaign was clearly directed against terrorism. But, rather than following through with that initiative, we became involved in America’s mission in Iraq, with its host of messy agendas, diverting resources from where they could be most effectively deployed.

Because it has associated Australia with the US’s Middle Eastern activities, this deployment has made us less secure, bringing terrorism much closer to our shores. John Howard has, in fact, kicked own goal after own goal for terrorism making us a much larger target, for no good reason of national interest. Along with George Bush and Tony Blair, Howard has done more to promote terrorism than Osama bin Laden ever dreamed he could yet the PM parades as the leader to protect us from terrorism.

For our long-term security, we need a more independent foreign policy. While in many cases our interests do align with those of the US, they have particular concerns in the Middle East that we do not necessarily share their frustrating relationship with Israel and their support for the Saudi Arabian regime to name but two. And even though their operatives from the military, the State Department and the CIA may be professional and well-informed, the US’s policies towards the region are incompetent, ineffective and counter-productive. They have alienated potential allies, while supporting those who later become their enemies. They have propped up regimes loathed by both the Right and Left. They have treated the Middle East as one homogeneous region, unaware of or indifferent to its huge cultural, political, historical and religious differences.

Domestically, we have also gone down some dangerous paths.

Our politicians, including Howard and Morris Iemma, refer to the ‘Muslim community’ as if it were clearly identifiable and separate. This is dangerous, for it can lead to a ghetto ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, with the excluded groups feeling frustrated and resentful. We may recall the sectarian days of the 1950s when Australia was defined by religious tribes; there was a strong sense of exceptionalism among Catholics and Jews. We don’t mourn the passing of that era, and we don’t want to see it return.

Trust in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies is essential for our security. But when security becomes politicised, then trust has been eroded and a cynical public has no means of discerning genuine threats from political beat ups. When AFP Commissioner Keelty was required to issue a retraction about how the invasion of Iraq had increased our vulnerability to terrorist attack, it had all the credibility of the 1950s Hungarian show trials. It damaged Keelty’s credibility, and therefore the credibility of the AFP.

Perhaps the worst long-term threat, however, results from politicians and journalists who cultivate fear. We are bombarded with fear-laden newspaper headlines, with highly visible security guards in public places, with helicopters hovering over public events, with restricted access to what were once public places, and with the message that our liberties must be curtailed in this ‘long war on terror.’ Isn’t this just what the terrorists want a fear-obsessed population, huddled in private places, and the destruction of our democratic traditions?

What has happened to our spirit of defiance?

We have richly rewarded the terrorists by doing their work for them. And behaviour that gets rewarded will be repeated.

New Matilda

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.