Trial In Error


The ABC Chaser comedy team will face court in Sydney in July over their testing of APEC security in September 2007. It was a performance that attracted worldwide attention.

Yet, there has been no Federal Government inquiry into the security breakdown in Sydney that allowed the Chaser convoy to pass through two checkpoints, only to be discovered when Chas Licciardello stepped out of one of the three vehicles dressed as Osama bin Laden – only metres from President Bush’s hotel. Australia was preparing to host more than 20 international leaders at the time, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Some, including Bush, had already arrived.

Security for the conference cost well over $100 million but Australian taxpayers have received no explanation as to what went wrong, who was responsible and what the authorities are doing to ensure such a breach never recurs. With all these priorities, and with the Chaser case subjected to four court adjournments over the past six months, it was reasonably assumed that charges would be dropped. But no.

And the public is expected to maintain trust in the agencies.

The problem is, faith is quickly displaced by farce.

Not surprisingly, the Chaser team had very realistic and limited expectations last year of how far it would get. It was stunned when it was waved through the first checkpoint and flabbergasted when waved through the second.

What could possibly have gone wrong? Was it really a breakdown on the part of the police, or have the police been obliged to take the rap for someone else?

Here’s what was reported in the media at the time and hence was in the public consciousness.

The Seven Network reported on September 13 – and the print media soon after – that the team was able to penetrate the red zone because security had been relaxed. This occurred, it was said, after then Prime Minister John Howard had a problem the day before with a locked gate. He had to wait while a duplicate key was found.

Later, the head of the APEC taskforce was stopped and searched when his accreditation was queried. Alan Henderson, the bureaucrat involved, was appointed to the job by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. A furious Henderson was reported to have lodged a complaint and demanded that the police ease off onministerial cars.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph explained on September 14 the implications of this:

"Officers were then ordered not to stop motorcades while they were in motion, which allowed the Chaser crew – complete with Osama bin Laden lookalike – to pass unchecked, police sources confirmed last night. This was despite the fact that no official motorcades were scheduled to pass through the checkpoint that day, with most international delegates still to arrive in Sydney when the ABC crew pulled its stunt."

No one disagreed at the time that the Prime Minister and his task force chief had a right to complain about tough security measures. But the point is, they are not experts in the field. That’s why we need to know how strongly they were able to influence the decision to lower security standards.

Security planning starts from the worst possible scenario – not from the benign end of the spectrum. You either do it properly or you don’t, just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant.

If someone stuffed up those well-laid plans, we need to know who it was and how it was allowed to happen. The police had a lot to worry about at the time in addition to an understandably suspicious community ever ready to claim that security measures were "over the top".

Again, looking at what was in the public domain at the time, John Lyons had reported in The Australian on September 4, the day that George Bush flew into Sydney, that nine rocket launchers stolen from the Australian Army still hadn’t been found.

"The most worrying aspect of the weapons," he explained, "is that they are concealable … [They are] designed to carry warheads that can cut through metal with a small hole, then explode. The warheads are designed for a ‘blast effect’. They are often used in warfare to attack bunkers, as they cause maximum damage."

So, there were actually more serious threats, about which the Australian public has yet heard nothing.

If there had been any sort of explosion in the restricted area during APEC most, if not all, of the visiting leaders would have fled the country immediately because their safety could not have been guaranteed.

Of course, security planners aren’t infallible and questions remain, like how the Chaser team managed to drive in convoy from the ABC some kilometres across the city before forming up at the southern end of Macquarie Street, close to the first checkpoint. It was there that their motorcycle escort took the lead and the runners, imitating a US Secret Service detail, jumped out and took up position. The motorcade should have been picked up earlier by CCTV camera surveillance before reaching that point.

A fine thing it is that the new Government interests itself in social issues like binge drinking, but its prime responsibility is to ensure that the machinery of government is in good working order. Otherwise, the governance of the nation can’t be handled effectively, let alone the business of guaranteeing the nation’s security.

This won’t be achieved by allowing incidents like the APEC security breakdown to sink comfortably into history, nor should the public or the media condone that happening.

Glib political statements, conflicting signals and agency chiefs off the leash do nothing to inspire public trust. It’s about time Canberra, including the Opposition, got its act together and displayed a stronger sense of purpose and cohesion. If it doesn’t, and there is a terrorist attack on our soil, an irate Australian public won’t be placated by empty rhetoric. Put plainly: you wouldn’t want to be a politician or bureaucrat abroad on our streets.

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.