Coercive Solutions

Ross McKibbin · 'Securing Australia'

The Australian (Labor) government has just published a white paper (‘Securing Australia – Protecting Our Community') which assures its readers that the terrorist threat to Australia is stronger than ever. External threats remain, of course, but are now made much worse by the dangers of homegrown terrorism, a result of the spread of jihadist propaganda among Australia’s Muslim population. The government is proposing to increase significantly the powers of the federal police – including the right to search the property of suspected ‘terrorists’ without a warrant – and to introduce further (and severe) visa tests on people coming to Australia from 10 unnamed countries. Sound familiar? It should, because the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged that in preparing the legislation the Australians consulted the British government.

What lies behind all this? It can’t be that the threat of terrorism has ‘increased’. That there is a threat from terrorism is undeniable, but there is also little evidence to suggest that the threat is worse now than before, or that the very wide powers the police and the intelligence services already have are not sufficient to contain it. There are several other possible explanations. One is electoral. There must be a general election by the end of the year and much of the government’s programme (including climate change legislation) has got stuck. It also faces a new and aggressive opposition leader who is prepared to say or promise anything. There is, it is thought, nothing like a terrorist panic to keep the electorate in the fold and this must be in Rudd’s mind. If so, the intelligence services are probably telling the government what it wants to hear, which intelligence services are usually ready to do.

It is even possible that Rudd believes the white paper. He and his deputy, Julia Gillard, have form here. In the last days of the Howard government, blunderings by the Australian Federal Police, egged on by the immigration department, led to the effective expulsion from Australia of a blameless Indian doctor working in Queensland (the so-called ‘Haneef affair’). Rudd and Gillard initially looked the other way – it was ministers in state Labor governments who raised the awkward questions – and although Rudd’s government did appoint a judicial enquiry into the affair, the enquiry itself (unlike a royal commission) did not have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence. Everything suggests that Rudd ignores, either from conviction or opportunism, what should be the first rule of a social democratic government: treat anything coming from the intelligence services or the police with deep suspicion.

The proposed legislation is not only intrinsically bad, it could also be diplomatically disastrous. The government refuses to name the 10 countries on which it intends to impose these severe visa restrictions. Presumably Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan will be on the list. But Australian civilians have been killed by terrorists in only two countries: India and Indonesia. Yet, together with China, they probably matter more to Australia than any other countries in the world. Offending either is something Australia really does not want to do. Furthermore, at present Australia’s relations with both are very delicate. The Australian government now spends half its time trying to repair relations with India, much damaged by attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. To include Indonesia and India in the list would be hopelessly undiplomatic. To exclude them would make a joke of the list. (And that leaves aside the question of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Both presumably should be on such a list. Both would be deeply offended if they were.)

As always in English-speaking countries, the ‘solution’ to terrorism is coercive: yet more police powers; yet more restrictions on travel; yet more deportations. Coercion is presumably not always futile, and within a certain sphere legitimate. We must assume that sometimes it works. As a ‘solution’, however, it must be secondary. The fundamental problem, which Australia, like Britain and the United States, refuses to recognise, is political. It lies in Western policy towards the Middle East, and Israel and Palestine in particular, since the Second World War. Until that is admitted, coercive solutions, though not completely useless, will never be real solutions. Unfortunately there is no evidence that anyone is going to admit it. Certainly not Rudd.