Team Australia: how real is the threat of terror?

Originally published 10 October 2014 by Spook Magazine.

The introduction of new anti-terror laws is nothing short of an attack on civil freedoms. Last month, the largest anti-terror raids in history took place in Australia after authorities uncovered a plot by Islamic State (IS) supporters to behead an Australian. This was followed by the shooting of an 18-year-old alleged terror suspect by police in Melbourne’s Southeast.

The government has framed its response to these events in terms of national security, and has fast-tracked new anti-terror laws through parliament while demonizing Australia’s Muslim population. But just how real is the threat of terror in Australia? Could it be that this invocation is merely politics at play?

When the terror threat was raised to “high” in early September, Prime Minister Tony Abbott had “no specific intelligence” to substantiate a potential terrorist plot in Australia. “What we do have”, he claimed, “is intelligence that there are people with the intent and the capability to mount attacks.” Days later, the largest terror raids Australia has ever witnessed took place in NSW and Qld, involving more than 800 police officers, and ending with 15 civilians arrested. The raids allegedly thwarted a plot by Australia’s most senior IS member to behead a civilian. While the raids were successful in preventing a potential murder, a healthy skepticism surrounding the ensuing political response in the wake of these events is necessary.

Just days before the raids occurred, Abbott described IS as a “death cult”, while he committed Australian forces to fight the militant group in Iraq. The group (which is so extreme that even Al-Qaeda wants nothing to do with them) envisions an Islamic caliphate across Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that IS directly threatens Australia’s national security. Prior to the anti-terror raids, two men were charged with terrorism-related offences for allegedly recruiting Australians to fight in Syria. Of the arrests made during the raids, one person has been charged with a terrorist offence. Since then, another Melbourne man has been charged with providing funds to IS.

Contrary to the anti-Muslim hysteria being spouted by mainstream media, the possibility of a terrorist attack on home soil remains highly unlikely. Overstating this potential threat, however, is not just politically expedient for the government, but is entirely necessary. Homegrown terror, whether real or imagined, is as an existential threat to national security. In the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the mere presence of such a threat is being used by the government to justify Australia’s involvement in yet another militarily intervention in Iraq.

Why we are returning to the Middle East in a military capacity is not sufficiently explained. It may be out of a sense of obligation to the Iraqi people – the sectarian divides which plague the embattled state are a product of the West’s 2003 invasion. Or perhaps it has more to do with Abbott’s sycophantic support for the United States that has motivated the government to volunteer the services of Australia’s defense forces.

In the absence of a comprehensive foreign policy justifying military invasion in Iraq, the government has ramped up its domestic anti-terror propaganda, which has begun to gain traction, with the help of News Corp Australia owned media outlets. With a penchant for meaningless slogans, Abbott has warned Australians to “be aware, but reassured”, harking back to John Howard’s mantra, “Be alert, not alarmed”, from the early 2000s. That Abbott is paying homage to the Coalition’s golden age should come as no surprise. In 2001, the outlook was grim for Howard and the Coalition; their popularity was waning and personal satisfaction with Howard was at an all time low, which was reflected by his dismal performance in polls conducted at the time.

Then, something miraculous happened: first the Tampa affair and not long after, 9/11 – both of which produced an inordinate spike in Howard’s popularity. Posited as a threat to Australia’s national security by the government, Al-Qaeda and the imminent threat of terror in the West reinvigorated Howard’s political longevity. Before 9/11, it was expected that Howard would lose the next election; it was as if almost overnight, his fortunes were reversed. And so it was that under Howard’s leadership, Australia joined the Coalition of the Willing in the War on Terror. With that, the government and media alike set about conducting a protracted smear campaign against the nation’s Muslim population, couched in terms of national security.

Reminiscent of the events which transpired over a decade ago, prior to the anti-terror raids in August this year, Tony Abbott declared that Australia had a “serious problem of radicalised people going to the Middle East to fight with terrorist groups,” warning that we must be “vigilant against it” to ensure that everyone is “on Team Australia.” In another act of deliberate antagonism, he went on this month to describe Muslim women who wear the Burqa as “confronting”.

Interestingly, since the anti-terror raids took place, Abbott’s approval ratings have jumped. This is a spectacular turnaround from the government’s disastrous performance in the polls after the release of the budget in July. Stirring up fear throughout the population while demonizing Australia’s Muslim community is a strategy that clearly mimics that employed by Howard after 9/11. It’s a cheap shot that plays to the lowest common denominator, invoking xenophobia and racism to identify the common enemy of “Team Australia.”

Former Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner Mick Keelty said in 2003 that Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War decreased the safety of citizens in the west; the war itself resulted in the radicalization of Muslims in these countries. Robert Manne similarly noted that “the only real security threat we faced – from an Islamist terrorist group was obviously increased rather than diminished by our participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.” By whipping up culturally ignorant propaganda which alienates Australian Muslims, Abbott, like Howard before him, is playing into the hands of those susceptible to Islamic extremism; the government’s manufactured terrorism threat may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having established grounds for militarized action against IS in Iraq, including authorizing Australian air strikes, under the pretence of national security, the government is now using the threat of terrorism to implement legislation that restricts public freedom and silences dissent. In 2005, Howard introduced the Anti-Terrorism Act, which according to Philip Ruddock, Attorney General at the time, was designed to prevent “any conduct or advocacy that is likely to encourage somebody to carry out a terrorist act.”

Supported by Labor and Palmer United Party in the senate, the government has rushed new national security legislation through parliament. This sweeping range of draconian legislative measures widely expands the powers of intelligence gathering agencies, including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the AFP, and establishes new offences for disclosing information regarding “special intelligence operations.” Included in these new powers is the ability for ASIO to effectively gain overarching warrants to monitor the internet. Journalists and whistleblowers who report on “special intelligence operations” could similarly be monitored, and face ten-year jail sentences for divulging information relating to national security, despite the fact that reporting on these incidents may very well be in the public interest.

These legislative developments hold serious implications for not only the practice of journalism, but by default, for the functioning of our democracy. Jon Lawrence, Executive Officer of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes digital freedom, access, and privacy, says these measures are the result of poorly drafted legislation that is vague and unspecified in nature. The laws grant ASIO the ability to monitor “computer networks”, which is problematic to general civilian privacy, given that thousands of computers can be attached to any given network.

More crucially, the laws genuinely undermine democracy as journalists and whistleblowers are now restricted in what they can report. Lawrence envisions that this will bring about a chilling effect. He says: “Journalists won’t report on ASIO issues on the off-chance that what they might talk about has been ear marked as a ‘special intelligence operation’.” With the threat of ten years in prison looming large, intelligence agencies, along with the government, can no longer be adequately held to account by civil society.

Equally dubious is the legislation that is expected to be introduced into parliament in coming weeks that relates to indiscriminate, mandatory data retention regimes. It is expected that telecommunications companies will be required to retain data including phone records, emails, and internet browsing history for up to two years. This time period, Lawrence believes, is a “completely arbitrary term and there is no documentation as to why [intelligence agencies] need this information for so long and no attempt to justify why they need it.”

In this light, the introduction of new anti-terror laws is nothing short of an attack on civil freedoms. At present, authorities can already access the type of metadata that telecommunications companies will be required to retain. The very nature of these laws stand in stark contradiction to Abbott’s own supposed personal commitment to freedom. Before a crowd of Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) supporters in 2012, he declared:

“We stand for the freedoms which Australians have a right to expect and which governments have a duty to uphold. We stand for freedom and will be freedom’s bulwark against the encroachments of an unworthy and dishonourable government.”

Gone is this pledge to uphold such freedoms. Under the new laws, the very ability to question the government over matters relating to national security has vanished. Journalism can no longer be the fourth estate and effectively report on events that are in the public interest, while acting as a watchdog over government. The potential now exists for the government to wield excessive power, with the capacity for cover-ups to go unreported, which significantly impacts the functioning of democracy as we know it.

If alarm bells are not yet sounding, they should be. The government has commenced the erosion of an essential cornerstone of democratic society; this move is clearly part of a broader agenda that is inextricably tied to the “Team Australia” propaganda that is consuming the nation.

By vilifying Australia’s Muslim population and playing the national security card, the Prime Minister has not only bolstered the government’s popularity but is using the threat of terror to establish draconian new anti-terror laws that silence dissenting voices. All of which is grounds for Australia’s involvement in yet another war in Iraq. It seems that our not-too-distant history is doomed to repeat itself.

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