Counter-terrorism policy in Australia remains primitive and flawed and the Australian CT environment is at a very dangerous cross-road — with domestic weakness in CT preparedness and experience, and a fast growing, well funded, and motivated external terrorist threat. And there are serious questions about whether — assuming the adversary has the means and the motive to attack Australia — the government’s post-September 11 efforts to come to grips with the radical change in our strategic environment will prove sufficient to deter and/or deny terrorists threats on Australian soil.
These are the charges in a certain-to-be explosive chapter by Stratwise CEO Dr Adam Cobb written for an upcoming book on global responses to the counter-terrorism challenge, expected to be published before the next Federal Election, which will also feature chapters by Bruce Hoffman, Rohnan Gunneratna and Martin Van Creveld. The book is based on the proceedings of a conference of international experts held by the Swiss Government in Zurich in March.
Cobb says current politicization of security carries an unacceptably high level of national strategic risk, at a time when the chances of a terrorist attack during the coming federal election are extremely high. “Politicization adds serious additional and unnecessary burdens on Australia’s already stretched CT arrangements, intelligence warning systems, and forces,” he says.
It is inevitable while Australia has a clear external security policy (ie. defence policy), it has no national security policy or conceptual framework linking internal and external security issues and objectives. The lack of a coordinated “whole of government” national security strategy combines with the fact that national security has been politicised in Australia to reduce Australia’s ability to effective fight terrorism. Yet both the capture of Willie Brigitte, and the Madrid bombings, suggest Australia is at risk like never before.
“There is no conceptual framework linking internal and external security issues and objectives, therefore there is no coordinated ‘whole of government’ national security strategy,” Cobb writes. “The absence of structure impacts on policy coherence and outcomes. Both the Secretary of the Department of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Force have admitted as much when addressing recent cognate policy fiascos,” Cobb writes.
Australia has a national security committee of the Cabinet but no national security policy. There is no single document, statement or information source that provides an account of, let alone a guide to, how the myriad agencies of state involved in security understand their role(s), the challenges before them, national and international liaison efforts, or an action plan to enhance security.
Cobb says this impacts on government and accountability structures, and in extremis could impact on Australia’s ability to effectively combat terrorism. And he charges that the Government’s refusal to establish a single federal Ministry responsible for CT or homeland security, because the Opposition thought of it first, is extremely damaging to Australia’s national interest.
Cobb says it is only a matter of time until a major terrorist attack occurs in one of our big cities, despite an atmosphere of apathy and unspoken denial that such an event could occur here. Yet he says such is the rudimentary state of national policy in this area that “government by press release” is an accurate description of Australian CT policy management.
Incredibly, current defence policy states that protection from conventional attack on the northern coastline remains Australia’s key strategic concern, notwithstanding the very same document’s assessment that the likelihood of conventional war is negligible. Cobb says neither September 11, the rise of Islamic terrorism in the region bordering Australia, nor the Bali bombing, have had any apparent effect on Australian strategy as outlined in the 2003 Defence White Paper Update.
Cobb alleges the recent charging of the National Security Division in the Department of PM&C with the task of providing a centralised “whole-of-government” approach to “counter-terrorism, defence, intelligence, security, law enforcement and border protection” — in other words homeland security — is a de facto admission of the need for a Department of Homeland Security.
But he charges the new Agreement with the States and Territories on Australia’s National CT Arrangements is flawed because it leaves a gap in the decision making process that could result in the politicisation of a crisis.
“The possibility of political infighting over responsibilities at a time of national crisis is embedded in the structure of the agreement,” he says. “The process for declaring a national terrorist situation is not even stipulated. Will the Cabinets of the effected state(s) and federal government have to meet before a decision can be taken? Or will it be a matter of a phone call between Premier and Prime Minister? What if they come from opposing political parties and the incident takes place in an election year? Both these conditions exist at the time of writing (March 2004).”