Terrorism in Australia: A Legitimate Threat?

Following the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the subject of national security and counter-terrorism has become increasingly prevalent in western society. In Australia this prevalence has seen significant changes made to the way foreign policy is considered and written, beginning with the first Terrorism White Paper of 2004 (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004a) . Over the years that have followed new government entities and international agencies have emerged to combat the threat of terrorism and subsequent strategic documents have been developed, most notably in this instance the Counter-Terrorism White Paper of 2010 (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010).

The aim of this essay is to explore and discuss how the threat of terrorism has been portrayed in this Counter-Terrorism White Paper with specific regard to commentary by Chris Michaelsen (2010) who has suggested that in this document the terror threat has been inflated. This will be effectively achieved by; analysing the 2010 Counter-Terrorism White Paper and the effect it has had on Australian foreign policy, exploring the commentary of Michaelsen and the suggestion of a potentially inflated terrorist threat being published and concluding with a brief discussion of the consequences of the securitisation of terrorism with a specific focus on both of these articles. As the Counter-Terrorism White Paper 2010 forms the foundation of this essays analysis from here on terrorism shall be defined as it appears in this document, specifically as; “the use of violence by groups or individuals pursuing political objectives, indiscriminate in attacks and often deliberately targeting civilians and non-combatants seeking to inflict mass casualties” (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010, p. 3). Further to the 2010 Counter-Terrorism White Paper and Michaelsen’s commentary this essay will be supported by key readings from Stevens, Agho, Taylor, Jones, Jacobs, Barr & Raphael (2011), Wolfendale (2007) and Koo (2005) as well as secondary sources which will be cited appropriately throughout.

The Counter-Terrorism White Paper (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010), commissioned by the Rudd Labour government, was designed to build a framework by which the Australian government could increase its preparedness for dealing with and preventing any form of terrorist attack on home soil. The paper frames terrorism as an imminent threat to the Australian populace which must be dealt with by any means necessary and suggests relevant changes to foreign policy as a result. So blunt is this message the paper itself begins with a Prime Minister’s Forward, signed by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which states simply, “terrorism continues to pose a serious security challenge to Australia” (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010, p. i) The continuation that this article refers to stems from the initial White Paper of 2004 Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia published by the Howard Liberal Coalition (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004a, para. 2). Subsequently much of the content of the 2010 White Paper attempts to build on the previous ideas of its 2004 counterpart in a more contemporary setting (Michaelsen 2010, p. 19). While similar in parts the 2010 White Paper focuses predominantly on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of terrorism in Australia, rather than addressing the ‘why’ as was covered in the 2004 document (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004b, para. 8-13).

The most logical way to accept this shift in focus is to think of the 2010 document as an extension of its predecessor, and of the shared stance of the Australian government towards terrorism regardless of party leadership, rather than a completely separate document. Whereas Kevin Rudd’s foreward tells of the immediate threat of terrorism to the average Australian, at the launch of the 2004 effort then Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer addressed the National Press Club and spoke at length about individual threats from Al Qaeda and the Middle East (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004b, para. 18). In his speech Mr. Downer discussed the evolution of modern terrorism and attempted to demonstrate that it was not what Australia had done that made it a target but rather what Australia stood for (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004b, para. 9). While the underlying message of both Downer and Rudd was the same in their addresses, highlighting the need for Australia to enhance and strengthen its approach to national security, foreign policy and counter-terrorism, the way in which terrorism was portrayed differed greatly between the two. Given the length of time between these two particular White Papers it must be considered that terrorism itself had changed, both in its severity and forms, with new technologies and terrorist organisations creating different means and methods to attack (Kruglanski & Fishman 2009; Zammit 2015, p. 2). Considering this it is fair to conclude that while the approaches and methods of communication between the two White Papers portrayed terrorism in different ways terrorism itself was different at both times and, regardless of the definition, both parties acted on their responsibility to ensuring the safety and protection of the Australian public.

Based on the development of a national narrative around the subject of terrorism, and the integration of Counter-Terrorism into governmental procedure, the securitisation of the issue by the Rudd Government allowed the common persons perception of terrorism to change. While previously depicted as a random act of violence by an external force traveling to Australia with the specific intention of attacking the nation (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010; Wolfendale 2007, p. 76) the Counter-Terrorism White Paper 2010 moved away from this traditional notion of terrorism with the introduction of threats more closer to home. Homegrown terrorism as it is known, defined as those who are born, raised and educated within the countries they attack (Wilner & Dubouloz 2010, p. 33), was given little attention in Australia prior to this White Papers release, despite arrests and foiled terror attacks planned from within the country’s borders dating back to 2001 (Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet 2010, p. ii). Going by the definition of Wilner & Dubouloz the proximity of potential terrorists to their targets should make this the most legitimate and credible threat to Australia.

Despite this, however, there has still been few genuine terrorist attacks to justify the way the homegrown terror threat has been portrayed in the Counter-Terrorism White Paper. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect then for policy makers when considering the approach to take towards terrorism as it exists in a constant state of unpredictability. Had the Australian government chosen to take a more casual approach to the Counter-Terrorism White Paper, and the subsequent policy reformations it sparked, it may have had the potential to encourage terrorists to target Australia and caused widespread fear amongst the public as legitimate security concerns were ignored. Conversely, a casual approach could have also strengthened the public resolve, encouraging members of the public and the wider political sphere to see Australia as a nation which shows no fear in the face of the terror threat (Schmid 2017; Stevens et al. 2011). This example of the subjectivity of the terrorist threat demonstrates the fine line faced by foreign policy makers and the vast array of consequences that they must consider before any action is taken. In the case of the Counter-Terrorism White Paper it is fair to assume that the portrayal of terrorism was carefully developed by the Rudd government to ensure a clear and simple message of safety and solidarity was sent to both its citizens and any would be terrorists that the issue of terrorism in Australia would be treated with the utmost seriousness.

The portrayal of terrorism in the Counter-Terrorism White Paper of 2010 was critiqued heavily by Chris Michaelsen in his 2010 article Terrorism in Australia: An Inflated Threat which critically assessed the Rudd governments document, suggesting through both anecdotal and statistical analysis that the actual threat of terrorism in Australia is almost non-existent. In his paper Michaelsen calculates the chance of an Australian being killed in a terrorist attack on home soil to be 1 in 33,300,000 (Michaelsen 2010, p. 24) some 2,200 times less likely than that same individual being killed in a car accident (Michaelsen 2010, p.24). Michaelsen supports the need for this analysis by questioning government spending, using the aforementioned car accident anecdote as a probe into why money that is spent on counter-terrorism could not be put towards something more prevalent, such as the repair and maintenance of Australian roads. Despite his perceived aversion to the portrayal of the terrorist threat in Australia Michaelsen’s main argument seems to be more focused against what he suggests is frivolous government spending without regard to potentially more pressing issues (Michaelsen 2010, p. 24).

The detailed breakdowns he provides into the investments made by the Australian government on matters of Counter-Terrorism and policy implementation following the recommendations of the Counter-Terrorism White Paper demonstrate a desire for governmental accountability as opposed to a legitimate opposition to the government treating the issue of terrorism as a serious one. Given the complexity of terrorism, and the subjectivity with which it can be viewed by the public, Michaelsen’s beliefs can also be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Idealistically his assertions that the terrorist threat is inflated are correct, given the detail and evidence he provides, however in reality as terrorism by definition is random, unpredictable and indiscriminate in nature its true threat can never truly be measured and, for this reason, can never truly be ignored as its potential to occur continues in perpetuity.

Michaelsen is not the first, and most certainly will not be the last, political commentator to suggest that the threat of terrorism is inflated. Many scholars have explored the securitisation of terrorism as a means to push for policy reform, most notably Wolfendale who made similar assertions to Michaelsen with reference to policy changes and what she calls the counterterrorism rhetoric (2007, p. 76). In Australia, specifically since September 11, 2001, there has been significant foreign policy reforms by both Liberal and Labour government based heavily in counter-terrorism and the interest of national security. The lack of actual terrorist attacks has not stopped the Australian government from investing $16 billion dollars into ASIO, and other government task forces dedicated to combating terrorism (Michaelsen 2010, p. 24; Williams 2017), nor has it change the message to the general public that terrorism in Australia is inevitable. This inevitability has seen the National Terrorism Threat Alert level remain constantly at “probable” for the last 4 years (Australian National Security 2018, para. 7). This threat can be seen as far back as the initial Terrorism White Paper of 2004 which, following the foreign policy reforms after the Tampa incident and refugee crisis of the early 2000’s (McKay, Hall & Lippi 2017), outlined Al Qaeda and Middle Eastern terrorist cells as posing the most significant danger to Australia and one which needed to be addressed (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade 2004b, para. 18).

Six years on the Counter-Terrorism White Paper of 2010 was then used as a platform for the Rudd Labour government to enact further policy around security, taking the total number of new federal statutes implemented since 2001 past 50 (Williams 2011, para. 1), implementing restrictions around visas and travel and strengthening the nations aviation security (Michaelsen 2010, p. 20-21; Wolfendale 2007, p. 79-80). Understanding these events are significant as despite the passage of time and the different areas of focus there has still yet to be a major terrorist attack occur in Australia. When considering Michaelsen’s claims of inflation in this sense then it seems unlikely that they can be refuted as both Liberal and Labour governments were able to publish similar manifestos, utilising similar political tactics, to ensure policy reform was made on issues of national security and counter-terrorism over a six year period without any acts of terrorism occurring. This does not mean that there exists no legitimate threat from terrorism, with the need for proactivity essential not only to the nation but also to Michaelsen whose questions of inflated threat levels would potentially become instantly redundant if a terrorist attack were to occur. This shows not only the subjectivity of terrorism and its links to national governance but also of the commentary that inevitably follows it.

Based on the analysis presented on both the Counter-Terrorism White Paper 2010 and Michaelsen’s subsequent commentary it is fair to determine that the securitisation of terrorism has become a significant factor in the development and execution of foreign policy in Australian politics. Without discounting the very real and legitimate threat of terrorism that exists to the Australian people, either as a result of Australia’s involvement in international conflicts or due simply to a difference in national values and cultural identity, it can be seen in the evidence presented that the chances of terrorism are significantly lower than they are often portrayed (Koo 2005, para. 13; Michaelsen 2010, p. 23; Michaelsen 2012, p. ; Wolfendale 2007, p. 77). This use of securitisation reinforces the ideas presented by the Copenhagen School who assert that its use in policy making is an effective means for governments to gain larger support on topical issues that may not otherwise be afforded the same attention (Balzacq 2007; Koo 2005, para. 13). In this case the use of securitisation to inflate the threat of terrorism by the Rudd government in their Counter-Terrorism White Paper was an effective means to justify the increased spending and policy reform that followed. This consequence would have been considered when the strategic process was being planned and executed, however, what may not have been anticipated was the eventual actions of political commentators.

By way of questioning the government’s spending, policy reformation and even the securitisation of the issue and portrayal of terrorism Michaelsen was able to publicly protest the legitimacy of the government’s plan and call into question its validity. Ultimately it is the responsibility of any Australian government to maintain a commitment to ensuring the safety and prosperity of the Australian people. If the securitisation of a perceived threat, in this instance terrorism, is deemed to be necessary by the government to preserve the national interest then any consequences resulting from this should have been considered at length when planning. The question then becomes not a one of whether the terrorism threat has been intentionally inflated, but rather, is it ethical for the government to present a threat to the public that they may understand to be less than demonstrated. Had this argument been presented by Michaelsen, as opposed to the argument pertaining to statistics and government spending, the analysis of his opinion of the terror threat may have found a different outcome. However, all things considered, this was not the case and as a result his assertions of an inflated threat can be seen for the most part to be true. Though, once again, it must be stressed that this is not in any way a dismissal of the existence of a terrorist threat.

Life in a Post-September 11 society has seen a rise in the prevalence of the threat of terrorism and the counter-terrorism measures employed by governments to deal with this. The subjective nature of the application of a definition of terrorism means that individuals will never be able to agree entirely what does and does not constitute a significant threat, however, all will be able to agree that the threat exists. Through analysis of the Counter-Terrorism White Paper with specific regard to the commentary by Michaelsen this essay demonstrates this and identifies how any inflation to the terror threat by a government will have been done so with consequences in mind the authorising government feels is in the nation’s best interests. The most important factor when considering the threat of terrorism is not how great the threat is, or how it is perceived to be, but instead ensuring that policy makers are constantly vigilant and plan and prepare to deal with the worst possible scenario, while maintaining hope for the best.



 Australian National Security 2018, ‘National Terrorism Threat Advisory System’, nationalsecurity.gov.au, viewed 3 June 2018, <https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/securityandyourcommunity/pages/national-terrorism-threat-advisory-system.aspx&gt;

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