Don’t overestimate Islamic State threat: Turnbull

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said counter-terrorism measures should be right and effective, not just tough. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Malcolm Turnbull has warned against overestimating the Islamic State (IS) threat and amplifying its significance, in a speech contrasting sharply with Tony Abbott’s declarations.

Turnbull also said it was important that counter-terrorism measures should be the right and effective ones rather than simply being “tough”.

Tough policies could be popular and even justified when they were conceived, but could still be a mistake. “With the benefit of hindsight, few today contend that the 2003 invasion of Iraq, popular with the US public and the Congress at the time, was not a tragic error,” Turnbull said, speaking on “Magna Carta and the Rule of Law in the Digital Age” at the Sydney Institute.

Although Turnbull later sought to play down differences with what Abbott has said, the contrast was obvious. Abbott has portrayed IS in graphically threatening, personalised terms.

Abbott has said that “as far as the Da'esh death cult is concerned, they’re coming after us”. In June, he told a summit on violent extremism: “Da'esh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: ‘Submit or die’.”

Quizzed by the media later, Turnbull said Abbott was describing what IS said it was doing.

Turnbull said that IS “seeks to provoke the state to overreact because it creates a more receptive environment for the extremists’ recruiting efforts, based as so much of it is on perceptions of resentment, oppression and humiliation”.

Just as it was important “not to underestimate, or be complacent about, the national security threat from Da'esh, it is equally important not to overestimate that threat”, Turnbull said. Any threat loomed largest when it was close in time or space or both.

Turnbull recalled the threats to our democratic way of life in Robert Menzies’ day from communism and fascism.

“But Da'esh is not Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia. Its leaders dream that they, like the Arab armies of the seventh and eighth centuries, will sweep across the Middle East into Europe Itself.

"They predict that before long they will be stabling their horses in the Vatican. Well Idi Amin wasn’t the King of Scotland either.

"We should be careful not to say or do things which can be seen to add credibility to those delusions,” Turnbull said.

“We need to be very careful we don’t get sucked into their strategy and ourselves become amplifiers of their wickedness and significance.”

Turnbull said the balance between security and liberty would always be controversial and was not easy to get right. It was more likely to be struck correctly if there was a thoughtful and well-informed public debate.

“It is important to remember that people and societies with an equal determination to defeat terrorism can have different views on what is the right balance and, indeed, what the right measures are.

"Denouncing those who question the effectiveness of new national security measures as ‘friends of terrorists’ is as stupid as describing those who advocate them as ‘proto-fascists’.”

Turnbull pointed out that the debate was not an easy left-right divide – the Institute of Public Affairs, which describes itself as a think tank promoting free markets and individual liberty, had been a consistent and cogent critic of much security legislation, such as for the retention of metadata.

Saying that respect for the rule of law was at the heart of what it meant to be a conservative, Turnbull pointedly referred to the change made – after criticism from him and several other ministers – to the government’s planned move to strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals who engage in terrorist activities. The revised plan did away with the earlier intention for the immigration minister to be the decision-maker, replacing it with an automatic process.