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Grattan on Friday: Terrorism’s footprint on our politics

Malcolm Turnbull has changed his tone on terrorism to meet the pressures of an anxious Australia. Mick Tsikas/AAP

We are constantly told that the terrorists can’t be allowed to win, or change our way of life. So – as Friday’s Council of Australian Governments meeting discusses who should sign off on parole for people who’ve had any link with terrorism – how is the battle going on the home front?

Radical Islamists will never overthrow Western democracies. What we’re talking about is the effect the terrorist threat has on our wellbeing as a multicultural society, and on our politics. And here we see increasingly concerning signs.

Almost certainly the events in Britain and this week’s attack in Melbourne, with wall-to-wall media coverage, have made Australians more anxious.

Analyses showing the very small probability of being caught up in an attack don’t necessarily reassure, because attacks change the ambience of the community.

That altered atmosphere makes for less tolerance toward Muslims, however often it is pointed out that most Muslims here are moderate and law-abiding.

Calls are repeatedly ramped up for the Muslim community to own the problem, to take responsibility for it.

Liberal MP Craig Laundy, from Western Sydney, brought some perspective when he said on Thursday: “There’s a perception that the [Muslim] community don’t know that they’ve got a problem and that they aren’t doing something about it. They are absolutely aware that they have a problem and they are contacting their state and federal MPs as well as their local area commands urging us to help.”

But whatever they do will be seen by their critics to fall short.

Terrorism reshapes our political debate. This is not new – think of the aftermath of the September 11 and the Bali attacks – but we are in a new phase.

On the whole, the security issue – thankfully – is marked by a commendable bipartisanship between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. The pressure point is between the right and the centre of politics, defining Turnbull and Shorten as both centrist. Turnbull feels the heat in his own ranks and from the vocal commentariat.

Critics on the right are constantly on nomenclature watch. There’s carping about whether Turnbull, Shorten and others use the term “Islamist terrorism” enough, as distinct from “extremism” and the like.

There is escalating questioning of the adequacy of powers to deal with not just known terrorists but those who might turn to terrorist acts.

Security laws have been progressively and substantially extended, and Turnbull has said the authorities believe they have what they need. But critics are unsatisfied.

Pauline Hanson is advocating internment. “Those on watch lists who are not Australian citizens need to be deported and those who are, interned to neutralise their possible harm to this country,” she wrote in an open letter to Turnbull this week.

Hanson’s is a minority voice; there has been widespread denunciation of her proposal, although shockjock Alan Jones is on side. But it is now in the debate.

Australia’s security forces are said to be among the best in the world, a point often made by Turnbull. Of course every incident must lead to fresh scrutiny of their performance, and action from learned lessons. The New South Wales government this week announced police’s shoot-to-kill powers in terrorism situations will be clarified, as part of the implementation of the coroner’s report on the Lindt siege.

But following the Lindt inquest and some delay (for explained reasons) by Victorian police in boarding a plane to deal with a threatening but not a terrorist incident, we saw an over-reaction – a backlash against police and calls for the military to handle incidents.

Expectations about prevention have become unrealistic. It is simply not possible for the security authorities to watch everyone who might conceivably commit a terrorist act, whether they be true believers in a perverted Islamist ideology, or dysfunctional individuals who have hooked into Islamism.

Obviously there must be maximum effort at prevention, through ASIO and police intelligence efforts, the courts, border protection, community engagement, and deradicalisation programs. ASIO and its law-enforcement partners have a strong record of heading off a raft of potential attacks – but 100% success can’t be anticipated.

We’ve been reminded this week how Turnbull has toughened his tone and his stance on terrorism.

Before he became prime minister, his message (to contrast himself with Tony Abbott) was: keep the threat in proportion. Now he talks in the strongest terms. He might say he is still about proportion but is dealing with a heightened threat environment. He’s also attuned to what a jumpy community wants to hear.

He went well beyond just tough language as he homed in on why the perpetrator of the Melbourne attack, Somali-born Yacqub Khayre, was on parole, launching a blame offensive against Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

In a Wednesday interview, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell pointed out to Turnbull that the Victorian parole system had recently been extensively reformed (after the Jill Meagher murder) and appeared to be working well.

Turnbull would have none of that. “It’s all very well to say that the parole system is this, the parole system is that,” he said. “Here’s the question: how did this bloke, this criminal, this violent man with a long history of violence and criminality and a long history of involvement with violent extremism and terrorism, how did he get parole?”

His question was “a question that every Australian was asking. I asked the question of the premier”.

The parole board certainly knew of Khayre’s terrorism-related background. He’d been acquitted in relation to the foiled plot for an attack on Holsworthy army base. It had no fresh information from security authorities except a recent letter requesting his phone number so some property could be returned to him. Attorney-General George Brandis has confirmed Khayre was not currently on the list of about 400 people being watched by ASIO.

Turnbull wants parole decisions involving people with terrorism antecedents to rest at the political level, with state attorneys-general, rather than with boards. This is what happens federally.

The change would not necessarily lead to more expert decisions but it would certainly guarantee more cautious ones.

Andrews hit back by proposing greater federal action, even suggesting ASIO should make the decisions on parole. He has also asked for counter terrorist federal police groups to be stationed at major airports round the clock.

Politicians know the risk of being landed with blame for inadequate responses on terrorism. This leads them either to try to grab more power, or to duck shove responsibility.

With every incident, at home or abroad, the pressure is becoming greater for the creation of a homeland security department, which would incorporate immigration and border security and have the Australian Federal Police and ASIO come under its umbrella.

The super portfolio is the dream of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his departmental head Mike Pezzullo. Those arguing – with a good case to make – that it would be disadvantageous for civil liberties and agencies’ independence to bring ASIO and the AFP under such a structure will find it increasingly hard to carry sway as the terrorism fears grow.

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