How much has our role in the global war on terror cost us? In a recent paper, two academics, John Mueller of Ohio State University and Mark Stewart of the University of Newcastle (the Australian one), looked at national security-related spending by the US Department of Homeland Security, its risk assessment process or lack thereof, and the extent to which the already extraordinarily low probability of terrorist attacks had been reduced. The paper is compulsory reading for anyone who thinks national security-related spending is an automatic good, and that we are significantly safer for it. As reports today about the call for a new round of airport security measures demonstrate, such thinking has deep roots in Canberra. Politicians might take heed, for example, of research cited by Mueller and Stewart that shows that more Americans are dying because they’ve substituted road travel for the growing delays and inconvenience of short haul flights than have been killed by Islamic terrorists. In a recent speech, Attorney-General Robert McClelland wanted to play up the government’s commitment to national security spending. “Since 2001, expenditure on national security (including defence) has increased from approximately $18 billion to over $33 billion in 2011-12,” said McClelland. National security spending in his own portfolio is $2.9 billion a year, he said. That doesn’t help us a great deal in working out how much we’re additionally spending on national security in response to the specific, alleged threat of Islamic terrorism. For one thing, a big chunk of the increase McClelland boasts of is just indexation alone -- $18 billion in 2001 is now worth over $23 billion based on normal government indexation – and the Defence budget has been growing well ahead of inflation for much of that time. Plus, we don’t know how much that relates to the war on terror. To get that figure, we have to go through budget papers since 2001 and identify every expenditure made in relation to increased national security, removing those plainly not related to terrorism, like measures related to stopping asylum seeker vessels, or measures aimed at organised crime. We confined the search to the Defence, Attorney-General’s, Foreign Affairs, Transport and Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolios, so the estimate is necessarily conservative. The result: budget papers show that the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments have spent just over $15 billion on the war on terror since 2001. Indexed into 2010-11 dollars, that’s $16.7 billion. There’s a lot that doesn’t cover -- internal reallocation of resources from other programs, for example, or the public service’s own internal security measures -- every non-public access public service building in the country now has security guards, electronic pass readers and physical barriers, at a collective and ongoing cost of probably hundreds of millions of dollars. It cost $2 million just to put retractable bollards into the roadways at Parliament House.

Defence is plainly the biggest component of the spend. The budget papers in recent years have detailed the cost of operations of our vassal state participation in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The venture into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and install a US-backed government at the cost of a hundred thousand Iraqi lives cost Australian taxpayers $2.4 billion. The fiscal cost of the Afghanistan venture is $6.1 billion and counting, quite apart from the young Australian men who are being killed and injured there. The AFP and ASIO are next biggest recipients. The AFP has received $1.7 billion in additional funding since 2001 for national security-related purposes, and the spooks, who saw successive governments throw more money at them every year, as well as a monumental blot-on-the-landscape new headquarters, received over $1 billion. But another surprising beneficiary was Foreign Affairs. While ASIS, which operates within the portfolio, received an extra $365 million for the war on terror, the Department itself received over $900 million in additional funding, including hundreds of millions of dollars to improve physical security at embassies and high commissions around the world and fly the flag as occupying power at embassies in Baghdad and Kabul. But what’s more interesting is the timing of the expenditure. As McClelland alluded to in his speech, our spending on the war on terror is not slowing down. This is an annual profile of spending: