However facile and meaningless Australia’s terror threat level system is, the Prime Minister is correct to raise the level to high — a move he has announced this afternoon. The increase in the level — based on the claim that a terrorist attack is “likely”, although there was “no specific intelligence of particular plots” — will be accompanied by a “modest information campaign”, the Prime Minister revealed, in an announcement that presumably entirely by coincidence was simultaneous with another NSW Liberal MP being exposed at the Independent Commission Against Corruption and Senator Arthur Sinodinos returning to ICAC for more questioning.
Australians are less safe now than a few weeks ago — and less safe because of decisions taken, primarily for political ends, by the Abbott government: namely, to intervene in a conflict in Iraq and Syria that has nothing to do with Australia’s national interest.
We know this will make Australians less safe because our security and intelligence officials told us how the 2003 Iraq war made Western citizens less safe. Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty said it at the time and was abused by the Howard government for his trouble. Senior intelligence officials in the United Kingdom and the United States have confirmed it since: the Iraq War radicalised hundreds of Western Muslims who saw only unprompted aggression directed toward a Muslim country (the former head of MI5 has explained this best, for the Chilcot Inquiry in the UK).
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Islamist terrorism is portrayed in the media as a force of irrational evil – far more so than white male terrorists ever are. But terrorism is a response by extremist individuals to external events, not a random occurrence of a disturbed or depraved mind. Osama Bin Laden understood this, knowing that if he could provoke the United States into attacking a Muslim country, it would deliver a generation of angry young men to his cause. For Bin Laden, it took the intricately-planned, epic-scale attack of 9/11 to achieve that. Islamic State militants, however, have achieved it with far less: some slaughters of prisoners and brutal murders of two Western hostages. As if compelled by an other-worldly force, once again Western countries are dropping everything to do exactly what Islamic extremists want — intervene in a Muslim country.
In choosing to be part of this process — which includes, along the way, providing arms to a proscribed terrorist organisation, PKK, which happens to be fighting on “our” side — Tony Abbott has therefore taken a decision that will demonstrably make Australians less safe. Moreover, he has done so primarily for political purposes. Having discovered a competence in international affairs of the kind that eluded Julia Gillard until much later in her prime ministership, Abbott has been keen to use international affairs as a distraction from the domestic difficulties that see his government lagging in the polls. He has also, like John Howard, sought to keep the focus on national security, an area where he knows the Coalition always leads Labor — indeed, part of the theatrics of raising the threat level are to do just that.
Problematically, however, Abbott isn’t getting the political benefit: the polls so far show his government continues to struggle and that he isn’t trusted on international affairs. It’s one thing to place the lives of Australians at risk for political purposes, but it’s even worse to do it so badly you fail to get any political benefit. It has been noticeable (and it’s been noticed by Labor) that Abbott is ostentatiously invoking Labor’s bipartisan support on the terrorism issue and repeatedly insisting that he is not using it for political purposes — especially that the decision to lift the threat level is one for security officials. Governments in national security situations can normally rely on the electorate to stand behind them with little convincing — it’s oppositions that have to be careful not to be perceived as being out of step. But in this instance, Abbott occasionally looks as though he’s clinging onto Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for protection against the criticism of politicising terrorism.
The broader point of all this is, well, duh. As Crikey has noted repeatedly, this isn’t about gormless politicians endlessly repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. They, and security officials, know perfectly well what perpetuates the War on Terror, which is such a boon for large companies, security agencies and politicians. That’s why they keep on perpetuating it.