The Australian government, in its wisdom, has committed an extra $1.2 billion for national security measures in this year’s budget. Almost half, or $450 million of that, is for intelligence operations, including the odious new metadata retention scheme, and to “counter extremist messaging”.

Of course, $1.2 billion is a lot of money to spend on making a situation worse. It’s less than the $1.9 billion that is scheduled to be cut from the health system over the next five years, but who cares about the state of the nation’s public hospitals when the nation’s security is at stake? And as Joe Hockey says: “The threat of terrorism is rising and ever evolving and our response must be swift and uncompromising. We must have the best counter-terrorism capabilities available.”

Of course, when it comes to national security, “best” equals “most expensive”. When it comes to healthcare, on the other hand, it’s apparently always possible to do more with less.

We’re not talking about wanton extravagance here. War is an expensive business, and it doesn’t get any cheaper just because there’s no definition of victory, let alone an endpoint in sight. We will just continue to “train” the Iraqi army, in the grand tradition of the entire Vietnam War.

And then, of course, there’s the home front, with $131 million granted to phone and internet firms to subsidise the cost of retaining customers’ metadata for two years. Presumably George Brandis has learned what “metadata” is by now, although I wouldn’t bet the house on it. And it would be churlish for the rest of us to complain about the fact that we’re being forced to pay for our own Big Brother. He’s a family member, after all.

Anyway, most of Big Brother’s attention will be devoted to the issue of Muslims and online radicalisation. The 17-year-old Melbourne doctor’s son arrested last week is only the latest in a long line of young Muslims to have been apparently “radicalised” via the computer in their bedrooms. However, it is far from clear that correlation equals causation here. As Kathy Gilsinan suggests in The Atlantic, Islamic State’s social media success may well have been hyped out of all proportion. On-the-ground battlefield success has been a far stronger factor in recruitment than have its propaganda videos, however slickly produced. The real power of IS’ social media campaign is more likely the hypnotic effect that it has on politicians and mainstream media, rather than upon disaffected Muslims.

The spectre of IS’ social media power has prompted the government to establish its own propaganda information campaign — an effective recruitment tool for IS if ever there were one. The mere presence of a government-funded campaign to “[reduce] the impact of terrorist’s use of the social media by helping people to develop the digital skills needed to critically assess terrorists’ claims and promote alternative messages online” undermines the credibility of those who might wish to undertake such an enterprise for reasons of their own. Worse — it makes their (our) lives more dangerous.

Similar problems arise with the “Living Safe Together” grants announced by George Brandis on Saturday — $1.6 million for community groups to steer vulnerable youth away from radicalisation. Lives may well be saved via the “Living Safe Together” grants, if only because it provides much-needed cash to a sector that is being starved of resources. However, it does so at the cost of stigmatising the target demographic as potential terrorists and war criminals. The message that Muslim organisations need cash — which is unavailable to others in equal need — because, if we’re not cashed up, some of our children might behead yours on the street is not exactly winning hearts and minds.

And what a genius idea it is to conceal the names of some of the organisations to receive grants because the perception that they are government agents would erode their credibility among their client base. Instead, every organisation to toss a soccer ball in the general direction of a bored teenager will be suspected of acting on the Attorney-General’s behalf. The framing of every issue through the counter-terrorism lens is poisoning the bloodstream of the community sector that is being called upon to step up to the task, as well as draining the credibility of any attempted Muslim counter-narrative.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey