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This website is dedicated to the memory of Jessica Lincoln Smith, a John Marsden fan.
Lost tragically at 26, but never to be forgotten.

Real World Threats to Australia

For an introduction to current “Real World Threats” to Australia, please see the Australian Strategic Policy Institutes’ paper “Beyond Bali: ASPI’s Strategic Assessment 2002”. This document is most easily read by downloading the pdf file and opening it in Adobe Acrobat, you can get Acrobat here and you can download a copy from here or you can click on this link to read the document in your web browser. For successors to this document, please see here.

The main points (visa vi threats) of this paper are summarised in items 2 to 5 below. I do suggest you read the original document though. Item 1 covers another threat - which I see as the greatest we face - but is outside the brief of the ASPI and therefore is not addressed in their document.

Issues for Australia’s Security:

  1. Our Reactions to the Threats we face
  2. Terrorism
  3. The failure of Democracy in Indonesia
  4. The failure of South Pacific states
  5. Competition between China and the United States
  1. Our Reaction to the threats we face

    In particular to our response to the immediate threat of terrorism we face, the fear and panic that we have been feeling, our tendency to overreact.

    (For people who have come directly to this page, the following references may not make complete sense - please be aware this document is a companion to a series of novels about Australia in an imaginary war on our home soil, jump over to here for an overview. This particular document is intended to be a serious look at real threats to Australia as opposed to the threat the author constructs to move his story along.)

    When the strike on New York took place on September 12th (our time) 2001, our reaction was similar to the characters in "Tomorrow, When The War Began", in particular the conversation between Ellie and Corrie in the tree. (p107) "'But I've learnt something now. Corrie, we were still innocent. Right up to yesterday. We didn't believe in Santa Claus but we believed in other fantasies. You said it. You said the big one. We believed we were safe. That was the big fantasy. Now we know we're not, and like you said, we'll never feel safe again, and so it's bye-bye innocence. It's been nice knowing you, but you're gone now.'" With the end of the Cold War and "The End of History" as it was so arrogantly put; we felt safe, we were complacent. The attack on New York shattered that complacency and we have been reacting ever since.

    This reaction has the potential to send us, as a nation, the way Ellie Linton goes over the course of these novels. By the time of the "The Night is For Hunting" she has been so severely damaged by her experiences in the war they are fighting that her friend Fi is forced to say to her (Ch 3, p62) "'But even that's not the main thing for me Ellie. The main thing is, I want the old Ellie back. The Ellie who always helped people in trouble, who was there for her friends. If the war's killed that Ellie, then there's no hope for any of us.'" Fi is right here, because if who Ellie is has been crushed by the war, then they have lost, regardless of any success on the battlefield. In the same way if we permit who we are as a nation to be distorted by our battle with terrorism or our other feeling of insecurity, then we have lost, regardless of any physical successes we may achieve.

    I want a country to be proud of, not a source of shame, yet some of the things we are doing in our panic are both counter productive and destructive.

    The first point to make is that Australia is much more than an island continent found at a particular set of co-ordinates on the globe. As with all other nations it is also a concept, as set of shared ideas, laws, values, ideals. When we act to undermine these, we diminish ourselves, we change who we are, we start to defeat ourselves in ways that our enemies could never do.

    The second point to make is that when we target particular sections of our community indiscriminately then we play into the hands of our enemies. They want us to do this. They want parts of our community to feel alienated and victimised - it helps recruitment. So, apart from being morally wrong and destructive, it is counter-productive.

    For the reasons above two aspects of our response are troubling.

    1. The current crop of "anti-terrorism" legislation.

      These comments apply to both the legislation passed in NSW (by the Labour party) and proposed federally (by the "Liberal" party).

      According to the analysis of the federal bill by the "Department of the Parliamentary Library" in "Bills Digest No. 128 2001-02 Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002" the federal bill undermines a lot of the laws and principles that underlay who we are, while providing minimal gains to law enforcement. The quotes below are taken from the "Concluding Comments" of the above document and are quite damming. The "Department of the Federal Library" is, needless to say, politically neutral.

      "The Bill seeks to introduce an unusual combination of powers in order to address the threat or potential threat of international terrorism in Australia. It essentially gives a law enforcement function (questioning) to an intelligence agency (ASIO) and gives a criminal justice function (detention) to non-judicial persons (members of the AAT). In so doing, it removes, or permits the suspension of, what are standard procedural guarantees as to the rights of an accused (privilege against self-incrimination, right to legal representation)."


      "While there may be a specific need for intelligence in relation to international terrorism, the core issue is proportionality and the appropriate balance between safety and liberty. It may be reasonable to ask whether certain procedural safeguards cannot be maintained without threatening the intelligence gathering process. Areas of interest might be the need to demonstrate reasonable suspicion in relation to the commission of terrorist offences, a 'use' and 'derivative use immunity' in relation to questioning of non-suspects, a prohibition on the use of non-judicial officers as prescribed authorities, an expansion or clarification of the role of prescribed authorities and a publicly funded right to legal representation.

      The absence of at least some of these protections raises various questions for Parliament. Obviously, there are general questions as to whether the measures are necessary, sufficient and proportionate. However, there are also questions of substance regarding the purpose of these measures. In blunt terms, if the full weight of the criminal justice system were brought to bear on terrorism, the only contribution that these measures would make would be the immediate detention of non-suspects who might have information that is 'important in relation to a terrorism offence'. If the NCA (or ACC) was permitted to apply special powers to terrorism offences, it would limited to immediate detention of non-suspects."

      For analysis of the political games being played with this Bill, see Alan Ramsey's comment of December 14 2002 in the Sydney Morning Herald and Margo Kingston's from the same day, in the same paper . Now, neither Alan Ramsey nor Margo Kingston are exactly "middle of the road" as far as politics go, but it makes you think.

      We will just have to see who blinks first.

      Given the damage such bills would do to the values that make Australia special compared to the minor benefits provided, it is hard to see it as anything more than a political ploy to create a fight over national security. As such, the politics of it are demeaning.

      We (and the rest of the West) have faced such problems before. For the US it was Mcarthyism, for us the "Communist Party Dissolution Act" of 1950. Both of these threats, which had the potential to turn us into versions of what we were fighting against, were defeated. We will likely defeat the current crop of calls to fear and paranoia. We will find out shortly if we do.

    2. The hostility to Australian Muslims

      The Terrorists that are attacking the West and Australia are Muslims, and there is a natural tendency to therefore see Muslims as the threat. But most Muslims are like most Christians and most Jews and most Buddhists and most atheists. They are simply concerned with living their lives as best they can, bringing up their kids well, taking care of their friends and relations. Most people are like that.

      One of the major objectives of traditional 'revolutionary' activity is the radicalisation of the population. Much of the point of the attacks 'revolutionaries' launch is to provoke a backlash against parts of the population, a backlash that will provoke the population to support the 'revolutionaries'. We are in such a situation today (February 2003). That is why our leaders are so desperate to say this is a confrontation between terrorism and civilisation, not the West and Islam. That is also why our opponents are so happy to see the intolerance and suspicion Arabs and Muslims are meeting in the West today. That is what they want. It helps recruitment. Apart from the stupidity of labelling a whole group as a problem when just a few within it are, it is also frustrating to see us doing exactly what our opponents want us to.

  2. Terrorism

    As to be expected given our vocal support we have provided to the USA in its time of need, Australia is certainly a terrorist target. For political reasons it is claimed this is not true, but then, that's politics.

    Opposing terrorism is morally correct, so if that means that an attack is launched against us rather than someone else, then that is the price we pay. So be it.

    However, the threat needs to be kept in perspective. The damage even a major terrorist attack can inflict is small compared to unrestricted conventional warfare. Even a large terrorist attack will find it hard to inflict casualties beyond the thousands. We are vulnerable to certain attack modes in certain circumstances, such as a ship loaded with a few thousand tons of ANFO being detonated in Sydney harbour during the New Years Eve fireworks that could have a casualty toll of several percent of our population - hundreds of thousands (such a device could have a yield similar to a small nuclear bomb) but others sites are more vulnerable (e.g New York any day of the year) and I presume that our defence planners are on the lookout for such obvious methods of attack. The Australian casualties from the Bali attack, though heavy, were less than one month's road toll for Australia. Similarly the total casualties at the World Trade Centre were less than one month's road toll in the USA.

    Instead, the major threat we face from Terrorism is just that, terror and the consequences that flow from panicking. That's why it is called "Terrorism".

    We need good intelligence to detect and thwart terrorist attacks here and overseas, we need co-operation with our neighbours to the same purpose. We need good civil defence infrastructure to help us respond to attacks made. But terrorism cannot defeat Australia, can't destroy us. Only we can do that and only if we let our fears own us.

    In the immediate after aftermath of the attack on New York our response, like the response of the characters quoted above from "Tomorrow, When The War Began" was understandable. For them that was to be their reality. For us, in the cold light of day a year and more after New York, the threat is no-where near as severe. We will loose more people, but unless something changes radically we will each have more chance of being killed crossing the street than being killed by terrorists.

    We need to be vigilant, and it is possible that a fundamental hole in our security could be found and exploited to create truly mass casualties (hundreds of thousands), but that is not likely. Instead it is our own fears that terrorism inspires that are the main threat to us and our nation.

  3. Failure of Democracy in Indonesia

    You only have to look at a map to see how important Indonesia is to Australia's security. Only nations with major bases close to us can possibly be a direct threat and only Indonesia has the population to ever be a direct threat itself, all other nearby states can only be a threat if taken over by someone else.

    It needs to be understood that currently Indonesia is not a threat. They have no capabilities to threaten us, and no particular desire to do so. It is the hard facts of geography, however, that make Indonesia so vital to our national security and no amount of wishing will make that go away.

    It is in our vital national interest that Indonesia be a friendly nation (as it is in their vital national interest that we be friendly in return). The dilemma for Australia is that some of the internal practices of Indonesia (especially the behaviour of their armed forces against segments of their populations) are morally problematic for us, but equally the disintegration of Indonesia would certainly be a major problem for us, especially if it came apart with a bang.

    We seem to have got through East Timor without disaster, though there is certainly a lot of ill will about it (on both sides).

    Our best hope for a good outcome in Indonesia, and the most morally attractive option, seems to be to work to strengthen Indonesia's democratic institutions and help them find ways of working through the issues that threaten their stability and prosperity. The main challenge is to do so without being, or being seen to be, presumptuous interfering busybodies. It is their country, after all, and we can all well imagine how we would react if someone came along to tell us how we should run our internal affairs.

  4. Failure of South Pacific states.

    As the paper "Beyond Bali" identifies, a number of 'micro-states' in our region are in the process of falling apart. This is important for Australia's defence for the reasons outlined in the paper. Primarily because any threat to the mainland must come from a base nearby and a collapsed state provides a convenient base.

    There are, of course, a lot of reasons to be concerned with the collapse of these states other than from a defence point of view, but dealing with the ongoing failure of these states is going to be an important issue for us in the years ahead. We currently don't have a viable solution to the problem. Continuing doing what we have been doing and hoping for a different result is hard to describe as a 'viable solution'.

  5. Long term competition between the United States and China for influence and control in the Pacific.

    The 21st Century was supposed to be the "Pacific Century". Nobody talks about that much since the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 but there is a good chance that this will still happen. One hundred years is a long time after all.

    Should China's growth continue to be solid in the medium term, or should India's take off in a serious way, then this could be a very interesting in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as two or three major powers contest for influence and control.

    We are closely aligned with the United States at present, but as the authors of "Beyond Bali" point out this does not need to mean that we just take orders, we can also influence and as we see what is happening with the large states in our region we will need to decide what outcome we desire.

Change is a threat to Australia (as there are no current serious threats - only change can make a threat appear), but change is a natural part of the world, and insisting that it does not occur is fraught with difficulties. The real challenge for Australia's security planners will be in shaping and influencing the changes that will come, to the extent we can, and adapting to them as they occur.

Richard Simpson
February 2003

As per usual, please feel free to send comments to the address below.


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