A new government’s first initiatives may not be what it is eventually remembered for. But they set the tone for what is to come. Having won a majority of seats by the narrowest of margins in the election of 2 July, Malcolm Turnbull’s government didn’t immediately pursue the Australian Building and Construction Commission reforms, which had provided the trigger for the double dissolution election. Nor did it immediately set about prosecuting a detailed economic plan, although the slogan “jobs and growth” had dominated the Coalition’s election campaign.
Instead, the government announced two new initiatives: legislation to allow authorities to impose control orders on fourteen-year-olds suspected of planning terrorist activities, and an approach to the states with the view to introducing post-sentence preventive detention for people convicted of terrorist offences.
Neither initiative is particularly new. A similar amendment to counterterrorism legislation was introduced last year. The bill was found wanting when it was scrutinised by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, not least because it would have authorised control orders on people under the age of eighteen without including any significant safeguards.
Later, in December 2015, the Council of Australian Governments meeting had agreed on post-sentence preventive detention for terrorists as well as longer pre-charge detention for terror suspects. Post-sentence detention is already possible for sex offenders and, in some states, for perpetrators of particularly violent crimes.
So what prompted Turnbull and attorney-general George Brandis to call a press conference earlier this week to resurrect last year’s initiatives? “There has been an increase in the frequency and the severity of terrorist attacks globally and particularly in Western nations such as ours,” the prime minister explained. He referred to three attacks in particular: a suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed at least eighty people and wounded more than 230, and the attacks in Munich and near Würzburg in Germany.
In Munich, a German-born eighteen-year-old had killed nine people, most of them teenagers from Turkish or Albanian backgrounds; in a train near Würzburg, a seventeen-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan armed with a hatchet and a knife had attacked fellow passengers, wounding four of them. While the Munich attacker was apparently targeting Muslims, the Afghan teenager was inspired by Islamic State propaganda; police found a hand-painted jihadist flag at his home.
Brandis and Turnbull’s press conference wasn’t prompted by attacks targeting Australians or a terrorist incident on Australian soil. Nor was it occasioned by evidence that suggested such an attack is imminent. “We have the best counterterrorism, the best security agencies in the world,” Turnbull claimed, which suggests that the new legislation was not designed to shore up an otherwise fragile security apparatus.
Why, then, did the government prioritise the fight against terrorism? For one, by talking about terror, Turnbull avoids talking about the Australian Building and Construction Commission reforms or his economic plan. Given the likely composition of the new Senate, the first project is dead in the water; as far as the second is concerned, Australians have surely heard enough about “jobs and growth” for the time being.
Does the announcement indicate that the prime minister agrees with the assessment of the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, that the Labor Party is allowed to score easy goals on account of “the Liberals bizarrely vacating the rhetorical field”?
Or is he concerned not so much about what’s been said to the left of the Liberals, as by the noises emanating from the right? Is the emphasis that the government places on new counterterrorism measures perhaps a signal in the direction of far-right populist Pauline Hanson and her supporters? During the election campaign, Turnbull said that Hanson was “not a welcome presence” in Australian politics. But he met with her this week, a day after the counterterrorism measures were announced, and, according to Hanson, the two had an amicable discussion. “He took note of everything I said and was very interested in my opinion,” Hanson told reporters afterwards. “I feel he is prepared to listen to me.”
According to Turnbull, the measures announced this week “are designed to deter terrorism, prevent it, ensure that the nation and our people are kept safe and to provide reassurance that Australians can and should continue going about their daily lives.” Perhaps more importantly, the prime minister wants Australians to “understand and recognise that the Australian government and its agencies are doing everything possible to keep them safe.”
Counterterrorism measures are, on the one hand, just that: measures to combat terrorism. On the other, though, they respond to Australian anxieties. These anxieties are not necessarily well founded. Australians might think they aren’t safe, and to make sure they feel safe the government introduces new counterterrorism measures.
This approach has a precedent. During the second world war, the Australian authorities interned residents of Japanese, Italian and German extraction both as a precautionary measure, to prevent them from assisting the enemy, and to appease public opinion. At the time, the government had no reliable evidence that so-called enemy aliens were intending to act as spies or saboteurs, but there was ample indication that public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favour of their internment.
Turnbull and Brandis weren’t the only members of the newly elected Australian government who invoked the threat of terrorism this week. Immigration minister Peter Dutton – a man who attracted much praise from his boss during the election campaign and again this week when both men celebrated the success of Operation Sovereign Borders – told Sky News editor David Speers that doctors must be prevented from disclosing what’s going on in Australia’s immigration detention centres. The secrecy provisions in the Border Force Act, Dutton confirmed when questioned about the doctors’ pending High Court challenge to the act, are “an anti-terrorist measure.”
Of course, anti-terrorist measures are only necessary if the asylum seekers imprisoned in Nauru and on Manus Island include terrorists. While neither Dutton nor Turnbull has said that Australia’s offshore detention centres are designed to prevent terrorists from entering Australia, Dutton’s comments invite Australians to draw that very conclusion. Dutton, in particular, has form in this regard. On the second-last day of the election campaign, he linked boat arrivals to terror attacks. And some three months earlier, Malcolm Turnbull linked the terror attacks in Brussels to the arrival of refugees – only to be told publicly by Belgium’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Luc Bodson, that such comments were “dangerous”.
At around the same time as Malcolm Turnbull announced new counterterrorism measures, another attack took place in Germany. A twenty-seven-year-old Syrian man who had come to Germany two years earlier as a refugee blew himself up outside a music festival in the Bavarian town of Ansbach. His claim for protection had been denied, and he was told that he would be deported to Bulgaria, where he had initially entered the European Union. Fifteen people were wounded in the suicide attack. In a video the attacker professed loyalty to Islamic State.
Like her Australian counterpart, German chancellor Angela Merkel responded this week to the terrorist threat and to fears in the population. Not only did she call a press conference, she convened the traditional summer press conference, which is usually held towards the end of the summer school holidays, a month early. There she announced a nine-point plan to combat terrorism. Like those of her Australian counterparts, the measures she proposed included new legislation. But the law to be introduced in Germany is not aimed at curtailing the rights of terror suspects or keeping people in prison after they have served their sentence; rather, it is to prevent the online sale of guns.
Given that the attacker on the train and the Ansbach suicide bomber had both sought refuge in Germany, Merkel had much to say about her country’s response to refugees. “The fact that two men, who came to us as refugees, are responsible for the crimes of Würzburg and Ansbach, mocks the country that has accommodated them,” she said, only to add: “It mocks the many other refugees, who have genuinely sought our protection against violence and war, and who want to live peacefully in a world that is foreign to them, after they lost everything.”
According to Merkel, the terrorist attacks challenge Germany to reconcile its insistence on freedom with its desire for security. George Brandis also talked about “respecting our liberal democratic values” and “keeping the balance right between security and freedom.” But the values that Brandis invoked are ill-defined.
That’s different in Germany. Constitutionally, Merkel has much less wiggle room to negotiate the contradictions between human rights and the security concerns. At the same time, she remains unwilling to revise her mantra “Wir schaffen das” (We are able to do this), which she first formulated during last year’s summer press conference.
“Again and again – after New Year’s Eve in Cologne, and now again after the horrible terrorist attacks – we ask ourselves: Are we really able to do it?” she said. “Are we able to successfully master this great challenge, which in the last instance is the flipside of globalisation’s positive effects and which demonstrates to us the dark sides of globalisation? For me, there is no doubt: we stick to our principles. One principle is Article 1 of our Constitution, that human dignity is inviolable. But another principle is: we provide asylum to those who have been persecuted for political reasons, and, in line with the Geneva Convention, we also provide protection to those who flee war and displacement.”
In Germany, Hanson-style populists who demand that refugees and Muslims be kept out enjoy at least as much support as they do in Australia. The right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, has tried to exploit the terrorist attacks of the past two weeks. But it is inconceivable that Merkel would agree to meet with AfD leader Frauke Petry to find common ground.
It’s the recognition of the principles mentioned by Merkel that distinguishes the discussions about terrorism and refugees in Germany from those in Australia. In Australia, the discourse of human rights is weak, not least because it can’t draw on the codification of such rights in the Constitution. That’s why the journalists who attended the press conference at which Turnbull and Brandis introduced the new counterterrorism measures failed to ask about the appropriateness of control orders for fourteen-year-olds – who, mind you, have not been convicted of any crime.
Notwithstanding the differences between Australia and Germany, public discourse in the two countries has one feature in common. In both countries, terrorism is associated primarily with attacks perpetrated by Islamists in the West. “There has been an increase in the frequency and the severity of terrorist attacks globally and particularly in Western nations such as ours,” Turnbull claimed earlier this week.
Because of Western military involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Germans and Australians may still take note of terrorist incidents in these countries. But there is next to no awareness of what has been happening in Nigeria, Mali, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Yemen, Thailand or Bangladesh, although these countries have each suffered more from terrorist attacks than either Australia or Germany.
“Everything is global in the twenty-first century in reality, because of the speed of communications,” Turnbull told journalists. People in Nigeria or Yemen might beg to differ. In the affluent West, we are still safely quarantined from much of what Merkel called the “flipside of globalisation’s positive effects.” •