The attacks in Brussels on Tuesday that have left 34 dead and hundreds wounded have rightly shocked Australians and stoked global condemnation. But what are the consequences, if any, of this appalling act for the Australian public and government?
It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that a similar style attack in Australia is “probable,” according to Australia’s official terrorism threat advisory scale. But the challenges of avoiding a similar event in Australia are – while still great – significantly less than in Europe.
Malcolm Turnbull caused mild controversy in the wake of the Brussels attack by seemingly critiquing Europe’s security failings. His real point, however, was a genuine one: Europe’s borders are porous, and this means the threats born out of social exclusion, poverty and racism in certain areas of Europe are able to spread anywhere on the continent with little warning.
Australia’s experience is different to Europe’s. Its obvious geographical advantages mitigate the threat of the same type of cross border terrorist attacks that may have occurred in Belgium on Tuesday.
But, perhaps more importantly, Australia’s experiment with multiculturalism has been far more successful, and the politics of division is increasingly being rejected by the Australian public and the political establishment.
While Europe and the United States are witnessing the rise of political figures reliant on a demagoguery fuelled by the rejection of multiculturalism, Australia is moving in the opposite direction towards a more pragmatic and centrist space when it comes to the national security debate.
Fringe political figures in Australia that attempt to exploit the fear of the Australian public for the improvement of their own electoral fortunes are exactly that – fringe.
The distaste for Tony Abbott’s style of leadership by the public, and its rejection by his own party, demonstrates that the politically pragmatic space to hold in Australia is determined by much more than a single-minded focus on a strong rhetorical approach to national security.
Australians are aware there is a genuine threat. But they are unwilling to subscribe to a politics that exploits this natural and pragmatic concern rather than rising above it. And Malcolm Turnbull is aware of this – his statements regarding the attacks in Brussels acknowledged the threat, but emphasize the need to put such threats in perspective.
Turnbull also made it clear upon his accession to the prime ministership that he would extend overtures to the Muslim community, replacing Abbott’s widely criticized tendency to deride the Islamic community with a policy focused on inclusion and collaboration.
And while the prospect of a large-scale terrorist attack on Australia is a truly worrying one, it is in no way an existential threat to Australia or its way of life. Any attempt by ISIS inspired actors or other extremists to cause division in the Australian community, or to inspire reactionary belligerence from the Australian government, will ultimately fail.
Yes, the Australian government needs to remain ever vigilant and prepared for such an atrocity. And it is clear that it is doing so.
But in the event of an attack on Australian soil in the future, it must be seen by the Australian people and the Australian government for what it would be –a desperate attempt to lash out and maintain relevance from a despotic organization that is increasingly losing the ground war in Syria and Iraq.
While tragedies such as those in Brussels and Paris shock and horrify, Australians should take solace in moments like this that the Australian way of life and its commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism is a stronger force than the ideologies that oppose it.
So too should Australians be encouraged by the fact that its politics is increasingly reflective of these ideals, and continues to reject the figures that seek to gain by opposing them.
Edward Cavanough is the policy manager at The McKell Institute & Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.