As the “lucky country” (“the land down under”) enters 2017, it would be useful to reflect on those people who would strike at the heart of its political liberties and its security interests. The reflection is particularly topical because there is considerable confusion and false information in the country’s political circles and the mass media.
Most Australian citizens see the threats as coming from terrorism, Muslim refugees arriving by boat, or China. These three focal points of Australian threat perceptions have several things in common. They are the ones that the mass media and the country’s political leaders like to discuss most. They are also easy targets for the non-specialist. They also speak to Australians’ fear of the unknown. The community at large has not experienced physical insecurity from political or criminal sources on any scale in recent decades. Australia’s last large scale security threats happened decades ago.
We could dismiss the resort to these three sources of insecurity as typical of the mentality of fringe figures in Australia like the self-declared racist, Senator Pauline Hanson, who has said Australia is in danger of being swamped by Muslims, having made the same claim about Asians two decades earlier. But, as noted in a recent article in the Conversation by this author, Australians are well known for the exaggerated sense of physical and social insecurity whether the threat is terrorism, crime or some foreign military force.
There should be no mistake. Terrorism is a serious threat inside Australia, but the threat is on a much smaller scale than in many countries. The federal government spends not much more than $1 billion per year on active measures to counter it. A case can be made for a much more nuanced approach to understanding Australia’s enemies than the country’s political leaders have been prepared to discuss.
The weakness in the recent past of Australia’s political elites in discussing threats with any degree of sophistication was evident in the surprising about-face by the current government when it finally acknowledged in November 2016 the seriousness of the cyber threats facing the country. In a speech to the national Press Club, the new Cyber Security Minister, Dan Tehan, told the country—in a break with previous policy of deliberately downplaying the threat—that Australia needed to be prepared for a “cyber storm.”
I have a high degree of confidence in Australia’s security agencies in their intelligence assessments about the threats to the country. But since Australia operates closer to the British model of non-transparency in security affairs than to a more democratic model that we see in the United States, the country’s political debate in public remains seriously misinformed, even misled, on occasion by its own government. Many media organizations in the country have shown themselves incapable of challenging the dominant, sensationalist and lazy threat perceptions that have seized the country at large. And politicians of all stripes have swooped on the cheap populist arguments as a result.
If most Australians could have voted in the last U.S. presidential election, they would probably have voted for a “wall” too. Most Australians support its maritime equivalent — a “tow back” policy for refugee boats trying to reach Australia from Indonesia.
In my view, Australia faces the most dangerous international security environment it has seen since the period from the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, through the Indonesian mass murders of 1965 and 1966 and the Tet offensive in South Vietnam in 1968, to the Soviet threat to attack China with nuclear weapons in 1969. Perhaps the period 1975 to 1979 runs a close second, marked by the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia beginning in 1975, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, and culminating in the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
Wake up Australia! Terrorists, China’s military and Muslim boat people are not the main security threats to the country’s well-being.
Syria’s unpunished use of chemical weapons, Russian aggression against Ukraine as part of a new policy of confrontation with the West and its unpunished war crimes in Syria, emergence of new dictatorships in Egypt and Turkey, the persistence of old ones in Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and North Korea, the latter armed with nuclear weapons, and the Islamic State’s success in destabilizing regional order in the Middle East together constitute the most serious alignment of hostile strategic forces Australia has faced for decades on the international front. In China, it is the Communist Party dictatorship that is a threat to Australia, not the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA, which has no allies, will remain an inferior fighting force compared with the Western alliance for decades to come.
On the domestic front, the impotence of the main political parties in rising to the economic and social challenges of modernity and innovation have forced them into tired clichés of threats to traditional cultural order posed by the country’s long standing policy of immigration and multiculturalism. This reached its peak with the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, attributing the main terrorist threat in Australia to people “from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background.” He cited the fact that 22 of the previous 33 people charged with terrorism offences fitted that label.
A more telling half-fact that the immigration minister might have cited is that Muslim immigrants are not the main single “community source” of organized criminal violence in Australia, rather it is the Calabrian mafia. According to an Italian police source, speaking in February 2016 after a successful operation in Italy against cocaine smuggling to Australia and Canada, “Australia is not a target nation anymore, it’s now like a state of Italy from a criminal perspective.” The Italian authorities said that the criminals had infiltrated politics in Australia to help achieve their aims.
More Australians have been killed inside the country by mafia gangs in the past decade than by terrorists. It is in part the impotence of the federal authorities to control this organized crime epidemic in one immigrant community (from predominantly Christian Italy) that has them conveniently focus on another that is in political terms an easier target, Muslims.
No government, Australia included, can secure itself against external or internal enemies unless it is prepared to have difficult, sustained, well-informed and transparent conversations with its citizens about the complex threats those enemies represent. Such conversations are all too rare in Australia from any side of politics. Australia’s security is being progressively degraded as a result.