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Local government and Australian counter-terrorism strategy

By Anthony Bergin

On 14 July 2016, a 31-year-old Tunisian born French national, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, drove a rented truck through a crowd observing Bastille Day fireworks on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The attack killed 86 people and injured more than 300.

Two Australian terrorism researchers have pointed out that one of the key lessons of the Nice attack for Australia was that it needed to be prepared for a terrorist attack in a rural town or a regional centre,

"where high-readiness police forces are not based. Local responders should be equipped, trained and rehearsed to ensure effective integration when responding to a mass-casualty scenario, including a terrorist incident. Additionally, command, control and communication capabilities need to be tested at all levels during such training exercises. Notably, first responders would be likely to include all emergency services: police, fire and ambulance." (Carroll & Collingburn, 2016)

This is a very strong point that has not been sufficiently discussed in Australian counter-terrorism literature or planning: local government represents the closest level of government to the community, and so it is in a unique position to identify community needs and make sure that those needs are met in the most appropriate way. Local councils in Australia provide vital public services every day of the year.

Whereas local government’s traditional focus has been on essential infrastructure and municipal services, local government has now become increasingly involved in delivering people services. Local government owns and manages the vast bulk of the nation’s road network and own and manage a vast array of physical assets.

Local government services include managing not just roads, but pavements, traffic lights, bridges and car parks, stormwater and drainage systems and, in some states, sewerage waste water treatment facilities and water supply.

They manage household waste services, parks, sporting facilities and cultural facilities, building standards, engineering services to assist in design and planning of physical infrastructure, climate change adaptation and mitigation measures, and local environment conservation initiatives.

They also provide social, welfare and public health services, relevant to recovery post any terrorist attack. It is local councils that will have to ‘pick up the pieces’ and rebuild the community after a terrorist incident. Being local the impact of an incident will be all the more shocking in a small regional and possibly remote community.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has requested that Australia’s counter-terrorism agencies develop a strategy to prevent rapidly radicalised terrorists from carrying out Nice-style attacks in public areas. It was reported that the Prime Minister was particularly concerned about an attack that uses a vehicle as a weapon, which could cause devastating casualties (Chang, 2016).

Prime Minister Turnbull directed the Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator to identify lessons for Australia arising from the Bastille Day attack in Nice. In particular, the federal Counter-Terrorism Coordinator was asked to advise government on how vulnerable Australia’s public areas are, and how authorities can protect open areas where large numbers congregate.

Given the history of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on soft targets, it is absolutely critical Australia looks to protect such venues and spaces, many of which are in our rural areas, not just in the big cities.

But our record in this area is mixed: it is not clear that we have got a nationally consistent approach to safeguarding mass gatherings, despite the publication five years ago of national guidelines by the National Counter-Terrorism Committee (2011 National Counter Terrorism Committee).

Mass gathering protection is fundamentally focused on counter-terrorism and public safety. As the public’s vulnerability at such events is high, the level of residual risk to places of mass gatherings – such as sporting events and entertainment precincts – is more often much higher than other infrastructure, such as power stations, transport or water facilities. Compared to infrastructure protection, it is probably fair to say that protecting mass gatherings has been the area least amenable to national leadership.

Some jurisdictions have seen the problem simply as one of community policing and working with those responsible for occupational health and safety issues. We need a nationally consistent approach when it comes to information sharing and pooling of knowledge between business and governments at all levels on this issue. It is helpful that Australia has a Mass Gatherings Advisory Group (MGAG) that sits under the Australian New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, and the Mass Gatherings Business Advisory Group, that feeds into the MGAG (Australian and New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Advisory Committee, 2015)

But the forgotten actor here is local government: when it comes to consequence management, resilience lives locally, so the importance of local government should not be overlooked.

Australia has about 560 local government bodies – and their responsibilities, as noted above, go well beyond the traditional functions of rates, roads and rubbish (Australian Local Government Association)

While the states have the primary responsibility for most emergencies, it is at the local level where responders will be first on the scene. Local government can promote the importance of security at places of mass gathering within their communities. It can also promote a nationally consistent approach to protecting places of mass gathering at the local level.

As noted above, the Nice attack showed that it is not always capital cities that are the location of attacks. When you get out of Australia’s major cities, local government is really the primary governance actor in many of its regional areas. For instance, they are heavily involved in approvals for major events, such as festivals, sports carnivals and working with police, contractors and the private security sector. Local councils are often responsible for road closures and CCTV in areas where there are public safety risks.

Local government is the level of government closest to where the population lives and works. It is responsible for the provision or coordination of local resources. There is little doubt that terrorist attacks will occur in local government areas and will have a direct social, economic, psychological and cultural impact on that local area.

It is unclear what involvement local government believes it currently has in Australian counter-terrorism planning, prevention and response or what role the federal government sees for local government in counter-terrorism.

Local government is not mentioned in the most recent COAG national counter-terrorism strategy (Council of Australian Governments, 2015), nor in the guidelines on the protection of places of mass gathering from terrorism. State disaster planning documents are heavily focused on natural, not man-made security disasters.

While this focus has changed for lead emergency agency planning in recent years, (State of Queensland & Queensland Police Service, 2015), some guides from generic state-based departments remain focused on natural hazards and related sources of disruption. Increasingly local government is, however, expanding its focus to non-natural hazards.

The local government peak body – ALGA – represents the various state-based local government representative organisations (see Australian Local Government Association, 2010). ALGA was established in 1947 and now represents over 550 local councils. It has been involved in discussions around natural disaster management in Australia, and is represented on COAG’s Law, Crime and Community Safety Council. But there is no evidence that ALGA has had any involvement in broader counter-terrorism strategy.

It is unclear what assets and resources local government can provide before, during and after a terrorist attack – physical, social, intelligence, plant, medical-mortuary, personnel, local knowledge and so on.

It is also unclear how extensive local government resources in mental health and youth work can contribute to countering violent extremism (CVE) by making young people feel part of a local community. Many local councils are now applying for Commonwealth CVE funding, with some local CVE programs supporting a wide range of youth based social and cultural events. Local government is critical to place-based model of CVE with local councils best placed to undertaking detailed service mapping looking to identify appropriate support services.

A good example of reframing the CVE agenda around social cohesion at the local level is the Multicultural NSW Community Partnership Action (COMPACT) program (2016 COMPACT Program).

Working with local government, COMPACT commenced in March 2016. It is a four-year, $8 million program that supports an alliance of 36 community partner organisations who are all committed to safeguarding Australia against extremist hate. COMPACT is designed to build and maintain strong responsive and aware communities, increase the will and capacity of community partners to support prevention or intervention programs and enable and motivate community networks to stand up and stand united in the face of tensions brought about by extremist hate and violence. It is also designed to motivate community partners to maintain or restore social cohesion in the wake of an incident brought about by extremist hate and violence.

A coordinated approach by local state and federal government to CVE is necessary in the current security environment. By facilitating access to local government resources in areas such as health and welfare services, local councils can enhance the capability of community leaders to meet some of the challenges presented by extremism. Regional areas can foster a range of anti-social/terrorist groups ranging from not just Islamist extremism, but extreme right wing as well as hard-line environmental activists and religious/cultural groups.

There has been little attention given to determining the consequences for local government of a terrorist attack: financial costs but also damage to social and economic systems, to structures, to regional reputation and to the capabilities and roles of local government in counter-terrorism prevention and response.

More work needs to be undertaken to identify the capability of local government in relation to counter-terrorism and how local government could be better integrated into our counter-terrorism plans.

To develop that integration there should, as a first step, be a ‘top-down’ review to determine federal and state perceptions of local governments’ role in counter-terrorism planning, before, during and after the incident. Issues for consideration might include local community liaison and intelligence in the preparation phase, access to building plans during the response, and ownership or access to resources required during the recovery.

The overall objective of such a study would be to identify if improvements can be made to Australia’s ability to prevent and respond to a terrorist incident through the increased recognition of and involvement of local government.

Disclosure statement: No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

References

Australian and New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Advisory Committee. (2015). Active shooter guidelines for places of mass gathering. Canberra: Attorney-General’s Department, Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Media-and-publications/Publications/Documents/active-shooter-guidelines-places-mass-gathering.pdf 

Australian Local Government Association. (2010). About ALGA. Retrieved from Australian Local Government Association website: http://alga.asn.au/?ID=42&Menu=41,81 

Carroll, J., & Collingburn, A. (2016, August). Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, 14 July 2016. Australian Strategic Policy Institute – Counter Terrorism Policy Centre, CT Quick Look. Retrieved from https://www.aspi.org.au/publications/bastille-day-terrorist-attack-in-nice,-14-july-2016/ASPI-CT-Quick-Look-1.pdf 

Chang, C. (2016, July 25). How Australians are being protected from terrorist attack. News.com.au. 

COMPACT Program. (2016). Retrieved from http://multicultural.nsw.gov.au/communities/compact_program/ 

Council of Australian Governments. (2015). Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy: Strengthening our resilience. Canberra: Author. Retrieved from https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Media-and-publications/Publications/Documents/Australias-Counter-Terrorism-Strategy-2015.pdf 

National Counter Terrorism Committee. (2011). National guidelines for the protection of places of mass gathering from terrorism. Canberra: Attorney-General’s Department, Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Media-and-publications/Publications/Documents/national-guidelines-protection-places-mass-gatherings.pdf 

State of Queensland, & Queensland Police Service. (2015). Queensland state disaster management plan (reviewed May 2015). Brisbane: Queensland Government. Retrieved from http://www.disaster.qld.gov.au/Disaster-Resources/Documents/State-Disaster-Management-Plan_WEB.pdf  

Anthony Bergin is a Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a senior research fellow, National Security College, ANU. ,