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‘Read for take-off’: Australia’s need for a comprehensive airport security and policing review

By John Coyne

For seventeen years, Australian governments only needed to mention ‘terrorism’ and ‘airports’ in the same sentence to get public support for new security measures. With each new disrupted terror plot, or tragedy, consecutive governments would announce new security measures, and of course additional resources, with little or no opposition. It is unsurprising then that today, we have not so much a well-designed security framework protecting our airports, as a legacy of layered new and old measures.

With the Western Sydney Airport set to open in 2026 the time is right for a rethink of what the next generation of airport security ought to look like. And if we move fast enough, there might be time to build this system from the ground up in Western Sydney.

The last time Australia substantially reviewed its airport security was in 2005, when Northern Ireland’s former Security Minister Sir John Wheeler completed ‘An Independent Review of Airport Security and Policing for the Government of Australia’. At the time Wheeler found that ‘Experience around the world has demonstrated that airport policing and security is a specialist field requiring dedicated and trained officers, integrated systems, appropriate technology, and real partnerships between federal and state agencies and relevant private sector personnel.’ Wheeler was right, and arguably these principles are still axioms for those responsible for airport security today. Although, I would argue that he left out one key adjective: ‘holistically managed’.

At the time of the review, Wheeler caveated his assessments with the observation that ‘there is no ongoing mechanism to draw together and assess regularly the threat of crime and criminality at major airports’. Without the benefits of this kind of reporting, nor the ability to divine the future, he could never have anticipated the domestic and international incidents that have occurred at airports over the proceeding 13 years. Deadly bikie brawls as seen in 2009 in Sydney, heightened terror threats, meat mincer bomb plots and mass casualty attacks at airports illustrate the changed scope of threats and risks faced at airports.

To be fair, the Government did respond to the Wheeler review with policy and new money. Command and control was drastically improved with the appointment of airport police commanders. Engagement between security providers, airport operators and airlines was also radically enhanced: due to the efforts of all involved. There were more, and better trained, police at all of Australia’s major airports. However, like many policy initiatives, the funding for the project eventually terminated. With time, staff numbers and policy focus waned.

In 2005, Wheeler astutely recognised the dual importance of new technology and system integration. However some 13 years later smart gates and new explosive detection capabilities, biometrics and close circuit television are not emerging technologies. Government has taken what were emerging technologies in 2005 and deployed them to great affect at our airports. However, in the absence of a substantive independent review, questions remain over whether they have been fully integrated into airport security. The ad hoc nature of security developments at airports hardly brings confidence that this kind of integration is occurring.

In the years that have passed since the initial response to the Wheeler review, there have been targeted ad hoc efforts to increase security at Australia’s international and domestic airports. For the most part these have been aimed at addressing particular vulnerabilities or mitigate specific threats: often in response to terror attacks or plots. The public had in the past appeared one part buoyed by announcements and security presence, and one part disturbed by the inconvenience such measures caused to the traveling public. Regardless, there was a trust that the measures were necessary for safety.

Last month the Turnbull government announced, with little warning, a proposal to provide police at Australia’s domestic airports with new powers to demand identification from travellers. The announcement was part of a broader range of budget measures on aviation security, from the use of body scanners, the deployment of additional Australian Federal Police officers at airports, upgrades to inbound air cargo technology, and extra funding to support regional airports to upgrade security. Prime Minister Turnbull argued that ‘dangerous times’ demanded these changes.

Something seems to have changed in the public mood towards security because Turnbull’s announcement was not met with support, nor the admiration that he probably desired. Instead, the coalition announcement was faced with widespread criticism for the measures.

There’s plenty of empirical evidence that public trust in governments globally has been in steep decline since the end of the Cold War. And after numerous leaks and whistle-blowers, the public is more cautious than ever about its support of new powers for police, security and intelligence agencies. For sure, any announcement of new measures supported by ‘trust us’ like arguments will be met by scepticism. The days of ad hoc and incremental changes to airport security without detailed explanations for the public are passing by.

With all this in mind, it appears abundantly clear that we need another comprehensive independent review of Australia’s airport security and policing. And this needs to occur before we rush into introducing any further ad hoc aviation security measures. This review needs to avoid the temptation of bringing in another international expert to tell us what we need to do. Instead, it should bring together a small review team comprised of well-respected public and private sector security thought leaders, with representatives from the airport, airline and security industries. The terms of reference for this review need to focus on building an airport security system that is comprised of integrated systems that collectively provide the capability to mitigate risks, but just as importantly support the facilitation of smooth travel. It will also need to consider how to make these arrangements more agile than ever to keep pace with the rapidly changing threat environment we face.

This article was originally published in the Australian Security Magazine - June/July 2018.