09 Jun 2017
Terror is a task for all our federated resources
After terror attacks in London, Manchester and the Melbourne suburb of Brighton national security was a key issue at last Friday's Council of Australian Governments meeting in Hobart.
The states and territories agreed to strengthen their laws to ensure that there'll be a presumption that neither bail nor parole will be granted to those who have demonstrated support for or have links to terrorist activity. "Violent criminals with terrorist links should not be walking the streets," the Prime Minister said.
ASIO will now share information to help in the assessment of parole and bail decisions. A special COAG meeting will be held as soon as possible to comprehensively review our terror laws. It may consider lowering the bar for control orders on individuals with terrorism links, bans on associating with certain groups and potential bans on internet access. It's unlikely, however, that proposals for a federal maximum security prison for terrorist-linked criminals or a heavily armed federal police presence at airports, would be agreed.
State joint counter-terrorism teams will be strengthened, with security-cleared correction service officers embedded in them to enable more information to be shared. The Premiers were also briefed in Hobart on a new national strategy, being developed by the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, on protecting crowded places from terrorism. Whether it's a sporting or entertainment venue or a public transport hub, where there are big crowds in accessible places they'll be potential targets of a terrorist attack.
All these measures discussed at last week's COAG meeting underline a key fact that's often overlooked: the states contribute many of the powers and capabilities needed to support our overall effort in dealing with a wide range of national security issues.
But Commonwealth-state interactions can be a critical "rub point" in achieving day-to-day security. The federal police, for example, can only investigate crimes under Commonwealth laws, and there aren't that many of those. The vast majority of crime is a state law matter.
There's also legislative impediments for sharing intelligence with non-law enforcement agencies, and the capacity of law enforcement officers to use nationally classified material in court proceedings.
The national security field is very dynamic, perhaps best illustrated with respect to cyber security, such as the need to strengthen how the states would co-operate in the event of major cyber disruptions.
The states have an essential role to play in devising approaches to deal with the issue of countering violent extremism and understanding local terror networks. So also do our local councils, often the neglected actor here. State correctional services, social welfare, health, and education departments and local youth workers are key players.
The problems with particular vulnerable communities aren't necessarily the same in Melbourne as they are in Sydney or elsewhere. The states are critical in working with the federal government in shaping the narrative around these issues: it would be disastrous if the national government were to operate "in a bubble" in trying to counter extremism in local communities.
But the states aren't always in a position to identify and distil common security interests among themselves and clarify joint policy positions to bring them to COAG. We should develop an approach whereby state agencies benefit from access to each other's skills, experience and capabilities across many security issues: the jurisdictions are first responders for a range of incidents such as counter-terrorism, emergency management, cyber security and critical infrastructure protection.
There's an urgent need for a COAG study to examine how the states operate in the area of national security, in the same way COAG did with regulation by commissioning the seminal Hilmer Review into national competition policy over 20 years ago. Given the threats the country now faces, we need stronger federated security.
Anthony Bergin is a senior research fellow at ANU's National Security College and a senior analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.