Sarah Capper

Sarah Capper

Policy, advocacy and communications officer at Victorian Women’s Trust
Sarah Capper is the policy, advocacy and communications officer at the Victorian Women’s Trust. She’s also the inaugural editor of Sheilas and a self-confessed political nerd.
Sarah Capper
Sarah Capper is the Editor of 'Sheilas'. She also manages policy, advocacy and communications at the Victorian Women’s Trust (which publishes Sheilas). She fled Queensland for Melbourne in the late 1990s to complete a journalism degree. A self-confessed political nerd, she is passionate about social justice, law reform, Virginia Woolf and her dog, Jasper.
We interrupt this column for a public service announcement for all Australians:


There’s a likely chance we’ll suffer a terrorist attack, but not in the imminent future. Ahem.

Yes, that’s right, last week Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the Government was raising Australia’s ‘terror alert’ status to ‘high’.  While technically this means a terrorist attack on Australian soil is now regarded as “likely”, the PM was quick to clarify that “this does not mean that a terror attack is imminent. We have no specific intelligence of particular plots.”

Fast forward one week as Australians woke to the news of police raids on houses in Sydney and Brisbane. Almost 900 police were involved with 15 people detained and at this stage, one charged with conspiracy to prepare an attack, another charged with weapons offenses. Based on media reports, the conspiracy to prepare an attack is the allegation that an Australian overseas member of IS (the so-called “Islamic State” wreaking havoc currently in Syria and Iraq) instructed a local member to kidnap a random Australian for a public execution, presumably in the shocking style of beheadings we have seen of overseas journalists and aid workers by IS members in Syria.

While such acts are unquestionably horrific and deserve condemnation, what is valid is taking to task the politicking of the response. That much we owe – after all, pretty recent history demonstrates that our political leaders can lie to take us to war (WMD, anyone), can deny parliamentary debate, can demonize people fleeing the very war-torn areas we’ve undertaken military action against, which, far from ‘liberating’ we’ve helped become less safe, the actions of which have also made us ultimately less safe.

In terms of the terror threat warning being raised to ‘high’, and the clarification by the Prime Minister of a “likely” but not “imminent” attack, ABC Insiders host Barrie Cassidy put to Attorney-General George Brandis QC-AG last Sunday:

BARRIE CASSIDY: But is there something wrong with the categories because the Prime Minister says that you have no specific intelligence, an attack is not imminent and yet you say a threat is likely. Does that point to the fact that maybe you need a separate category?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, two points to be made about that, Barrie. First of all, there’s not an inconsistency. The next level up, which is “extreme”, which we haven’t reached, is reached when a terrorist attack is imminent. So we’re not saying that a terrorist attack is imminent. The Prime Minister is correct to say that there is no specific intelligence of any specific attack, but what we do have in the words of the Director-General, David Irvine, is an increase in the general threat environment and the agencies pick that up in various ways.

They pick it up from the increase in the amount of chatter, they pick it up from the intelligence that we receive from our international partners and in a variety of ways. Now that’s the first point I wanted to make. But secondly, can I point out to you that as part of the overall review of Australia’s counter-terrorism posture, which is being led by PM & C, we are examining the calibrations and the descriptors in the national public alert system.

Ah-huh. Programmatic Specificity, in other words (where is KRUDD when you need him …).

But, as echoed by Brandis in a “variety of ways”, the Prime Minister said the rising of the alert system by our security agencies had been done so “based on the accumulation of indicators”.

One of these indicators included “the exultations that are coming from the Middle East to the supporters of these terrorist groups here in Australia, to prepare to launch attacks here in Australia”. Sound familiar? Cue Federal Police raids in Sydney and Brisbane. [And next week stay tuned for Brandis’ return, brandishing civil liberties rollbacks in the name of ‘anti-terror’ legislation].

For a good couple of weeks, PM Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have been ramping up the rhetoric that Australia was poised and ready to commit to an international response – as soon as, ahem, someone (ie. The US of A) asked us. It’s a bit reminiscent of the HBO series ‘Veep’ in which the Vice-President (played by Julia Louis Dreyfus) persistently asks her receptionist ‘Has the President called?’

It comes in the wake of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine airspace, in which the initial response from the PM was to talk super tough against Russia (in contrast to US President Barack Obama, who at the time was being criticised for not being ‘hawkish’ enough (read, being cautious) in responding to Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine. No such concern for our PM, who fortunately isn’t the ‘leader of the free world’ and resides on the other side of the world from Russia).

Abbott and Russian President Vladimir Putin have form. Remember it was the Russian leader who gave the newly elected Abbott the cold-war-shoulder at an APEC meeting for which he was late for. The question remains as to whether Putin will be welcome to attend the G20 meeting in Brisbane in November (or as ABC political observer Annabel Crabb speculates, “Perhaps there is only room for one gym junkie at the G20”). But given Putin’s disposition for playing the outdoorsy ‘macho’ man, you can imagine Abbott would quite relish the chance to change from his speedos into his boxing briefs and go a round of Oxford fisticuffs with the Russian leader.

The police raids and rise in Australia’s security alert system should not come as too much of a surprise as similar measures beating alongside the drums of war have been ramped up in recent months – like the strengthening of airport and public security measures both abroad and at home – and at a state level – on top of recent federal government airport security tightening, the Queensland Government has introduced measures ahead of the G20 meeting – with Queensland Police officers “reminded” (huh?! they can forget?!) to wear their guns, as well as the sealing of rubbish bins at major train stations. Queensland – beautiful one day, absolute garbage the next.

It remains unclear what the raising of the terrorist threat means for ordinary Australians. Cassidy again on Insiders:

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, if I can clear up just one other confusion that I seem to be detecting, is that the Prime Minister said in his videotape overnight that the Government is doing everything – and he underlined that, he said it again: everything to protect you – which does ring alarm bells in a sense and yet you’re saying that you should go about your normal life. Can you clear that up as to how we can – how the public is to respond to that kind of thing?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well I don’t know why you think there’s any confusion about that, Barrie. I mean, the reason we have these public terror alert levels is – there are two main reasons and Acting Commissioner Colvin made this clear on Friday. One is to inform the public so as to make them aware of what the Government’s and the intelligence agencies’ appraisal of the level of risk to Australia is.

But the second reason is reassurance so that people can know that although we assess the threat level to be high, the police are onto this, intelligence agencies are onto this and that all appropriate steps that need to be made are being taken. And that’s why the Prime Minister, like David Irvine and Acting Commissioner Colvin, have all said that people should go about their normal lives, they should be vigilant for their own safety, but they should go about their normal lives.

Onto it, as 800 plus police officers demonstrated. No doubt Australian intelligence agencies are monitoring Australia’s security risk to the best of their abilities, and no doubt with the overseas situations they are regularly briefing the PM and relevant ministers and departments, and no doubt the upper echelons of government would have been aware of individuals being monitored and the possibility of raids and indeed potential arrests.

The current environment is reminiscent of the ‘be alert but not alarmed’ slogan – that ol’ mantra of former Prime Minister John Howard, who, in introducing and toying with the terrorist alert levels post September 11 2001, provided such ‘helpful’ information to the Australian people accompanied by a trusty fridge magnet.

Alas, no such kitchen bric-a-brac this time around, although in the same Insiders interview, Brandis (who during the Howard years was best known as the guy who denied calling Howard a ‘lying rodent’) said the new security measures “will involve some advertising to make people aware of the importance of vigilance”.

No doubt the Prime Minister has learned some lessons to the government management of security threat levels, having been an ardent member of the former Howard Ministry. And as Abbott’s “political father”, John Howard carved a “relaxed and comfortable” niche in using national security for electoral leverage.  In 2001, Howard was lagging in the polls when the Tampa tried to sail ashore and then along came the September 11 attacks.

The seeds fusing together asylum seekers as “the other” (and therefore an “other” to be feared) were sewed. Labor was wedged on immigration policy, and the Coalition seem to have reminded them of it ever since. Howard went to the polls and returned triumphant – proving the theory that in times of unrest, instability and world chaos, the electorate leans on the status quo; that indeed the threat of war favours the incumbent – better the devil you know. Writing for BRW, Leo D’Angelo Fisher argues:

Conventional wisdom holds that war favours incumbent governments at election time, the understanding being that in uncertain and threatening times, reawakened patriotism and the popular desire for stability galvanises support for the government of the day.

The floundering and unpopular Howard government (first elected in 1996) was widely expected to be defeated at the November 2001 federal election – which would have delivered the prime ministership to “the greatest PM who never was”, luckless Labor leader Kim Beazley. But the Tampa affair in August and the September 11 terrorist strikes in the US combined fortuitously to deliver victory to John Howard. The moment had found Howard, who proved in his element as a “wartime” leader.

In the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities, US President George W. Bush redefined the popular meaning of war with his “war on terror”. As the US framed its response to the terrorist attacks ordered by the shadowy Osama bin Laden, Bush declared that “the first war of the 21st century” had begun.

The protracted war on terrorism, and the US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, almost certainly ensured that the Bush administration, which had never appeared destined for great things, became a two-term government.

Howard went on to win four elections – and in 2004 just months out from a fourth federal poll, launched another series of television advertisements reminding Australians to be ‘alert but not alarmed’ as well as mailing out a brochure to all households with a reminder of the terror hotline.

In this atmosphere of IS and the Ukraine and Syria, this is also why our Prime Minister chest beats the notion of ‘Team Australia’, nominating himself as the Captain. Blatant crass political patriotism? You betcha. And Abbott’s response to international affairs seems to have stood him in better stead than his grappling with domestic issues like the sale of the budget. The overseas conflicts pose a “look over there” distraction for the PM – however horrific and unwelcome they are.

Writing for the ABC’s Drum, lawyer Greg Barns questioned the Prime Minister’s announcement of raising the terrorist threat level last week, suggesting it was done for “political reasons”, and also warned:

One of the consequences of Abbott’s scare politics will be increased harassment of Australians from the Middle East and of Muslims. The racism and prejudice of Australia is unfortunately tattooed across the underbelly of this land and as we saw when the Howard government reacted to 9/11 it did not take much for irrational attacks on Muslims and Australians from the Middle East to ramp up.

Which is partly why, members of Sydney’s Muslim community convened a barbeque last weekend to declare themselves as being against IS (can you imagine white Anglo Christians holding such an event post the Norwegian massacre where ‘Christian’ Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people?).  Donning ‘Australia’ T-shirts, we saw news clips of attendees at pains to nervously declare themselves as part of ‘Team Australia’.

Coming off the back of some dismal months in trying to sell the federal budget, the Government has sorely been in need of a news story they can manage better to their advantage. Curious how just weeks ago we were facing a dire “budget emergency”, where the Government was at pains in stressing how we must all shoulder the brunt of returning Australia to a surplus, but which seemed to target individuals less well-off rather than big business, that suddenly now, with the threat of IS, and what Abbott has labelled a “death cult”, we can now commit to half a billion dollars a year to fund a “humanitarian” [cough, read ‘military’] response.

And on the topic of euphemisms, after marking his first year in office, Abbott has added ‘protecting the vulnerable’ to his three word slogans collection (stop the boats, stop the waste, yarda). Presumably this is to counter the budget response as being seen as unfair, particularly to, ahem, vulnerable Australians. And by Australians, remember, the Government doesn’t mean asylum seekers, even if they are fleeing war-torn countries.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane raises the interesting question as to whether Abbott is really acting in our long-term national interest:

Australians are less safe now than a few weeks ago — and less safe because of decisions taken, primarily for political ends, by the Abbott government: namely, to intervene in a conflict in Iraq and Syria that has nothing to do with Australia’s national interest.

We know this will make Australians less safe because our security and intelligence officials told us how the 2003 Iraq war made Western citizens less safe. Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty said it at the time and was abused by the Howard government for his trouble. Senior intelligence officials in the United Kingdom and the United States have confirmed it since: the Iraq War radicalised hundreds of Western Muslims who saw only unprompted aggression directed toward a Muslim country (the former head of MI5 has explained this best, for the Chilcot Inquiry in the UK).

Keane also adds that, “Abbott has been keen to use international affairs as a distraction from the domestic difficulties that see his government lagging in the polls. He has also, like John Howard, sought to keep the focus on national security, an area where he knows the Coalition always leads Labor — indeed, part of the theatrics of raising the threat level are to do just that.”

He won’t, but rather than looking up at Liberal elder John Howard, perhaps Abbott should look towards another Liberal elder in Malcolm Fraser. Writing this week in Fairfax, Fraser provided this advice in terms of dealing with IS:

There is also the significant danger that the greater the American US or Western presence, the more easily  easier it will be to construe that as an attack on Islam itself, and thus provide an effective recruiting tactic for Islamic State. Unless the Arab states mentioned as supporting Western efforts are prepared to provide boots on the ground, Islamic State will still be able to construe this war as a Western war against Islam.  That is the danger and potential tragedy.

Abbott needs to heed the best advice from an experienced range of sources, across the political divide – the current times require the smartest response for the long-term.

Fraser is right that this situation is fraught with danger and potential tragedy. It would be a tragedy for political expediency to dictate that history repeats itself – or worse, which doesn’t quite bear thinking about.

Be alert … and yes, be a little bit alarmed.

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Postscript: Writing in the Guardian newspaper recently, UK columnist Owen Jones provided a thoughtful reflection on how the world has responded since 9/11, with many similarities Australians can take from the British comparisons:

“The so-called war on terror is nearly 13 years old, but which rational human being will be cheering its success? We’ve had crackdowns on civil liberties across the world, tabloid-fanned generalisations about Muslims and, of course, military interventions whose consequences have ranged from the disastrous to the catastrophic. And where have we ended up? Wars that Britons believe have made them less safe; jihadists too extreme even for al-Qaida’s tastes running amok in Iraq and Syria; and nations like Libya succumbing to Islamist militias. There are failures, and then there are calamities.

But as the British government ramps up the terror alert to “severe” and yet more anti-terror legislation is proposed, some reflection after 13 years of disaster is surely needed. One element has been missing, and that is the west’s relationship with Middle Eastern dictatorships that have played a pernicious role in the rise of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. And no wonder: the west is militarily, economically and diplomatically allied with these often brutal regimes, and our media all too often reflects the foreign policy objectives of our governments.

Owen offers an interesting insight into the funding of overseas terrorist organisations and poses timely questions as to the West’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries.