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Australia’s National Security and its Return On Investment

On Monday this week the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, delivered the National Security Statement at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Canberra.

“I want to speak to you about the threat that we face; the work done already to keep you as safe as we humanly can; and the things still needed to prevent further terrorist attacks,” said the PM in his introduction. This opening statement laid the foundations for the focus of the morning’s speech.

Since 9/11 there has been a strong focus on national security, not just in Western States, but also around the globe. It is understandable, that in the wake of the recent Martin Place attacks, there would be an emphasis on preventing home-grown, Islam-driven lone wolf attacks. What struck my attention, however, was the undertone of how the rise in foreign fighters, homegrown terrorist and sympathisers would become an ostensibly existential threat to Australia in strategic terms and not just as a matter of security.

It is important to acknowledge there is a security concern, but to elevate the threat to ‘warlike’ status creates its own dangers. As Paul Buchanan has argued over at The Interpreter, terrorism should be treated as a criminal activity and many analysts have suggested the same.

In the PM’s speech he emphasised the measured responses to combat any security risk including, but not limited to, sixty two biometric scanning gates at airports and forty nine extra AFP members working on the Foreign Fighters threat. These are metrics that will need to be examined closely in future to fully understand how their role has been effective in preventing and combating home-grown terrorism but none of this comes for free.

The question needs to be asked whether the increase in spending on counter terrorism is actually making Australians safer. This is certainly not a new topic and it is difficult to publicly assess the effectiveness of the counter terrorism budget. Whilst Australian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies have been successful in thwarting ‘significant’ attacks in the past, it is important to consider how these new measures (including legislative changes) will assist in preventing attacks. After all, even the PM acknowledged “there were no major failings of intelligence or process in the lead up to Martin Place.”

This Statement all but publicly links Islam to the increased threat of terrorism. As mentioned previously there is a wealth of debate publicly available about the dangers of militarising this issue. There are wider security concerns beyond that of homegrown terrorism, though it is certainly one of increasing concern. It is perfectly understandable, given that it was previously inconceivable that attacks, such as the siege at Martin Place, would occur on Australian soil.

Nevertheless, it would be prudent to explore the issue further and examine how the national security budget is spent. It would be easy to assume that as long as there are no attacks then the investment was worth it. I would caution pursuing this line of argument and dig deeper into this highly-complex issue.

Nam Nguyen is the Australian National Security and Defence Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: DVIDSHUB (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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