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There is no Australian terrorism ‘crisis’ and involving the military is dangerous

It is understandable that the New South Wales coroner’s report into the 2014 Lindt Café siege, hot on the heels of the Manchester Arena bombing, should raise public concern over the threat of terrorism. This has come at an opportune time for the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who has said that Australia’s defence laws may be changed in response, with discussion suggesting a greater role for the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) in domestic counter-terrorism operations.

This suggestion follows from questioning of police counter-terrorism capacities and, with people on ‘watch lists’ conducting attacks, whether they should be detained rather than be allowed, potentially, to take innocent lives.

It is understandable that, in a time of crisis, militaries may become involved in domestic issues. The idea of a greater role for the ADF in domestic affairs has some support, but remains problematic for a number of reasons.

The Lindt Café siege was two and a half years ago, staged by one person who, though he was bearing a black and white flag, was clearly deranged. His last, suicidal act was an attempt to dignify a life on a rapid downward spiral.

There was also a murder in April by two teenagers of a service station attendant in Queanbeyan. The teenagers scrawled the initials ‘IS’ on the building’s wall, which was their only link with ‘terrorism’.

There have, of course, been a number of thwarted terrorist activities in Australia. The key word here is ‘thwarted’. The police and domestic security agencies have managed the domestic threat, such as it exists, quite well.

If Australia was facing such a crisis, the ADF’s possible role would still be problematic. The ADF’s SAS Regiment Tactical Assault Group (TAG) – its counter-terrorism unit – is only located near Perth and Sydney. Should there be a terrorist attack elsewhere in Australia, there would not be functional access to these units for a minimum of 12 hours.

Australia’s geography thus implies creating SAS groups in each capital. But, then, terrorism is nothing if not adaptable. Terrorists would simply move to more vulnerable targets. In this, intelligence and pre-emption – already well established – are vastly more important than response and reaction.

Assuming such a need for state-based highly trained assault units, existing special operations police either already have sufficient capacity, or should be trained to that level. This assumes that the full range of other hostage measures would not otherwise be first deployed.

But even with proximity of SASR TAG, there is ambiguity around the circumstances of deployment. The group could be limited in deployment only to ‘terrorism’ hostage situations – of which there has been just one and which the NSW coroner found would not have been assisted by SASR TAG involvement.

If there is a logic to SASR TAG deployment in hostage situations, however, it would imply that all hostage situations would require their involvement, including in armed domestic violence and related stand-offs.

What, then, about breaking down the doors of murders, or armed robbers, or raiding bikie club houses?

The principle is a bit like capital punishment, where there can be a populist, often knee-jerk, clamoring around a specific incident. But, if the principle is changed, there is little to ensure that the use of the army stops with one specific cause of implementation, not least because the idea of ‘terrorism’ is so ambiguously defined.

There is also a wider political problem with bringing the ADF into domestic ‘force’ situations. There has, for example, been some discussion of how Australian citizens would respond to seeing armed soldiers on the streets in a policing role. Add this to a clamoring, in some quarters, for detainment ‘on suspicion’ and there begins to be the recipe for a very different type of domestic political landscape.

History is littered with militaries becoming involved in domestic affairs, often with the best of intentions. But when a military becomes involved in domestic affairs it necessarily becomes involved in domestic politics.

The consequence of military involvement in domestic politics is, given its implied superior capacity, that such involvement increases rather than decreases. As Cold War conservative Samuel Huntington noted in ‘The Soldier and the State’, militaries necessarily default to a top-down, orders-based model of organization which, in political contexts implies authoritarianism. The history of military coups is a stark enough reminder of this phenomenon.

Once in, getting the military out of politics is extraordinarily difficult. And once a military has been involved in domestic politics, they have a demonstrated tendency to repeat such involvement.

Australia’s democracy, such as it is, is only as strong as the protection of it. That is what, fundamentally, is at stake when a country starts to go down the path of involving the military in domestic affairs.

On balance, it is as effective and politically far safer to leave such little ‘terrorism’ that Australia has to the agencies and police counter-terrorism units. In all this, it also helps to remember that Australia is not facing a ‘terrorism’ crisis.