Thursday, December 18, 2014

Martin Place siege: acknowledge errors to prepare for the future

Like prime ministers before him, Tony Abbott believes the first responsibility of government is national security – protecting the citizenry from those who would do us harm.

Being a remote island nation, historically regarded as a strategic advantage in itself, counts for little when the most immediate threat to public security now comes from a self-precipitating enemy within. 

Yet judged against this criterion, it is arguable his government is failing.

Australians approach the end of 2014 feeling markedly less secure than they began it. More than a feeling, this is a fact conceded by no less an authority than the government itself. Acting on the advice of its defence and security experts, the official "National Terrorism Public Alert System" currently ranks the domestic threat as "high" – meaning a terrorist attack is regarded as "likely".  It was changed from "medium" in September where it had been set for years – since September 2001, in fact.


An extra $630 million for counter-terrorism measures this year, and a solid raft of new powers aimed at gathering new information on the private dealings of people, have yet to turn this around.

Nor too has committing hundreds of Australian Defence Force personnel and sophisticated warplanes to another ambitious and open-ended Middle-East war. Quite the opposite.

Being a remote island nation, historically regarded as a strategic advantage in itself, counts for little when the most immediate threat to public security now comes from a self-precipitating enemy within.

Notwithstanding the debate about whether Monday's appalling events in Martin Place constituted terrorism – it was certainly claimed as politically motivated violence – there will be calls for even tougher counter-terrorism laws. Stronger surveillance powers, more security personnel, effective preventative powers, and stiffer penalties.

While a review of the current arrangements is required, the first order of business must be a targeted examination of what failed in this case. The questions go to three main areas: failures of intelligence; failures of the criminal justice system; and the decisions of police on Monday and into Tuesday morning at the siege site.

Why, when we have been specifically warned by ASIO and the Australian Federal Police against so-called "lone-wolf" attacks, was Man Haron Monis, a self-declared Islamic extremist with a horrendous record of violence and attention-seeking behaviour, not on their active watch list? Why, given the graveness of the criminal charges against him in the murder of his former wife, and a slew of quite separate sexual assault charges, was he out on bail?

Why was the PM advised by the AFP – if that is the case – that Monis had held a gun licence?

With such obvious systemic failure, nothing less than a full independent inquiry is needed.

Abbott's instincts in this case have been broadly in tune with public sentiment. In the hours and days since, he has voiced many of the primary concerns of Australians regarding a judicial system that let a violent extremist psychopath walk free.

And he has tacitly acknowledged shortcomings in the management of the siege by ordering an urgent inquiry to be conducted jointly by the head of the Prime Minister and the head of the New South Wales Premier's Department. 

Reporters in Canberra noted the look in Abbott's eye when he was asked if proper consideration had gone into shooting Monis dead.

"Look, I was constantly asking the appropriate officials whether all was being done," he said, hinting at private views on which he would not be drawn.

Yet he and NSW Premier Mike Baird were also quick to join what may turn out to be a premature chorus of acclamation for the NSW police who had 'control' of the siege.

Self-evidently, if the object of NSW Police was a peaceful end to the siege via negotiation, that strategy failed. A primary tool in that plan is time – being prepared to wait it out and hope that the fatigue factor eventually persuades the hostage taker to give up. Yet time introduces its own new variables to a situation which is already extremely dangerous and inherently unpredictable.

Security experts say police had to factor in fatigue not just in respect of the perpetrator, but the increasing possibility with each passing hour that things could spin out of control due to the actions of one or more of the hostages. 

Prima facie, there is already some evidence of this including the view that Monis first used his gun in fury over the successful escape of some hostages.

In the immediate aftermath of the siege, security experts contacted by this column, including a former commando trained to respond in hostage situations, questioned the decision not to shoot Monis when he was in the view of police snipers.

There were many things to consider including the possibility of an explosive device. But according to one, an excess of caution stemmed from a "policing mindset" stuck on the idea of getting everyone out alive including Monis rather than a focus on getting all of the hostages out alive even if that necessitated killing the perpetrator.

Another security expert wondered why highly trained special forces commandos located at Holsworthy who had trained specifically for hostage situations ahead of the G20 just weeks before, were not brought in.

Any examination of the circumstances leading up to this crisis must of necessity consider the particularities of the siege itself. A flurry of self-congratulation that so many survived was at the very least insensitive given that most escaped of their own accord, and that two innocent people died.

The Abbott government has shown no reluctance to embark on Royal Commissions for political purposes – think home insulation and the unions commissions. Arguably both have turned up some useful public policy lessons. Cost has proved no barrier. The home insulation inquiry came after whole series of previous coronial and other inquiries.

With the stakes involved in national security, not to mention the vast sums of public money being committed, only the most thoroughgoing, and fully independent inquiry will suffice. The proposed six-week time frame is too short.

Public confidence demands it. And the families of the deceased deserve at least that too.

Mistakes were made. Assumptions were wrong. People died. These things should now be squarely acknowledged in the hope of saving lives in future.  

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's Chief Political Correspondent.


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