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Militarising Civilian Life: Australia, Policing and Terrorism

It is far from unusual in recent times: a spate of terrorist activity, followed by police seemingly agog, then the call for cavalry, usually in the form of military forces to guard vital installations and furnish the public with a reassuring presence. Unfortunately, such moves tend to take place long after the horse has bolted, an ineffectual measure in terms of combating terrorism but pernicious in terms of dealing with distinctions policing.

Australia’s Turnbull government has promised new powers under a national security review conducted last year that will grant the Australian army powers to kill terrors suspects on sight. This is not all: the actual militarisation of Australian police personnel is set to take place with specialists from the ADF embedded in various teams. Training from elite SAS personnel is also slated to take place.

These measures are far from reassuring, suggesting that the military aspect of policing has been given not just a jolt but a terrific heave ho. The Prime Minister, showing he is far from mellowing in his role on the subject of defusing fear, insists on the authoritarian prerogative of streamlining and trimming the interaction between military and policing functions. Cut the strings, the heavy bound red tape, and the world will be a safe place.

According to Malcolm Turnbull, “The overhaul will make it easier for Defence to work together with federal, state and territory police in the event of a terrorist incident. State and territory police forces remain the best first response to terrorist incidents immediately after an attack starts.”

Distinctions between the policing element of a state, and its military, are worth having. One, working within the boundaries of the law, targets and prevents crime; the other, focuses on the defence of the realm. These points are far from being the same thing. But the terrorist genie, floating about with menace, has been used to render these points theoretical, which is more than just a crying shame.

In another conspicuous area, military and defence functions have been obliterated to cope with refugee and asylum seeker arrivals by boat. Civilian functions more akin to traditional policing and processing have become the purview of the military, a move that was significantly advanced during the years of the Howard government. The signalling shot there was the deployment in August 2001 of the SAS against the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa. Its apotheosis is Operation Sovereign Borders.

Theories on how the Australian military interact with policing functions are far from sophisticated. There is, for instance, no equivalent Posse Comitatus Act, an 1878 US initiative passed by a Democratic-led Congress after troops were deployed two years prior ostensibly to maintain order at various polling places in southern states.

The Democrats were convinced that the measure was designed to fix the election for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and pushed for provisions that would limit the role of the US military in terms of operating in civilian spaces, or to “execute the laws”.

This did not mean, of course, that the PCA would not be assailed with grubby hands indifferent to civil liberties. President Bill Clinton did his very best with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Act of 1996, part of an omnibus of crime statutes that effectively pulled the carpet of law enforcement from under the GOP law-and-order hawks.

While Clinton did not get his wish initially (the final version did not contain an abolition of Posse Comitatus in terms of working with police), the writing was left to dry on the wall. The sheer power and pseudo-military aspects of much in current US policing has arguably rendered neat distinctions redundant.

The Australian constitution does provide for the following: “The Commonwealth shall protect every state against invasion and, on the application of the Executive Government of the State, against domestic violence.” Once declared by the Governor-General, “Permanent Forces” may be called out, with “Emergency Forces and Reserve Forces” sought in the event that numbers are insufficient.

In the past, Australia’s military has become the fall-back option for authorities, called upon as a grand clearing house to supply substitute civilian functions. At points, the authorities in Canberra have been cautious to blend military matters with civilian disputes.

In 1997, the National Farmers Federation urged Prime Minister John Howard to use troops to forcibly “reform” the waterfront and keep the docks running during a strike. “I don’t contemplate,” came Howard’s response, “the use of the military in civilian disputes. I’ve never advocated the use of troops.”

The NFF’s request was perhaps understandable, given that a Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, had used military personnel and material to replace lost manpower during the famed wage dispute of Australian pilots in 1989.

What is being contemplated in these new measures by Turnbull is the deployment of lethal measures and military control over civilian spaces. The ADF, as with other military arms, can provide heavy lifting in the event of natural disaster, emergencies and the like, but deploying it as a de facto police force is setting a vicious cat amongst the pigeons.

Conflating police and military functions is not only an insidious overreach, but blurs assumptions about justice and law enforcement. As a US federal court put it, “Military personnel must be trained to operate under circumstances where the protection of constitutional freedoms cannot receive the consideration needed in order to assure their preservation.”

Even in the absence of a Posse Comitatus provision in Australia, the tendency to throw the book of evidence and prosecution out and favour summary rough handling, even execution in such cases, is genuine. In this sense, the Australian government risks pushing its domestic arena further down the pathway of a militarisation with grave consequences.


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  1. Freethinker

    This is getting beyond bad to a very serious situation.

  2. wam

    seems like a over reaction to a situation where a mentally ill man whose demand was a phone call to air his perceived but ‘real’ to him grievances. but was left for 17 hours stewing unapproached by negotiators or a religious counseller. What disastrously inept handling by the police hierachy.
    Certainly there would have been dozens of police officers who would have entered the cafe to talk to him????
    But to my facebook rabbottians it sounds good and is a timely distraction so hang the possible consequences(it has been a long time since kent state??)

  3. Freethinker

    On the news, quote: Attorney-General George Brandis, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Justice Minister Michael Keenan and Defence Minister Marise Payne are all understood to oppose the idea. Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne is understood to lean against the idea.

  4. helvityni

    I just watched the Drum. I don’t think Dr Hewson was too impressed with this latest thought bubble of Mal’s, I don’t believe he’s too impressed with our PM at all. Van Badham of Guardian simply stated that whole idea came up because of PM’s continuously bad polling.

  5. diannaart

    Just tweeted above with message that more people die each year from pollution – yet Federal government cannot even draft an energy bill.

    The World Health Organisation has issued a stark new warning about deadly levels of pollution in many of the world’s biggest cities, claiming poor air quality is killing millions and threatening to overwhelm health services across the globe.

    Before the release next month of figures that will show air pollution has worsened since 2014 in hundreds of already blighted urban areas, the WHO says there is now a global “public health emergency” that will have untold financial implications for governments.

  6. havanaliedown

    Sad sack Hewson has been peddling his misery again? He still can’t get over the fact the John Howard and Tony Abbott did what he could never achieve – election victory over Labor. He’s probably not too jealous of Malcolm, as Mal didn’t exactly pull off a stunning victory.

    I wonder if John has finally figured out how much of his GST he needs to add to a birthday cake? Or is he still counting candles and auditing icing? Yep, some political expert. But then, he’s the type of “Liberal” that Lefties can love – a loser.

  7. Michael Taylor

    Are you saying that you’re happy with this?

  8. Freethinker

    Of course he is Michael, remember that the move was considered by Tony Abbott when he was PM.

  9. havanaliedown

    Michael, do you place much stock in what Mark Latham or Graham Richardson say nowadays? The same “turncoat” rules apply to Hewson or Fraser (when he was drawing a pension).

  10. Michael Taylor

    I was hoping you could comment on a post without it being your trademark ‘kick a lefty’ remark. In expecting that one day you might actually offer something worthwhile, I clearly expected too much.

  11. Johno

    I am just grateful not everyone thinks like Havana.

  12. Zoltan Balint

    If you have an individual pointing a big gun in your face do you want two individual to argue for hours to determine if he is a nutter or a terrorist and if the latter to call some fat … politician and get him to authorise the individual with a bigger gun who has been trained for years how to deal with individuals with guns and told ‘you shoot anyone else and you will clean toilets for the rest of your life’ or a plod with a small gun who has to be told to take the safety off before pulling the trigger. Remember we pay for the training of the people (ADF) with big guns to go overseas to do the above every day so why not in our own back yard.

  13. Harquebus

    Just part of the haves preparing to defend their loot and privilege.

    “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote.” — Benjamin Franklin

    “To conquer a nation, first disarm its citizens.” — Adolf Hitler

    We are lunch.

  14. Kyran

    “Distinctions between the policing element of a state, and its military, are worth having. One, working within the boundaries of the law, targets and prevents crime; the other, focuses on the defence of the realm. These points are far from being the same thing. But the terrorist genie, floating about with menace, has been used to render these points theoretical, which is more than just a crying shame.”

    That just about sums it up. Will the military be operating subject to the laws of the land or the laws pertaining to warfare?
    From an ABC article;

    “The Federal Government is giving the Defence Force the power to help state and territory police deal with terrorism attacks, saying it is, “vitally important that defence is able to respond and assist in domestic counter-terrorism efforts”.

    Key points:
    • Announcement means Defence special forces can offer special training for police officers
    • Defence Force members could also be pre-positioned to be ready in case of terrorism incident
    • Malcolm Turnbull says police will remain the primary respondents to terrorist attacks”

    Notwithstanding that Labor has given in principle support for the idea, does anyone know if any of this has to be passed through parliament, or is it just another ‘tweaking’ of regulations?
    With this pack of lunatics in charge, be afraid. Be very afraid.
    Thank you Dr Kampmark and commenters. Take care

  15. Aussie Pride

    Hopefully they’ll shoot themselves. (the politicians that is, not the ADF)

    There goes democratic rule. We have officially become a dictatorship. Military should never be allowed to act upon the general population. There is good reason for that. Study history. Our fine police force do a wonderful job, if they are allowed to do it. They get hamstrung by policy and confused leadership. Don’t tell me our police force couldn’t be trained to achieve what we need in the public domain. This is over reach by the right wing, and it’s NOT a good idea. They want to Americanize Australia with Home land security, mass artillery and all the bells n whistles. Boys n their guns. The general population gave up their right to arms with Howard. This is NOT good. We have now become a police militarized state! Be afraid. This government is dangerous. We’ve just lost our civil rights. ha..and all from a government that claims it’s highest ideal is freedom of the individual.

    Ah well..Guess it’s Chairman Mal from now on. And General Dutton! Hile Hitler!!!

  16. Aussie Pride

    I’m just Conservative Liberals are SMALL government not interfering with the individual (cough). As they continue to privatize all elements of government departments. Umm.. Wouldn’t that make us just one big gigantic Nauru. So much for the peasant uprising.

  17. True Activist

    This is Part 2 – 1 was pushed through by Abbott with support of Shorten, ASIO no longer answers to any one or institution in Australia.
    This is all being put in place getting ready for the completed collapse of our economy to stop the people cleaning the Shit out of our Parliaments. This is all being dictated from abroad. They have already used Abbotts legislation against a federally registered Australian Political Party as it was the only way they could shut them up when the Government had an evil visitor.

  18. Glenn Barry

    With these changes in addition to the proposed amalgamation of security related agencies into the omnibus security portfolio lead by Dutton, one element is a glaring omission from our constitution – a bill of rights. This government won’t respect them anyway, but at least there will be the possibility of legal recourse…

  19. John L

    So we can now legally have the Australian military use lethal force against Australian citizens…… we all know where that leads, and it has nothing to do with “terrorism”

  20. @RosemaryJ36

    Please could those monitoring this site let havanaliedown slip off the page?

  21. Michael Fairweather

    Troops on the streets bad idea, very bad idea. Dictatorship in its full glory. I would suggest that each State trains a very special squad of dedicated officers in the art of Snipping and Bomb Disposal as I have no doubt they would be more acceptable than troops on our streets. Australian are slowly but surely losing our freedom under Turdbull and his Government.

  22. Freethinker

    This reminds me my home country back in the late 1960’s and is a worry to me.
    When we arrived to Australia our first relief was to not see one single soldier in the streets and not one policeman in uniform or not asking for the ID card, what we was doing or what was inside our bags.
    Now, things start getting more complicated, one mad man have control of far to many agencies that are or will be capable to limiting the civilian rights, they have cameras everywhere, face recognition software, access to encrypted data on the social networks and a new laws which can limited the freedom of the citizen.
    IMHO and based by my experience this is only the beginning.
    Have a nice day………if you can

  23. Kevin Arnold

    There are many, probably hundreds, books out there describing the rise of fascism and the Third Reich. Pick any one.

  24. paulwalter

    Speaking of the idiocy of our times, I just find out Sen Larissa Waters resigns for the crime of being born in Canada.

    How much can a Grizzly Bear?

  25. Freethinker

    paulwalter July 18, 2017 at 1:21 pm
    Speaking of the idiocy of our times, I just find out Sen Larissa Waters resigns for the crime of being born in Canada.

    How much can a Grizzly Bear?

    What happens to these people, are they so stupid that they are not aware of the laws? What a waste of time!!!
    How many more are out there?
    Now the government will have control in the senate.

  26. paulwalter

    No one else noticed it and the big parties have whole squads of people responsible for digging up dirt.

    Ludlum said he was naturalised as a fifteen yo boy after being here since the age of three and I dare say Waters will turn out to be the same.

    What else would any normal person think, once becoming naturalised.

    So sick of straight-jacketed, microminded, control freak thinking..ffs, I’m an aussie,

  27. Freethinker

    No an excuse paulwalter, I am Australian as well but I cannot resign from my mother country citizenship even I if wish because my country will not recognise it.

  28. paulwalter

    Not sure what you are getting at, but will say this, that Australians have always prided themselves as being for common sense, not nitpicking.


    It is just bullshit to me. Let them toss out Corman, Bernardi and Abbott before these people.

  29. Freethinker

    paulwalter, I agree with you that any of the Greens politicians are better that the Turnbull team but we are not going to do any good if those that put their name as candidates do not do the homework.
    It appears that the laws in Canada are the same as many other countries and who born there cannot resign to their citizenship even if they like to do it so.

    I cannot understand what it is your point

  30. helvityni

    Larissa and Ludllam have been my favourite Greens, and as Paul says take Brandis and Abbott away instead…better for us and for Australia. Please take few more, Michaelia is giving me a headache, she shouts, always…

  31. paulwalter

    Ok. It makes me laugh a bit that there is not a better way to resolve it since she’s been here since an eleven month old baby and no one was worried about dual citizenship when she was paying her taxes.

  32. Freethinker

    The ALP position, quote from script on an ABC interview:
    EMMA ALBERICI: But in principle, you’d support the notion of the military being somehow involved and supporting local police?

    RICHARD MARLES: Well, I think the objective here is to make sure that, in any crisis and in any moment, we bring to bear the most potent capability our nation has, be that in a civil police force or be it in the ADF.

    We want to make sure that we have laws which are flexible enough to allow that to happen, whilst at the same time having laws which really promote the best coordination possible between all of those agencies.

    So we certainly support those principles and we look forward to working with the Government to try and achieve an outcome in relation to that.

    Now, previously when we have worked on national security matters with the Government, we have often come up with ideas ourselves which have been incorporated into the end legislative product. I suspect we will see something like that process again. But we will work constructively with the Government in a bipartisan way to try and bring about an outcome here as well.

  33. Zoltan Balint

    Sorry Michael but we never had that freedom it was an illusion. What we are finding out is what the polititions believe we might find out about and if they were doing it already they are running aroung making the laws to cover their actions. Example in the Unied Kingdom where the parliment put in new laws about privacy and their ability to spy after it was found they have been doing it anyway. The ability of the army to enter public space and use force is possible already under martial law but it need state or federal approval – which could be as simple as a phone call and a piece of paper.

  34. Aortic

    I defer to a scribe who wrote long ago in the mainstream press, ” as i come to the end of a long and fruitful life I am more and more convinced that anyone who thinks they know what is better for me than I know myself, should be quietly led away before they hurt someone.” I am not aware of the government policy on road raging sadly, because I am far more likely to be taken out by this occurrence than by any terror threat.

  35. will

    I served in the military and I can tell you that some of the personal are not in there for there academic abillityes. Most just want to shoot guns. When is Turnbull gonna announce Marshall law. And can the military sort out these terrorist bees they kill more Australians each year than (so called terrorists) ? PS anyone seen roman quadvlieg?

  36. king1394

    The more the Police are armoured and militarised, the more fearful we all become, and the Police become the most fearful of all. The tragic shooting in the USA of a woman in her pyjamas who had phoned for help is a case in point. The Police, it is said, were fearful of being ambushed: in other words, they approached the situation expecting attack, and being armed, they shot at the first instance without any investigation. This occurs daily in the USA, but we have plenty of examples happening here in Australia, particularly in cases where someone is mentally ill (that is, not acting ‘normally’).

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