Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:08 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:08 | SYDNEY

Canberra 9/11 decade: Politics


Graeme Dobell

27 September 2011 11:41

The 11 September 2001 attacks announced and framed the decade, but two other key dates did much to define its politics for Australia. Following columns on what the 9/11 decade meant for the ADF and the bureaucracy, this piece is published at the end of September to be closer to two other important anniversaries: 12 October and 10 November.

Australia's Terror-and-Tampa federal election was decided on 10 November, 2001, while the first Bali bombing occurred on 12 October, 2002. Grouping these dates shows the complex mix that runs through the 9/11 decade, encompassing defence, security and terrorism, but also embracing refugees, border control and even elements of immigration and population policy. Such a mix can turbo-charge politics while being disruptive — even toxic — for clear policy in specific areas.

The floundering effort of the Gillard Government on asylum seekers and off-shore processing is so troubled because the political argument slides easily into the language of state sovereignty and defence of the realm. Andrew Carr had an excellent discussion of this in his piece on asylum as a foreign or domestic problem

In Canberra, the tone and temperature of the refugee argument reaches directly to the Terror-and-Tampa election in 2001 — the twin poles being the 9/11 attacks and the Howard Government's action against the Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, which arrived in Australian waters (and sailed into Oz political lore) in August, 2001, carrying Afghan asylum seekers rescued in international waters.

The horror of the first Bali bombing in 2002 caused many in Canberra to ponder where they had failed. Despite the 9/11 attacks and the foiled Jemaah Islamiyah plot for a series of bomb attacks in Singapore, Australian agencies had not really connected the dots and sounded the alarm. One or two of Canberra's mandarins gave public expression to that sense of failure; the politicians could not grapple with the topic in public.

The Howard Government scorched and scorned any suggestion of intelligence malfunction over Bali, while Labor — scarred and scared by the Terror-and-Tampa election — felt that any real political attack risked being seen as crassly opportunist, or merely playing to John Howard's security-policy strengths.

The politics remain sensitive, but big and small policy responses have flowed. The 2004 report by Philip Flood on the effectiveness of Australian intelligence set the seal on a huge surge of cash into the national security complex. Seldom has a sense of failure been so richly rewarded. The Foreign Affairs Department's fixation with travel warnings has its roots in the same place — and still bedevils relations with Indonesia.

The reverberations of the terrorist attacks in Bali and on the Australian embassy in Jakarta and the completely different challenge of people smugglers joined in one understanding in Canberra — Australia must ally itself with, not alienate, Southeast Asia. The regional understanding is usually present in the call-and-response/cat-call and calumny of Oz; the continuous conversation among pollies and people.

Thus, one of the few tin-ear moments from John Howard was when he tried to employ George W Bush's first term language of pre-emption in talking about Australian responses to terrorist threats coming from the region. It flamed in Southeast Asia and didn't really reverberate domestically. The demands of region meant that the lead instrument for action in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific was the Australian Federal Police; in Iraq and Afghanistan it was the Australian Defence Force.

A simple measure of the politics of all this is to chart how these diverse external pressures influenced Australian elections over the decade. In a simple win-lose equation, the Liberal-National Coalition is well ahead of Labor. In the 2001 election, John Howard joined his achievements in East Timor to the turmoil of Terror-and-Tampa to devastating electoral effect. In the 2004 election, the dangers posed by terrorism and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were still political assets for Howard; Mark Latham's pungent animosity towards George W Bush cost Labor because it translated electorally as being anti-alliance.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd matched Gough Whitlam's 1972 effort to become the only Labor leader to draw an election dividend from a war (Curtin delivered for Labor but the effort killed him; Billy Hughes triumphed but split Labor, then deserted the party). Rudd's strange achievement was to withdraw from one war (Iraq) yet re-commit to another (Afghanistan).

In the 2010 election, Labor and the Coalition affirmed their consensus on Afghanistan by hardly talking about it in the campaign. It was only the demands of a drawn election that forced Afghanistan onto the floor of the Parliament. Tony Abbott re-introduced the Tampa effect with a constant one-liner: 'stop the boats'. The voters rightly called it a draw.

Punditry allows for pop psychology, so what did the 9/11 decade do to the Oz psyche? The forces the decade unleashed offer part of the answer to the conundrum Michael Wesley points to in discussing the 'deep contradictions in contemporary Australia's attitudes towards the outside world' — a nation that has internationalised, yet a society that displays a 'deepening insularity'.

With Terror-and-Tampa at the start and global financial crisis at the end, Australians could be excused for deciding this was a time that warned them of the need to step back and turn inward. Watching the twin towers fall told Australians much about what they might fear in the new decade; the bomb blasts in Bali brought that horror close to home. The 88 Australians who died in the suicide attack in Kuta on 12 October were people who lived in the next suburb and looked like mates and girlfriends, our sons and daughters. The pains of the 9/11 decade reminded many Australians of the great fortune involved in being the only nation with its own continent.

One final thought on what 9/11 did to Canberra — it changed, probably forever, the immediate surrounds and approaches to all the major buildings in the Parliamentary triangle. The physical legacy of the decade is the plague of bollards posing as giant mushrooms and concrete barriers trying to look like walls — silent sentinels to stop any terrorist blast from getting too close to the key buildings of government.

Photo by Flickr user alistercoyne.