Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 23:30 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 23:30 | SYDNEY

Counter-terrorism: Perverse incentives


Sam Roggeveen


24 October 2011 10:59

Back in August I wrote a post arguing that politicians won't reduce wasteful airport security because they've made a judgment that political opponents, voters and the media will punish them for being 'weak' on terrorism.

Last week Senator George Brandis illustrated this argument nicely, saying it was 'beyond belief' that the Australian Federal Police's air marshal program is being wound back (air marshals travel anonymously on certain flights and would intervene in the event of a hijacking).

I'm picking on Brandis in this case, but I have no doubt that, were the parties reversed, there would be an equally opportunistic Labor politician telling us the government is soft on terrorism. Never mind that expert opinion and academic studies show the air marshal program to be of questionable security value. Removing the marshals might even improve safety.

Some will argue that it takes leadership to overcome this kind of scaremongering; brave politicians must stand up to fear campaigns and tell voters the truth.

But leaders have finite political capital to work with. They choose their battles, and in the scheme of things, airport security is not important enough to risk a bad headline and a potentially fatal reputation for being weak on national security. Until the commentators and the Opposition begin to lower the political cost of being sensible about the terrorist threat, nothing will be done. We'll just keep clogging our economic arteries and eroding our liberties.

Photo by Flickr user tttallis.