ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Without prejudice

By Bill Calcutt
Posted Monday, 29 June 2020

The global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign reminds Australians of the ongoing disproportionate rate of incarceration of indigenous people in this country, and the failure to hold public officials to account for several hundred deaths since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Mega trends are the powerful social, economic, environmental, technological and global forces that interact to shape the world and drive major changes. This article acknowledges several key influences on prejudicial attitudes towards racially and culturally diverse citizens in Australia, and specifically explores the influence of fear on community cohesion and tolerance following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.

Key influences on prejudicial attitudes in Australia include:

In the shadow of the Second World War, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) acknowledged dignity and equality as the foundation for a free, just and peaceful world, and enunciated a set of principles to balance the rights of the individual and the powers of the State. These principles were subsequently embodied in two international covenants (that came into force in 1976) that provided significant impetus to formalise and legislate for the protection of civil liberties.

In the ensuing years Australian Governments enacted legislative reforms to enhance transparency and public accountability, and to strengthen the protection of individual rights and civil liberties. Relevant legislation included the 1979 ASIO Act, 1979 Telecommunications Interception Act, 1982 Freedom of Information Act, and the 1986 Australian Human Rights Commission Act. However, Australia has assiduously avoided a formal national commitment to the core values of equality and dignity in a Constitution, Charter or Bill of Rights, and as a consequence may be particularly susceptible to shifts in the balance between civil liberties and national security.

The devastating high-profile terrorist attacks on 9/11 effectively ended Australia's governance reform agenda, and has since catalysed a marked shift towards enhancing national security. A primary aim of terrorism (as an asymmetric strategy) is to coerce social and political change by engendering irrational fear, and this objective has been wildly successful in eliciting a disproportionate militaristic response from many Governments. The characterisation of the global response as a "war on terror" was particularly inappropriate, given armed conflict suspends many of the conventions of civil society and justifies State-sanctioned killing.

The same fears have also played out in the Australian community, with a rise in Islamophobia and a diminished level of tolerance towards racially and culturally diverse citizens, and foreigners seeking refuge. The success of terrorism has, in no small part, been due to its symbiotic relationship with technological changes (and the rise of social media) that have facilitated, amplified and globalised the psychological and propaganda effects of indiscriminate barbaric violence.

Each year more than ten thousand people die from external and potentially avoidable causes in Australia, including a growing number of deaths caused by climate change-related natural hazards such as bushfires. Despite a commitment to determine national emergency management priorities on the basis of an objective evaluation of the relative risk of all hazards, in Australia fear-based perceptions of terrorism have dominated and distorted national priorities and permeated intelligence, security and law enforcement functions. Governments have enacted legislation to strengthen national security and extend the veil of secrecy, while inestimable amounts have been spent on counter-terrorism measures.

Pressures to integrate traditionally-separate military, intelligence and law enforcement functions in Australia have grown stronger, most recently reflected in the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review that proposes "a pathway to take those areas of individual agency excellence to an even higher level of collective performance through strengthening integration across Australia's national intelligence enterprise". Moves to reform Australia's national security architecture through the alignment of functions and extension of utilitarian ethics are fundamentally incompatible with long-held Westminster principles of the separation of institutions in order to safeguard against the concentration and abuse of power, and the explicit rules-based governance of the activities of secret agencies.

The current national terrorism threat level of 'probable' has a direct impact on the law enforcement environment and culture, and is thus relevant to official attitudes towards and treatment of racially and culturally diverse citizens (including First Nations people). The prospects of an imminent terrorism threat requires front-line police to remain alert for indiscriminate violence by 'lone-wolf' extremists, potentially including attacks on police. Such a fraught security environment may be conducive to a more rapid escalation of the use of lethal force, irrespective of whether those threatening extreme violence are ideologically-motivated extremists, experiencing a severe mental health psychosis, disoriented due to language or cultural differences, or simply reacting viscerally (fight or flight). A constantly heightened level of alert may mean some police become more wary of and defensive towards citizens generally, particularly those members of the community who are racially or culturally different, potentially increasing the prospects of misunderstandings and recourse to the use of excessive force.


Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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