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The emperor’s new clothes

By Bill Calcutt - posted Friday, 18 October 2019

The first duty of Government is to protect the safety of its citizens from a range of actual and potential risks and harms. The Australian Government has adopted an all-hazards risk management policy that commits to rigorously examine and compare the risks posed to life and property by a diverse and evolving range of emergency events (hazards). Risk is a calculation that estimates probability and consequences, with mortality representing a catastrophic consequence (harm).

The emergency events included under Australia's all-hazards risk management policy are diverse, and include: structure fires, road crash rescues, medical emergencies, natural disaster events (wildfires, earthquakes, floods, storms, cyclones, Tsunami), consequences of acts of terrorism, other natural events (drought, frost, heatwave, epidemic), technological and hazardous material incidents, quarantine and control of diseases, and biological contaminants. In terms of mortality, 10,736 people died from external (potentially avoidable) causes in Australia in 2016, including suicides (2862), all poisonings (2854), falls (2666), transport accidents (1377), assaults (244), drownings (200), thermal (54), and others (479). These potentially preventable deaths represented 6.8% of all deaths in Australia in 2016.

The loss of 173 lives in the Victorian bushfires in 2009 and 33 lives in the Queensland floods in 2010/11 highlight the magnitude of the risks and harms posed by natural hazards in Australia. In 2014 the Productivity Commission estimated that in the previous five years, "natural disasters have claimed more than 200 lives, destroyed 2670 houses and damaged a further 7680, and affected the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Australians" (2014, p.3).


Despite the established risks and demonstrated harms (including significant mortality) posed by a range of hazards (including natural hazards), Australia's national emergency management priorities are dominated and distorted by fear-based perceptions of terrorism. A terrorism connotation distorts all that it touches, removing any sense of proportion or objective perspective on relative risk, and reinforcing a community-wide phobia and sense of continuing insecurity. As a result, inestimable public resources are dedicated to counter-terrorism (where the harms in terms of mortality are relatively limited and/or amorphous), while the task of defending communities from the devastating effects of natural hazards (where the harms in terms of mortality are clear and have been severe) are devolved to unpaid and under-resourced emergency service volunteers.

While volunteers are the lifeblood of emergency services in Australia and are integral to the nation's emergency management capabilities and overall disaster resilience, the concurrence of an increase in the risks posed by a range of climate change-related natural hazards, and a marked decline in the rates of formal volunteering, threatens Australia's emergency preparedness. This is placing both the community and emergency service volunteers at heightened risk of harm or death from the catastrophic effects of severe storms, floods or wildfires.

This begs the question of why, given objective measures of harms such as multiple fatalities and huge economic losses that are attributable to other hazards, the spectre of terrorism has such a powerful influence over Australia's emergency management priorities and resourcing. The reasons for this influence are complex and unique to the 21st century. Key amongst them are that information and communications technology have transformed the way individuals are exposed to and perceive the world, bringing great intimacy and immediacy to dramatic world events. A cacophony of conflicting voices can challenge the most advanced reasoning and comprehension capabilities, while graphic and shocking violence designed to engender terror can cut through the information "noise" and engage visceral emotions for great effect.

Contemporary terrorism is thus a powerful psychological and political phenomenon thus relies on fear, uncertainty, exaggeration and deliberate deception for its impact. With its simplistic depiction of a fanatical unitary enemy, and conflation of civilian and military and national and international contexts, the strategic effects of terrorism are to polarise and concentrate power in the hands of the State and extremists, while diminishing the power and democratic rights of the community and citizens. The continuing threat of terrorism is often characterised (for political and national security purposes) as an existential threat to our way of life, justifying counter-terrorism measures that challenge democratic principles, erode civil liberties, diminish privacy, expand secrecy and extend the reach of mass surveillance.

The exaggeration of the threat posed by ideologically-motivated violence is thus one of the unique and powerful dimensions of contemporary terrorism. In no small part this is due to the enduring influence of the graphic and shocking images of the mass-casualty attacks of 9/11 that have become emblematic of the extreme threat posed by all terrorism. Terrorism has become the dominant paradigm for interpreting virtually all ideologically-motivated violence, with relatively minor or isolated incidents becoming representative of the most extreme threat. Mass-casualty attacks like 9/11 are thus appropriated by lone knife-wielding fanatics, giving them international notoriety and relevance. In the absence of public data that objectively quantifies probability and consequences, it is entirely possible that the relative risk of being attacked by a terrorist in Australia may be less than the risk of being attacked by a shark.

For the victims of a person wielding a knife or driving a vehicle with homicidal intent it is of little consequence whether the perpetrator is ideologically motivated or suffering a psychotic or drug-induced episode. As reflected in the earlier statistics on the number of fatal assaults annually in Australia (244), there is a consistent level of extreme violence in all communities. While enormous intelligence and law enforcement resources are dedicated to mitigating the potential risk of indiscriminate attacks by ideologically-motivated extremists, the resources allocated to reducing the established risk and demonstrated harms of other (potentially avoidable) causes of mortality (like family homicides) are negligible. An appropriate risk-based response to the threat of terrorism would involve proportionate and effective law enforcement and intelligence action to mitigate the risks and protect the community,


Finally, so much of the public discourse on terrorism is compromised by conjecture, myth and disinformation (with echoes of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction). This is exemplified by the coverage of the 9/11 attacks that ultimately served as the catalyst and rationale for a global "war on terror". The simple and disturbing truth is that the 9/11 attacks were essentially enabled by a very basic physical security failure, with the removal of secure aircraft cockpit doors (as a cost-saving measure following the deregulation of the airline industry) allowing passenger planes to be hijacked and used as guided missiles directed at highly symbolic targets in the United States.

One can only imagine how the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent since 9/11 on waging war and building (previously unimaginable) mass surveillance capabilities in the name of countering terrorism, could have been used to mitigate the established and growing risks to life posed by climate change-related natural hazards.

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This article draws on a discussion paper that is part of a thesis titled “Valuing volunteers: Better understanding the primary motives for volunteering in Australian emergency services” that is available at

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About the Author

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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