On 9 November 2018, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali set fire to his vehicle in the middle of Bourke Street, Melbourne, and then stabbed three people. Mr Ali was fatally shot by police shortly afterwards.
I think about this incident a lot. Mr Ali was a Somalian-Australian, he had a young kid, and he was known by friends and relatives as having some severe mental health issues, as well as some substance abuse. I remember being worried about the backlash that the event would have on the Somalian-Australian and Muslim-Australian communities. The Premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews was on the front foot in declaring it a terrorist event.
But what really scared me was the surprising overlap in rhetoric between mainstream Coalition and ALP voters: why had this been permitted to happen? Why hadn’t ASIO, AFP, and VicPol stopped this from happening?
I think about it a lot. Since starting my PhD to research political aspects of national security law, I’ll think about it every few days or so. Public debate was guided by entirely the wrong questions. This incident was a failure of Australia’s national security system because it hadn’t done more to police Mr Ali.
Today, the number of new confirmed cases of COVID in NSW is 830. There were 65 new cases confirmed in Victoria, and 19 in the ACT. Public debate is following similar contours: why had this been permitted to happen? Why hadn’t the NSW Government done more, earlier, to stop this from happening?
It’s a sad and disturbing truth that, when it comes to national security law, the Australian public writes the Government a blank cheque. There are a lot of indications that the public is less worried about giving authorities too much power, and far more worried about giving authorities too little power.
Without the wider public acting as an engaged scrutineer of Executive overreach, Australia designed (or, perhaps more accurately, developed) an oversight infrastructure to reduce the likelihood of obscene overreaches of Executive power.
We do not have a similar oversight infrastructure for the use of the emergency health powers. The pandemic has given us a scary insight into what would be very likely to happen if we removed the oversight infrastructure from national security law: governments eager to look tough by enacting harsher and more draconian policies in order to reassure the ordinary citizen that everything was being done to prevent them from getting sick–everything, including the unreasonable and the unnecessary.
It scares me to think of a world in which the ABC, for example, gets an expert on to say that, when it comes to ensuring our safety against young Muslim-Australians, ‘a proportionate response is the maximal response and has been all along‘. How many people are we willing to let terrorists kill? Put a number on the acceptable number of victims.
Mr Ali was already known to authorities. His passport had been cancelled: a measure that was proportionate to the likely level of risk that he posed. Even left wing friends of mine argued that, as his passport had been cancelled, Mr Ali should have been under more surveillance just to be sure he wouldn’t harm anybody. How much surveillance would have been needed to prevent him from setting his car alight and stabbing three people? Whatever it takes. The proportionate response is the maximal response, after all.
What I want in public debate is evidence. I am absolutely fine with the Government helping itself to whatever powers it needs to achieve its goals, but–in a Republic of Reason–I want the Government to explain what it’s trying to do and what evidence is available to say that the policy measure will achieve it.
‘Lockdown all of NSW, just in case’ is not a reason. ‘The Premier should have locked down all of NSW when there was only two or three cases, just in case’ is not a reason. ‘The Premier should have had a ring of steel around all of Sydney, just in case’ is not a reason. ‘This power would be nice, just in case’ is not anything resembling a rational reason.
‘We should have put Mr Ali under more surveillance, just in case’ is not a reason to use more State powers than is necessary, appropriate, or rational even–and this is the important bit–it turns out that tomorrow he will light his car on fire and stab three people. The justification doesn’t travel back in time to be a criticism of the decision yesterday to use only those State powers that were necessary, appropriate, and rational.
Public debate needs leadership to shape, cultivate, and sustain healthy political engagement. The engagement that we want to cultivate is not ‘Look at these case numbers, my bellyfeel thinks that they are too high, who is to blame?’ The engagement that we want to cultivate is ‘The Government wants to introduce tighter restrictions than seem intuitively necessary; what is the evidence in support of this policy?’
Is 10km from the home too lenient? Is 5km from the home too strict? Should we have curfews? Should we force singles to lodge their preferred buddy with the authorities? I guess we should do whatever it takes to prevent another terrorist attack…