After Martin Bryant massacred 35 people at Port Arthur in 1996, the federal government and the Australian community had exactly the right tangible response.
It might have been hard politics for the Coalition to bring in a tough gun control regime, but it got done, to John Howard’s credit.
In contrast, the general opinion is that this week’s Las Vegas attack, in which 58 victims died, will not be a catalyst for the American government to act on guns, any more than multiple earlier horrific incidents have been.
While we have many things in common with the US, the Australian policy reaction in 1996 and the American inaction over years serve to remind us of big differences between the two societies.
Howard faced angst from special interests but he was able to prevail; in America an incredibly powerful gun lobby and a mindset that says the right to widespread gun ownership is more important than the danger it poses combine to hold a country hostage seemingly forever.
The policy response to Port Arthur showed how functional our polity can be, even if in recent times we have come to despair when we see so many examples of its dysfunction. The apparent impossibility of curbing guns in the US, with its gun culture underpinned by the constitution and its fractured society, shows politics at its worst.
From what has come out so far, US killer Stephen Paddock was not motivated by any political or religious beliefs. Mass murder in the name of politics or a god – modern terrorism – has identifiable roots and so is at least easier to understand than such deranged random violence.
The terrorist threat has led, in Australia as elsewhere, to a transformation of our laws.
This week has seen federal and state leaders, at a special meeting of the Council of Australian Governments on national security, endorse another set of counter terrorism measures, including to give police the right to hold suspects for longer without charge. At present, only in NSW can they be detained for up to 14 days – this will now be the national regime.
Ahead of COAG, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin argued the extra holding period was needed because with counter-terrorism “we don’t have the normal luxury to watch, to wait, to collect evidence before we act – we have to act to disrupt. That puts police in a position where we need more time to gather the evidence that we need to put people before the courts”. The new detention regime would have court oversight, as present arrangements do.
The states have also agreed to provide the Commonwealth with driving licence photos to make for a comprehensive national facial recognition system to help in identifying “people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity”. While the licence photos can presently be accessed, the process is not instantaneous.
“It shouldn’t take seven days to be able to verify someone’s identity or seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest. It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time,” Malcolm Turnbull told the post-COAG news conference.
In the past three and a half years the federal government has passed nine tranches of national security legislation. This is on top of earlier legislation that followed the events of September 11, 2001.
There is no doubt that these measures collectively have substantially and progressively rolled back individual rights, liberties and privacy. Over the years, we seem to have become used to this – one has the impression there’s less outrage now than once.
In the main the public have accepted that the world has changed, justifying altering the balance between security and rights, although there is still argument over precisely where lines should be drawn. And some people fear a slippery slope – how a new law could be extended, or the way it could be used in the future.
It’s true that one thing can lead to another. That’s not automatically a case against doing the first thing, but it is an argument for robust safeguards – judicial and other oversight, as much transparency as possible, and of course ensuring data is kept secure.
The Greens came out strongly against the latest measures, with their justice spokesman Nick McKim saying the leaders had “abjectly failed to make the case” for what they were doing. But Labor premier Daniel Andrews said while some had the luxury of being able to have a “notional debate” about “the notional reduction in people’s rights and liberties”, “those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury”.
The creeping (at times galloping) extension of security laws has been one of the few areas of bipartisanship in an age of hyper-partisanship.
To be cynical about it, in political terms Labor can’t afford to appear soft on terrorism. But to be fair, Labor isn’t soft on terrorism.
Also, security legislation has routinely gone to a well-operating parliamentary committee, where the opposition has obtained refinements. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said of the latest changes: “On the face of it, these measures appear sensible”, while waiting for the detail, noting they will go to the committee.
Passing often harsh laws is the easier part of the battle against terrorism. Most challenging is detecting and countering the radicalisation that leads to it. That involves both “hard” and “soft” operations by ASIO and police. The laws facilitate the former; the latter involve more complexity and subtlety.
The government says that over the past three years 74 people have been charged as a result of 31 counter-terrorism operations.
The security agencies have sought stronger laws, but they are also vocal about their need to have the Muslim community’s co-operation. This means winning trust, so people are willing to pass on information to the authorities – information that sometimes might be about members of their own families. It’s revealing that ASIO and police chiefs often sound more understanding of how the Muslim community feels than some of our more strident politicians.
A mostly harmonious, multicultural society has been one of Australia’s great achievements, as has our egalitarianism. The glue that sticks our community together across ethnic and income differences is considerably stronger than in the much more divided and malfunctioning American society.
Keeping that glue strong requires constant awareness and action on multiple fronts, from fostering an inclusive approach to avoid ethnic ghettos to guarding against inequalities that could eventually breed a resentful underclass.
It also requires maintaining and improving the health of our political system, so that when we do face the really big moments there is the will and capacity to deal with them.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.