President’s column

THE SPECIAL counter-terrorism meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) this week was intergovernmental cooperation at its best – officials, departments, experts and our top representatives cooperating to achieve a common objective.

In this case, it was to preserve and defend a priceless asset: the safety and security of our Australian way of life.

Federal, state, territory and local government leaders recommitted to a nationally consistent approach to countering the terrorist threat, across a number of areas. There was a focus on harmonising, tightening and improving laws at the State and Territory level to work seamlessly across borders and with the Commonwealth.  And to establishing a national identity-matching service based on facial biometric matching capability where each State and Territory agreed to share their existing drivers licence photographic data with each other and the Commonwealth in digital form.

The forum also reaffirmed the importance of assessing the vulnerability of public places – and the lives of the people who work in, use or visit them – to terrorist attacks.

The Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism strategy was released only in August and I have written about the related Crowded Places Self Assessment tool previously. The tool is designed for councils, property owners, planners, event managers, sporting facility managers and the police to follow a simple flow chart to establish the level of risk their property or event is exposed to, if any, and to consider a range of interventions to make them safer.

Councils are major owners and operators of the public realm, and must take this responsibility seriously. The Crowded Places Self-Assessment Tool is readily available online – make sure your CEO has seen it.

Speaking on behalf of Local Government at COAG, I stressed the importance of both the assessment and interventions phases being proportional to the risk assessed. It may be that the majority of our spaces are low-risk and require no intervention or protection at all. Others will need strengthening, but how we do it is as important as why.

Security measures which are over-bearing, intrusive or officious may ultimately be effective, but they risk creating a perception of fear and anxiety, potentially provoking division and disharmony in sections of our society – which is exactly what the terrorists want. So we must be responsible both at level of assessment, and in designing the interventions, if indeed any are deemed to be required.

I also stressed that councils already bring another powerful weapon to bear in the counter-terrorism fight – our ability to engage with local communities, to celebrate diversity, and to build community respect and cohesion.

This is a critical element to helping people from all walks of life feel welcome and included, as opposed to feeling they are ignored, maligned or disenfranchised. We know we are the best level of government to tackle this task – we do it naturally and we do it with great success, but we should never underestimate the importance of our role in this regard.

Our way of life, and our successful multicultural society, is envied around the world: to preserve it we will need to be vigilant. But we also need  to continue to build stronger relationships with the people and the communities we serve.

David O’Loughlin

President, Australian Local Government Association