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Keeping Australia Safe

On the 28th of April, Macquarie University GLP students had the honour of attending a seminar presented by NSW Police Force Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch, who is in charge of Counter-terrorism and Special Tactics Command within NSW, has been a key player in keeping Australia safe since he joined the police in 1980. The seminar began as Mr. Murdoch presented an informative rundown of the police and anti-terrorism structure in Australia, as well as his role as Assistant Commissioner. He then opened up the seminar to questions, where the audience was free to ask him about issues of Australian security. The Metadata laws, ISIS recruiting prevention, the media’s effect on terrorism, and the Martin place siege were all issues that Mr. Murdoch was asked to touch on. The seminar was very interesting and informative to me, and I believe it was a great benefit for all attendees, from any degree or field.

The Martin Place Siege is probably the most recent terrorism incident to shock Australia’s people, and Mr. Murdoch explained his role in the siege response, as he was the one in charge of the heavily armed Police operatives. He told us: “The images you saw on TV with Martin Place with the tactical operatives; they were my guys. We saved 16 lives, but we lost two. We took that very hard.” Listening to him recounting his thoughts on the events was chilling. He said that at the time the media was describing the conclusion as a victory, but you could tell by the look on his face that he did not agree as he told us the police considered it a significant loss.

How much do you know about Australia’s terrorism public alert system? Since last September, we have been on alert level ‘High’, with the next and highest level being ‘Extreme’. A ‘High’ level means that a terrorism incident is likely. Mr. Murdoch explained that the performance of the NSW Counter-terrorism and Special Forces was judged by their ability to prevent incidents from occurring, and that they have largely failed should a terror event occur. This was particularly interesting for me, because I had never really learned about the priorities of the Australian Police in protecting Australians. A key point for comparison was that due to intelligence, the alert level stayed on ‘Medium’ throughout the Bali Bombing incidents. As clarification, Mr. Murdoch also told us that the role of the Police Counter-terrorism and Special Forces is to protect Australia within its borders, as opposed to operating in other countries, which falls under the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

On the topic of the new Metadata Retention laws, Mr. Murdoch told us that the Australian people should not be giving away too many of our rights in the name of security. The delicate balance of using Metadata to track criminals is in ensuring the system is not abused. The Police needs to keep a balance between safety and the preservation of human rights. He also stated that this is true for much of keeping Australia safe, saying that less freedom would make terrorism easier to prevent, but their goal is not to create a Police State. This can also be said of the Police’s freedom to act on Intelligence they have gathered. “Intelligence is not evidence”, so the police will often need to wait for the right opportunity to take down terrorist operations. This is also the reason why lone acting terrorists that do not communicate their plans are harder to detect before their acts, such as Martin Place gunman Man Monis. Of course this is obvious if you think about it, but often people criticize the Police for not acting sooner, when sometimes that only makes sense in retrospect.

I found that many of the questions Mr. Murdoch was asked during the seminar were on topical and interesting subjects, and I thoroughly enjoyed the level of honesty and professionalism in all of his responses. During questions, Mr. Murdoch was asked whether he believed the media was fueling terrorism. His response pointed out that there certainly is a truth to that. He explained that ISIS makes 1000’s of online social media posts daily, and that sometimes the media eats it up. News companies can be very quick to report, which can lead to spreading of unverified or misleading information. Mr. Murdoch went on to say that in spite of this, the media does have an important role to play in our society, and that there are times when the Police and the media have co-operated, such as during the Martin Place siege, where all of the major news stations complied with the Police requests not to report the social media posts made by hostages.

Many of us don’t stop to think about the systems that keep us safe, or have a chance to personally gain such detailed information from someone in such a senior position. I learned a great deal about how the Australian police keep our country safe. In particular, the terrorism alert system, how and when the Federal Police will call in support from the Australian Defense Force, and the priorities of the NSW Counter-terrorism and Special Tactics really stood out to me as interesting topics I knew little about before. I also enjoyed how forthcoming Mr. Murdoch was, especially considering he had to present official positions on many of the topics. He made it subtly clear when he was delivering an ‘official position’ so we could better gauge what his personal opinions may be, and he was not averse to admitting when the Police Force made mistakes.. I’m now looking forward to what the Global Leadership Program will organize next, as it’s a pleasure to be able to participate in events like this.

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