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Canberra legislators the weak link in parliament house security

Posted by on 29/06/2018

An Australian Federal Police officer guards the ministerial entrance to Parliament House in Canberra. An Australian Federal Police officer guards the ministerial entrance to Parliament House in Canberra.
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An Australian Federal Police officer guards the ministerial entrance to Parliament House in Canberra.

An Australian Federal Police officer guards the ministerial entrance to Parliament House in Canberra.

Security is the word of our time. If this had somehow missed our attention, the sight of black clad Australian Federal Police agents cradling large assault rifles outside the nation’s parliament this week – installed within hours of a terrorist’s attack upon Canada’s parliament – rather underlined it.

Security in Canberra’s parliament house, built beneath a hill but regularly leaking like a sieve, is a relative term.

Only a few months ago the people who run the place decided, in the dubious cause of saving money, to relax requirements on most of the 3000 or so parliamentary inhabitants to the point that just about anyone – apart from journalists, of course, who are considered by politicians to be a dreadful risk to all that is sacred – could waltz in, carrying anything they wished, without submitting themselves to the scanning mechanism that is supposed to protect the place.

A couple of days before Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was due to visit the Australian Parliament in early July, someone was struck by the thought that security might have become a trifle lax, and reinstated the requirement that everybody should be scanned, except for the politicians themselves, who are above reproach. It remains unknown precisely how much money might have been saved. If any.

Then, as the whole world knows, Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry switched to vaudeville, declaring they’d force anyone wearing a burqa to view democracy at work from behind a glass wall installed to corral chattering schoolchildren.

No one explained what might happen to schoolchildren forced to share their democracy-viewing with the burqa-clad before the decision was reversed, though Senator Parry said he’d imagined the Department of Parliamentary Services would employ “common sense”. Senator John Faulkner, who’s been around parliament for 25 years, responded that he wouldn’t necessarily rely on the department to display any such thing.

Well, quite. One of the parliament house security guards, still employed, was fined $900 in the ACT Magistrate’s Court this week for trying to poison a neighbour’s barking dog with meatballs laced with Ratsak.

Common sense concerning burqas, schoolchildren and glass segregation, it turns out, won’t be required, anyway. All those electronic scanners at the entrances to the great house, plus the demand that all members of the public have to show their faces to guards before being granted entry, is now considered sufficient to deter would-be burqa-wearers from causing affront.

No halfway sensible person, of course, would argue that proper security is not required at a nation’s parliament house.

The fact that a gunman invaded Canada’s legislature this week, having already shot dead a soldier, and reached the governing party’s caucus door before being shot dead himself by the parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, gives heft to the argument that nations supporting the new war on terror must increase vigilance at home.

Happily, Australia’s parliament house, opened only 26 years ago and built with security in mind, is likely a safer place than many older examples around the world, including Canada’s palace, even if our Serjeant-at-Arms, who retains the archaic spelling associated with using force to retain order, isn’t known to carry a weapon deadlier than a Mace.

Anyway, there are contingency plans in place should a serious attack occur. The secret plan, leaked some years ago, is for key government figures to be evacuated and moved to bunkers beneath a military establishment almost 30 kilometres out of Canberra. By bus. Seriously.

Sometimes, however, it is the legislators themselves who most disturb on matters of security.

Senator Jacqui Lambie, from the Palmer United Party by way of Tasmania, has managed to get herself appointed to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, a powerful body that gives her the privilege of interrogating the most senior officials responsible for Australia’s exposure to the world, plus the highest-ranking military officers in the land. Democracy is a wondrous thing.

Long before becoming a Senator, Lambie spent 10 years in the Army, reaching the exalted rank of Corporal.

This week, former Corporal Lambie had the vice-chief of the Australian Defence Force, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, in her gaze. Vice-Admiral Griggs has served the military for 36 years and until recently was Chief of Navy.

And what did Senator Lambie want to know of this man who has commanded a frigate in the Persian Gulf during a period of war, who has studied at the National War College in Washington DC, who has advised governments, commanded the nation’s amphibious force task group and undertaken tasks that the rest of us, even a corporal, could barely comprehend?

Senator Lambie wanted to know what Vice-Admiral Griggs might do if terrorists chose to infect themselves with Ebola and came to Australia to blow themselves up or otherwise cause havoc. She also wanted to know about the potential for Ebola to be spread by ticks and fleas.

Vice-Admiral Griggs, to his credit, exhibited patience in explaining that Australia was quite a long way from West Africa and it was, ahem, “hypothetical” that anyone with Ebola could reach our shores undetected or even alive and turn themselves into a virus bomb. He didn’t bother mentioning that Ebola isn’t spread by ticks or fleas.

In Canberra, everything is a relative term. Especially security. And sometimes, commonsense.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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