Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sydney’s 16-hour siege that ended today in the death of a gunman and two hostages showed Australia isn’t immune to terrorism attacks.
The siege showed “that even a country as free, as open, as generous and as safe as ours is vulnerable to acts of politically motivated violence,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra. “Australians should be reassured by the way our law enforcement and security agencies responded to this brush with terrorism.”
Since winning power 15 months ago, Abbott’s government has warned of the increased threat of supporters of Islamic State extremists and in September raised the terrorism alert to the highest level in a decade. While gunman Man Haron Monis, 50, forced his hostages in the Sydney cafe to display a black Islamic flag known as “Shahada” in windows, police haven’t described the event as a terrorist attack.
Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition has passed counter-terrorism legislation designed to disrupt planned domestic attacks and support the international coalition to degrade Islamic State in the Middle East.
“This will quieten any criticism that the government may have over-reacted on national security and with its anti-terrorism laws,” said Norman Abjorensen, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. The hostage-taking means any illusions among voters that “these attacks can’t happen here has been dispelled,” he said.
A Newspoll conducted in February showed 45 percent of voters said the coalition was the best to handle national security, ahead of Labor at 25 percent.
Abbott’s coalition rose in the polls in September when media coverage was dominated by national security issues, including the government’s diplomatic response to the July shooting down of Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 17, which killed 298 people, including 38 Australians.
Monis was an Iranian migrant with a record of violent crime who had expressed fury over Australia’s role in the war in Afghanistan. In his adopted country, Monis was facing a string of charges, including being an accessory with his girlfriend to the murder of his ex-wife, who was stabbed and then set alight in Sydney; two years ago he was convicted for writing offensive letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
In September, police foiled an alleged plot by Islamic State supporters to abduct a member of the public in central Sydney and behead them, after carrying out the nation’s largest anti-terrorism raids. An 18-year-old Melbourne man who had previously waved an Islamic State flag in a shopping center was shot dead after stabbing two police officers.
The coalition’s primary vote rose 2 percentage points to 41 percent in the Newspoll conducted Sept. 19-21 from the previous poll two weeks before, while 41 percent of voters said they were satisfied with Abbott’s performance, up 6 points.
As voter concern over the government’s economic management has mounted in subsequent months, the coalition’s popularity has slipped. The latest poll conducted Dec. 12-14 shows the government’s primary vote on 38 percent and Abbott’s satisfaction rating at 33 percent.
Australia, a military ally of the U.S., is increasing defense spending after it fell to a seven-decade low. In May it committed A$122.7 billion ($101 billion) to military spending in the four years through June 2018, A$9.6 billion more than that earmarked by the previous Labor government.
There has never been a major Islamic terrorist attack on Australian soil, although 88 Australians were killed in the 2002 bombings of bars on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali. Abbott has used press conferences this year to talk up the need for all sections of the community to be a part of “Team Australia” and describes Islamic State as a “death cult.”
Australia’s support for the U.S.-led offensive against Islamic State could increase the possibility of a terrorist attack in the nation, which couldn’t afford to anger and alienate parts of the community, Gary Bouma, emeritus professor of sociology at Melbourne’s Monash University, said in a September interview.
Waves of Middle Eastern migrants have seen Australia’s Muslim population surge 69 percent in a decade, with security experts warning that disaffected young men facing fewer job prospects on the fringes of major cities are susceptible to Islamic State propaganda.
The number of Australians identifying themselves as Muslim rose from 281,600 in 2001 to 476,300 by 2011 -- about 2.2 percent of the population. Some Islamic families cluster on the outskirts of cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in traditionally working-class strongholds where manufacturing jobs are disappearing.
The Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, used a Sept. 19 press conference to call upon politicians and the media to refrain from using anti-terrorism raids “to inflame hatred” in society.
“The Muslim community have been devastated by” the hostage crisis, the Mufti said yesterday in a statement. Condemning the “criminal act,” he said Australian society was waiting for the results of investigations into the motivations behind it.