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After a week of mass-murder and terrorism, we must take a look in the mirror

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The net result? “You can’t take community cohesion for granted,” summarises the prime minister. Nor community safety, as a corollary, I’d add.

The director-general of security, ASIO’s Mike Burgess, has warned Australia of security threats external and internal. An enemy state, he says, is prowling Australia’s cyber systems for sabotage openings, and an enemy state constantly seeks to subvert the political system through influence networks.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

He was too diplomatic to name the hostile state, although the national defence strategy this week frankly named China as the source of destabilisation to which Australia must respond. But the ASIO chief nominated two internal sources of threat. First, “Sunni violent extremism poses the greatest religiously motivated violent extremist threat in Australia.” Second, there was, he said, a rising risk of extremist nationalist violence seeking to provoke a “race war” within Australia. In other words, neo-Nazis and their kin.

The Bondi Junction murders, as far as we know, were psychotic, not political, random, not religious. But the background level of social stress can’t be a calming influence on anyone, and potentially an aggravating influence on disturbed minds. And it magnifies the consequences of any outbreak.

For Australia, a violently riven community is an existential threat. We are the most multicultural among the substantial developed nations, with double the US proportion of immigrants, for example.

Albanese did his best this week to calm and console a shaken society. The opposition critiques of his performance – that he should have named the terrorist as an Islamist sooner, for instance – are querulous. But what to do to prevent further violence? What’s the policy agenda?

The first point is what the government can’t achieve. Australia can’t stop the war in Gaza. Albanese: “We are not in control, we can have little impact on what is happening in Gaza or in Israel. We can promote social cohesion here and ensure what overwhelmingly a majority of Australians want – which is for those conflicts not to be brought here.”

In that cause, what can be done? The Albanese government already was moving to civilise perhaps the greatest threat to civilisation – the so-called “social media” companies that traffic in social misery. Meta, X, Google, Apple, Microsoft have opened a vector into the very heart of civilised societies for the most depraved and evil forces on earth.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says that these enormous corporations are providing “the holy grail for paedophiles”, she told me last month. “They can store videos and images of child sexual services for free and with no risk of detection. I can’t tell you how important these end-user managed hosting services are.”

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She points out that these businesses are actually doing less to prevent harm than they were doing 20 years ago. They won’t even apply their own in-house scanning programs to filter out the most harmful content from their own platforms.

The European Union’s chief enforcement officer has had enough. The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, who was in Australia for talks with Inman Grant, is proposing new laws for the EU. “The internet companies have to be responsible for what kind of crimes they are enabling on their platforms.”

Beyond trafficking in paedophilia, the social misery companies are the primary vehicle for sowing distress, misinformation, extremism and conflict. Albanese identifies this industry as the first priority for action. He says that Inman Grant has directed Facebook – owned by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta – and X – owned by Elon Musk – to take down “extraordinarily distressing footage” of both the Bondi murders and the violence at the church in southwestern Sydney’s Wakeley.

These platforms also allowed “falsehoods” about the two incidents “to be spread at scale”, says Albanese, magnifying their consequences. He first spoke about the harm that “social media” does to democracy by driving polarisation in a 2019 speech he gave as opposition leader. Now, he says, the government is prepared to legislate as necessary.

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In other areas of policy, there’s been a clamour of ideas in recent days. The NSW Police Force is asking for greater powers to search people for knives, using portable metal detectors, as Queensland allows with its “wanding” law. They’re also proposing that parents be held criminally responsible for their children carrying knives.

Federally, Bill Shorten on Friday proposed that police patrol Westfield shopping centres, with the owners paying for their services. He didn’t explain who should police churches. The civil liberty objections to all these ideas are obvious.

I ask Albanese what policy responses are needed beyond “social media” reform. Mental health systems, deradicalisation programs, gun and knife controls, police and intelligence powers? His answer: “All of the above.”

But Albanese resists the rush to instant solutions. “What will happen after an incident like this is there will be a review. It needs to be a considered review.” It’s likely to be a joint state-federal review, he says, but that’s yet to be decided.

“So we need to respond in a considered way. In order to achieve the best outcome rather than immediately jumping to conclusions, we need to ensure that we listen to all the experts out there.”

He also makes the point that while flaws must be fixed, Australia’s successes should be affirmed. Among those, he counts the speed of the response of the NSW police and ambulance services, the ready availability of mental health counsellors afoot and highly visible in Bondi Junction as soon as Sunday, the swiftness, less visible, of the AFP and ASIO, and the many acts of heroism.

And truly valuing the social harmony that is the overwhelming experience of Australia. The country’s first Italian-Australian prime minister offers his inner west Sydney home suburb of Marrickville as a microcosm of healthy multiculturalism: “It’s in the nature of the place – there’s the Muslim Alawi Centre, St Brigid’s Catholic Church, down the road in Tempe there’s the Indonesian mosque, there’s the Anglican church next to my electoral office, around the corner is the Greek Orthodox Church, the Maronite school, the synagogue nearby in Newtown, all living side by side in harmony. That’s the strength of it, it’s part of the attraction of the place.”

Affirmed, fixed, not taken for granted.

Peter Hartcher is political editor.

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