Time to review airport security, expert says

Australia’s airport security framework lacks coordination and is in urgent need of review, a leading security expert says, as the Government pushes to broaden police investigative powers at airports.

A coordinated national review of Australia’s airport security and policing akin to the 2005 Wheeler Review is well overdue, Dr John Coyne, senior analyst for the border security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told Government News.

The Federal Government’s approach to airport security policy is “targeted and ad hoc” and potentially placing people at risk, Dr Coyne says, and a national review is critical given the last one was more than a decade ago.

John Coyne

Legislation like the Government’s contentious airport police powers bill is being introduced reactively to respond to single-occurrence threats, while Australia’s overall governance of airport security lacks cohesion, he says.

“What we’ve got is a system made up of bolted-on solutions, we need to look at that and see if there’s a better way to do it,” he said. “We need to ask, are all the different pieces, airlines, operators, security firms, border force – are all these people coordinated as best as possible to provide best outcomes to airport security?”

A broad review is needed to bring coordination into Australia’s national airport security planning, Dr Coyne says, and this needs to occur “before we rush into introducing any further ad hoc aviation security measures”.

With the Western Sydney Airport due to open in eight years time and as criminality and terrorism remains a threat, now is the time for a review of “next generation” airport security, Dr Coyne says.

“We need to review the functions that underpin our understanding of airport security and threats to airports and look at the procedures, and make sure that from the bottom up it’s harder for state and non-state actors to cause us harm.”

With the public backlash to the government’s beefed-up police airport powers reflecting growing anti-policing sentiment, transparency and predictability is more important than ever, Dr Coyne says.

“The days of ad hoc and incremental changes to airport security without detailed explanations for the public are passing by,” he writes in a recent ASPI article.

Since the Wheeler Review, policing at Australian airports has waned, Dr Coyne says. This is something “we should be concerned about” that could be addressed in a review.

“As time has gone by, consecutive efficiency dividends on various Commonwealth agencies has resulted in that presence rapidly reducing,” he said.

“We should also be concerned about private sector people working as security guards and scanners looking at x-ray machines. They may have been trained appropriately a few years out from the Wheeler Review, but the question is now are they trained well enough to meet the challenges of today? I can’t give you an honest answer to that because we haven’t had reviews frequently enough.”

Although technologies have been introduced to great effect at airports in recent years, questions also remain over the efficacy of these in the absence of a review, he argues.

But the governance and scope of the review needs to be carefully curated, Dr Coyne says. A review should be steered by private and public sector Australian thought leaders, he says, with a similar scope to the Wheeler Review.

“The people who operate our Sydney and Melbourne airports are private sector companies and they need to come into the room. They need the ability to contribute to the discussion.”

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