Why Australia Could See Heavily-Armed Soldiers Patrolling The Streets

Enlisting our soldiers to shoot-to-kill during a terror attack isn't a clear shot at making us safer, experts warn.

What you need to know
  • Australia hasn't seen soldiers respond to a local attack since 1978
  • Cities like Brussels, Paris, Rome and London use military patrols as an anti-terror measure
  • The government wants to make it easier to call out the military during riots or terror attacks
  • Counter-terrorism experts warn it's giving too much power to the Federal government

It's visually confronting, and a sight usually reserved for foreign conflicts, but seeing troops on the streets of Australia may become more common.

Australians haven't seen heavily-armed soldiers walking past them since the 1978 Hilton Hotel bombing, although there have been other displays of military might at large scale event like the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Brisbane’s G20 summit.

These domestic deployments -- primarily to guard against terrorism -- are becoming common place in large European cities. Soldiers giving serious salutes are patrolling the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and Italian troops are guarding the Colosseum.

Soldier patrols major tourist site in Rome March 2018. IMAGE: EPA

Since early 2005, hundreds of soldiers began patrolling the streets of Brussels after local police dismantled a terror cell.

In May last year, following the Manchester Bombing armed troops took to the streets of London -- for the first time in living memory for most locals. These military demonstrations are among the largest in Western Europe since World War II.

Back home, the government is debating a proposed legal changes that would make it easier for the Australian military to be called out to terrorist and riot events.

It would also give soldiers limited shoot-to-kill powers in a Lindt Café Siege type scenario.

The changes come from the first Defence Counter-Terrorism Review in the wake of the Lindt Café siege.

An armed police officer and soldier stand guard in Brussels. IMAGE: Getty Images Ben Pruchnie

"The military should be able to be called out to protect the Commonwealth … it was clear after the Sydney siege that we needed legislation that clearly sets out how the defence force would be used in these sorts of situations,” said counter terrorism law expert Dr Kieran Hardy from Griffith University.

He said the Defence Amendment (Call Out of the Australian Defence Force) Bill is likely to be passed without many changes, as most other national security bills have.

 “Even the most controversial security bill is likely to get past the opposition because they don’t want to be called ‘soft on terrorism’ and that’s something the government will quickly label them,” he told ten daily.

He has reservations about the lack of detail.

“It gives a lot of discretionary power to the Attorney General, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, we don’t know what these ‘contingency orders’ could be.”

Professor Michael Head from Western Sydney University’s Faculty of Law argues Australia does not need more national security powers, given they were already significantly increased in 2000 and 2006.

"The 'war on terrorism' is again being exploited to create police-state powers whose purpose is to suppress political dissent and social unrest," wrote Head.

He fears the legislation will give “almost limitless power to the prime minister or two other “authorising” ministers to mobilise the armed forces for domestic purposes.

And he warns handing too much power to a few is bad for democracy.

"Frequent 'counter-terrorism' exercises have been conducted in major cities, featuring military helicopters and Special Forces commandos. These operations have sought to condition public opinion to accept such military interventions."

The Australian military can already be enlisted for domestic operations, including disaster relief and for large scale searches and security experts say by and large, their role should remain as such.

 “I’m not comfortable with soldiers being on the streets of Sydney, for example. In France they have had a series of repeated attacks and it’s understandable given the threat they may need to increase military presence. But in Australia, it’s more minor and less frequent, so I don’t think Australians would be comfortable seeing soldiers on the street because of the Sydney siege,” said Dr Hardy.