Why One Nation’s attempt to legislate racial profiling was unnecessary: it happens anyway

Denver Airport Security Line
Photo by oddharmonic, Flickr

Being subject to an unjustified search leads to feeling of humiliation, alienation and powerlessness.

On 20 March, 2017 it was reported in both The Australian and SBS that during an Australian Senate debate about legislating for the random screening (and vehicle searching) of airport workers who have access to passenger aircraft that:

“One Nation wants airport security screenings to target immigrants from the Middle East.  [Senator Malcolm Roberts] tried, but failed, to amend the legislation to force targeted rather than random screening, prioritising people profiled as members of high-threat groups.  Cabinet minister Fiona Nash said airport workers would be afforded the same protections as passengers to ensure they were not subject to discrimination based on their race or religion."

There are a number of things to say about the Senate’s deliberations.  Firstly regardless what the legislation says, it is highly unlikely that the searching will be statistically random.  Random airport searching powers in the UK reveal that Asians and Africans are searched at disproportionately high rates than others: far from random at all. (Quinlan and Derfoufi 2015)

So it looks like Malcolm Roberts is going to get what he wants anyway. 

Malcolm Roberts (overtly) and many others (at least covertly) believe that targeting racial and religious minorities in searches actually leads to terrorism arrests.  Where however is the evidence for this? There are many examples where the focus on a racial profile led to police completely missing the terrorist.  One famous example occurred following the bombing of a building in Oklahoma City in 1995.  Timothy McVeigh, a white man who was subsequently convicted as the sole bomber was able to flee while the police operated on the theory it was an “Arab terrorist”. (Amnesty International 2004)

In fact research leads to the conclusion that using a racial or ethnic profile to catch a terrorist is a massive waste of resources.  For example arrest rates under random airport search powers in the UK in 2011/2012 had a miniscule hit rate of 0.03%.  That means 9,997 innocent people, disproportionately from Asian and African backgrounds, were searched for every one person arrested. Furthermore, research into the searches that actually led to arrests revealed that they were initiated by specific intelligence about the person before the stop occurred.  (Quinlan and Derfoufi 2015)

The real question for Senate is why are they introducing a random search power for airport workers at all? Unless applied universally (ie screening everyone entering a building) searches should only occur where reasonable grounds exist.  And a question for Ms Nash - how are individuals actually expected to assert their right to protection from discrimination when the inevitable racial disparities arise? Are you going to collect and publish data on the ethnic background of those who are searched and the effectiveness of searches that are being conducted?

Being subject to an unjustified search leads to feeling of humiliation, alienation and powerlessness.  Read Mem Fox’s recent account of such an experience if you doubt this.  But when the unjustified search is racially targeted, not only does it degrade the individual being searched, but it undermines the whole fiction of a multi-cultural society.  But that’s what One Nation want don’t they?

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team