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Counter-terror powers could extend to mental health records

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The Federal Government is considering whether to allow security authorities access to mental health records as part of efforts to prevent so-called ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks.

In what he admitted would be a “huge step”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has asked Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Greg Moriarty to examine the possibility of police and intelligence service access to the mental health records of terrorist suspects as part of a review of the nation’s defences.

“It is important this be looked at carefully. Let me come to another point, you’ve got a number of important interests to balance here. Mental health alone, leaving aside issues of terrorism, is a gigantic challenge,” Mr Turnbull said. “But my most important obligation, my most important responsibility to Australia, is to keep the people of Australia safe, and so that is why we are constantly improving, upgrading our legislation – that is why we provide additional resources to our police and security services.”

The Prime Minister said a change in approach was necessary because of a recent spate of attacks, including in Orlando, Nice and Germany, suggested the terrorist threat was evolving to include individuals not previously considered to be a threat but who were socially, emotionally or mentally unstable and were susceptible to rapid radicalisation.

“What we are seeing at the moment is people being radicalised or adopting Islamist, murderous Islamist ideology very, very quickly. So that you have people that are not on the counter terrorism radar screen who then often, as a result of mental illness, will then attach themselves to this murderous ideology and then act very quickly,” Mr Turnbull said on radio 3AW. “They appear to be drawn to Islamist extremism very late and very fast, not necessarily because of a long-term religious or ideological belief, but as a means of filling a void and providing meaning or rationalisation. The Lindt Café attacker, who converted from Shia to Sunni in the days leading into the siege, might also fit this profile.”

But he admitted giving the security services access to mental health records would involve overriding “very significant privacy protections”.

There are also doubts about whether the breach of doctor-patient confidentiality involved would necessarily achieve much in detecting or heading off potential terror attacks.

Even if those contemplating undertaking a ‘lone wolf’ terror attack have a mental illness, they may not necessarily have sought treatment. Furthermore, they might be deterred from seeking care if they thought their health records could be accessed by the police or intelligence services, exacerbating their illness and potentially making them more of a threat to themselves and others.

Mr Turnbull admitted that there would need to be a balance struck between patient confidentiality and the possibility of being alerted to a terror attack.

Adrian Rollins