Bali bombings were a security wake-up call

The Bali bombings were a bigger wake-up call for security and defence in Australia than September 11, a former senior minister has declared.

Documents released after 20 years show the cabinet under then prime minister John Howard spent a year wrestling with issues surrounding the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Ex-minister Amanda Vanstone said the community was "very apprehensive" after 9/11 and thought it was "as serious as you can get".

"And then when this (Bali bombings) happened, it's more serious, and there has to be a greater focus on watching who's coming in and for law enforcement agencies and security agencies to get everything we need," she said.

"Because that's your first job ... to protect the Australian people.

"It was a real smack in the face with a hot iron."

The Bali bombings occurred in October 2022, with explosions in two busy Kuta nightspots killing 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Surprisingly, the cabinet papers only note an oral report given to the cabinet by Mr Howard about Australia's ambassador to Indonesia taking charge of operations in Bali.

As well, he told the meeting Australian casualties were evacuated within 48 hours and relatives understood the identification of the missing and killed would be slow.

National security and defence were a dominant focus of the Howard cabinet in 2002.

However, the cabinet papers shed no light on a key meeting - discussions between John Howard and the then US president George W Bush on Saddam Hussein's alleged acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

There is one note of an oral report by Mr Howard on "the progress of work being done in the United Nations on the issue of Iraq's possession of and attempts to secure or maintain weapons of mass destruction, and on possible United Nations resolutions in that regard".

And there was a similar verbal report from then foreign minister Alexander Downer.

But historian David Lee said the documents were the "top of the pyramid" and he expected there were departmental records which could be requested for public access.

"This is really the first step in the process of acquiring knowledge about this period," he said.

The cabinet dealt with a number of laws to provide greater powers to security agencies, as well as agreed to enhanced screening at airports.

There were also extensive discussions around the US-led military campaign targeting Islamist terrorist groups.

"Australians were very anxious at this time, and it warranted an appropriate response from government," Ms Vanstone said.

As the cabinet grappled with the impact of the 9/11 attacks, Professor Lee said 2002 also marked a turning away from the "defence of Australia" model that had underpinned strategy since the 1980s.

The old strategy put a priority on self-reliance and defending the continent.

But defence minister Robert Hill brought to cabinet submissions which sought to work more closely with the United States, deploy troops to terrorist-threat areas and revise big defence acquisitions in line with the idea of "contributing to the efforts of the international community to uphold global security".

By February 2003, about 2000 Australian Defence Force personnel were involved in Middle East operations.