Address to the National Press Club
1 October 2014
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Can I begin by acknowledging my Parliamentary colleagues—Michael Keenan, the Minister for Justice who shares the Attorney-General's portfolio with me; Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs who has accompanied me to many community forums, particularly with members of Australia's Muslim community in recent weeks to discuss the topics which I will address today; can I also acknowledge the newly appointed Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis, and the even more newly appointed, indeed his appointment was only announced about an hour ago, Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Andrew Colvin; other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
During the 2013 Federal election, the subject of terrorism barely arose. It was mentioned in neither of the leaders' policy speeches. The focus of the election was largely upon the key themes of Tony Abbott's campaign: repealing the carbon tax, stopping the boats, reducing the debt and building the infrastructure of the 21st century.
Little more than a year later, the issue of national security—and, more particularly, the question of how to keep our country safe from the real and immediate threat of terrorism—dominates the news. The fact that the politics of 2014 are almost unrecognisably different from the politics of only a year ago is a textbook example of the velocity, and unpredictability, of political events. Whoever would have thought that, through most of the winter of 2014, Australia would be transfixed by the sickening slaughter of 38 of our countrymen by a premeditated act of barbarism in the skies over Ukraine? Who would have imagined that we would be opening our newspapers to the confronting sight of pixilated images of an Aussie child grasping a severed head?
What the events of recent months have demonstrated, beyond the capacity of all but the most wilfully ignorant to see it, is that today, we live in a world more dangerous than we imagined even a year ago, and that that danger affects our own country, just as it affects other Western nations. The idea that these problems exist on the other side of the world, and that we Australians can ignore them by sheltering comfortably in our own sequestered corner of the globe, is a fool's delusion. In an age of networked terrorism, when terrorist groups operate without regard to national boundaries and have a footprint in most continents, including our own, the events which are today taking place in northern Iraq and Syria have an immediate and direct impact upon the security of our own homeland.
The Abbott Government is determined to deal with the threat of domestic terrorism resolutely and unrelentingly. Our decisions will be based on our understanding that the paramount duty of any government is to keep our people safe. There is no higher priority than that; it is what the Australian people expect of us and it is what we are determined to do.
To begin with, we must never underestimate the problem. Although the particular events of 2014 were unexpected by many and in some respects impossible to predict, the likelihood that terror would continue to be the principal menace to us, was not. When the Gillard Government declared in its January 2013 National Security Strategy that the 9/11 decade was over, and sought to rebalance the emphasis of our national security policy away from terrorism, the Coalition immediately dissented. Tony Abbott said at the time:
"In the end, the most important security threats we face are Islamist terrorism and an unstable world."
In an interview with Paul Maley on 24 June last year, Michael Keenan and I expressed similar sentiments: we said that it was a "serious policy mistake" for the Gillard government to conclude that, a decade after 9/11, terrorism should no longer be regarded as the principal threat to our national security. Tragically, the events of the past year have validated the then Opposition's criticism of the former Government's overly optimistic assessment of the terrorist threat.
Just as we must never underestimate the problem, nor should we misdiagnose it. The threat to Australia's domestic security arising from events in the Middle East, and in particular from the sudden rise of ISIL, comes principally from a small number of people among us who try to justify criminal acts by perverting the meaning of Islam. Crime masquerading as religious dogmatism is still crime, and a fanatic who slaughters the innocent is a murderer, however much he might try to explain his crime in religious terms. People like that have nothing to do with the Islamic faith which they falsely invoke to justify their wicked deeds. As the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, said on 15 September, their conduct is a betrayal of the Islamic faith:
"These criminals are committing crimes against humanity and sins against God."
There could be no greater error than for Australians to demonise our Islamic fellow citizens—a community of some 500,000—because of the criminal elements who live among them and prey upon them. Indeed, there is no group within Australia more obviously threatened by these predators than law-abiding, peace-loving, patriotic Muslims. As I have said many times, at the many meetings which Senator Fierravanti-Wells and I have held with the Muslim community, the leaders of that community are our partners and key allies in eradicating the problem of those who would lure their young men and women along a path to violence and, ultimately, self-destruction.
In facing the menace of terrorism, we should support and have confidence in our institutions. The Federal and state police forces, the national security agencies, and the structures of governance which support them, have done a superb job in keeping us safe and protection our national interests. In doing so, they have demonstrated that our confidence in them is well-placed. The skill and professionalism of those men and women have been clear for all to see in recent months:
- In July, in the course of barely a week, we deployed a large contingent of AFP officers into the middle of a civil war zone in eastern Ukraine, to a country where Australia had no local diplomatic presence and few established links, in order to search for and recover the remains of the Australians lost aboard MH17. That contingent was supported by an ADF force protection element. Tony Abbott led the world in that response, the National Security Committee of Cabinet oversaw it, and the personnel on the ground delivered it in an operation notable for its skill and professionalism.
- On Thursday of the week before last in Sydney, and the week before that in Brisbane, the Australian Federal Police, in close co-operation with the state police forces and acting in co-operation with, and on the basis of intelligence provided by ASIO, disrupted networks in those two cities, and interdicted imminent random attacks on innocent citizens. In the case of the Sydney operation—Operation Appleby—that large task force was stood up and put into the field within 36 hours of receipt of actionable intelligence.
- We have recently seen the leadership of both ASIO and the Australian Federal Police transition seamlessly, at a time of acute national security concern, without the slightest disruption to the work of those agencies. As you know, a fortnight ago, Duncan Lewis replaced David Irvine as the Director-General of ASIO. Earlier this morning the Prime Minister announced that Cabinet had decided to recommend to his Excellency the Governor-General the appointment of Andrew Colvin as the new Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. As you also know, Commissioner-designate Colvin has been acting Commissioner for the past few weeks. He was previously the Deputy Commissioner with responsibility for counter-terrorism. As well, a new Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, Chris Moraitis, has just been appointed. I am delighted that all three of them join me here today. Their presence is emblematic of the close and effective co-operation between the agencies they lead.
Australians know that the AFP, ASIO and the other intelligence agencies do not over-reach, that they exercise their powers judiciously but effectively, and that they are fully accountable to the public through the architecture of executive and Parliamentary oversight.
In responding to the challenging new security environment, we must not imperil our own way of life. As the Prime Minister, the Director-General, the Commissioner and I have repeatedly said, one of the best ways to defeat the terrorists is to carry on with our own daily lives—vigilant, to be sure, but unafraid. When we announced three weeks ago that ASIO had raised the national threat level from "Medium" to "high", the then Acting Commissioner Colvin stressed that the threat level serves two purposes. The first is to make the public aware—as they are entitled to be aware—of the agencies' best professional judgment. These are, of course, the professional judgments of national security specialists, in which politicians do not, and should not, have any involvement. But the second purpose—just as important—is to reassure: to reassure the public that the agencies are alert to the threat, and have the skill and capabilities to deal with it.
One of the ways in which government can ensure that the agencies are best equipped to deal with the terrorist threat, is by giving them the resources that they need. On 5 August, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and I announced that the Government had decided to invest an additional $630 million into the national security agencies over the next four years.
Today, I am announcing that from within this new funding the government will be providing ASIO with an additional $196.8 million. This funding will be used to increase the number of intelligence officers, analysts and technical specialists in order to strengthen ASIO's human intelligence collection, technical collection, surveillance, investigation and assessment capabilities. It will also allow ASIO to increase its liaison with counterpart security agencies overseas.
ASIO makes a vital contribution to Australia's counter-terrorism effort, as we have seen from recent counter-terror operations. This additional funding will better position ASIO to provide an intelligence edge in the fight against terrorism and those who seek to do us harm.
The other way in which government can ensure that the intelligence agencies and the police are equipped to deal with the terrorist threat is to give them the powers they need. As you know, we are at the moment in the course of the biggest legislative overhaul of our national security laws in a generation. About half an hour ago, the House of Representatives passed the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1). This is an historic reform: the most comprehensive rewrite of the powers of ASIO since the current Act—the ASIO Act of 1979—was passed following the findings of the Hope Royal Commission. It also contains provisions reforming the powers of the other national security agencies as well.
As you know, the provisions of the NSLAB Bill give effect to unanimous recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which conducted a long inquiry during the 43rd Parliament following a reference from Attorney-General Roxon. I want to single out for particular praise and thanks Anthony Byrne, who chaired that inquiry with great skill and persistence. Those recommendations were enhanced by a review of the legislation undertaken by the current PJCIS under the chairmanship of Dan Tehan. It has been claimed, with quite stunning inaccuracy, that this legislation was "rushed" through the Parliament. Far from being rushed, it is the culmination of work which was initiated in May 2012, which was the subject of two PJCIS inquiries, the first of which conducted no fewer than nine days of hearings and considered 240 written submissions. It was the subject of a long committee stage debate in the Senate last week, provision for which had been made by the extension of hours last Thursday night.
The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill is the first of three tranches of legislation which the Prime Minister and I announced on 5 August. The second, the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill, was introduced into the Senate last week and has been referred to the intelligence committee for inquiry and report by Friday 17 October. It is the Government's intention to deal with the Bill in the October sitting fortnight.
Unlike the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill, which deals with agency powers and which is concerned with the totality of the intelligence agencies' operations, the Foreign Fighters Bill, as its name suggests, is designed, in particular, to deal with the threat to our security posed by the participation by Australians in the conflict in the Middle East who then return to our shores.
As our earlier experience of the conflict in Afghanistan shows us, there is a high correlation between returning foreign fighters and domestic terrorism. More often than not, people who return from fighting foreign wars in the name of Islamist terrorist groups come back to Australia reinforced in their ideological commitment to the destruction of our liberal-democratic values, our secular political institutions, and our pluralist, tolerant way of life. They are ruthless in their methods and, in many cases, well-trained in the tradecraft of terrorism. The threat which such people pose to our national security and the safety of our people must not be underestimated—nor should the savagery with which they are willing to prosecute their cause. That is not just the view of the Australian Government: it is, as the Foreign Minister has pointed out as recently as yesterday, a view shared by the governments of our allies and partners as well.
Although the Foreign Fighters Bill is designed in particular to deal with that menace, it also contains measures of more general application. In particular, a new offence of advocacy of terrorism is being introduced, to address a gap in the existing law.
The third tranche of legislation, which will create a scheme of mandatory data retention, is in development at the moment. The details of that scheme are the subject of discussion between the Attorney-General's Department, ASIO, and telecommunications providers. It is the intention of the Government to introduce that legislation before the end of this year.
In crafting an appropriate legislative response to the current threat, I have taken great care to ensure that the measures we are introducing are a measured and proportionate response. The community expects the government to do what is necessary to protect the safety of the public. It also expects us not to over-reach. We have been careful not to do so.
As a lawyer, I have a bred-in-the-bone respect for due process and the rule of law. As a liberal, I have an instinctive reluctance to expanding the power of the state or diminishing the freedom of the individual. But as the Minister within the government with responsibility for protecting our national security, I am determined to do what the community expects to protect it from a real and present threat. I believe that the legislation which we have introduced, and that which is in preparation, does serve that end without compromising the rule of law and without unreasonably or unnecessarily abridging personal freedom.
In April this year, I went to the United States and the United Kingdom to meet with the national security agencies of those countries and to learn from their experience. While in Washington, I gave an address to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, during the course of which I made the following observation:
"Over the decade or more since 9/11, some commentators began to suggest that terrorism no longer posed as significant a threat to national security as it once did. That view is simplistic and frankly wrong. While there is some evidence that we are witnessing a shift in terrorism tactics and techniques from large-scale, September 11 style attacks to 'lone-actor', smaller-scale, multi-mode attacks, a change in terrorist tactics, if that is what occurring, is not equivalent to a diminution of the terrorist threat. As terrorist tactics and operational doctrine evolve, security agencies must develop and maintain effective capabilities in order to mitigate the ongoing threat."
A great deal has happened in the six months since I made that speech, but I would not resile from one word of it.
The Abbott Government has been strong, resolute and forward-leaning in ensuring Australia has the protection it needs in the face of the threat of modern terrorism. I am sorry to say that that threat is likely to be with us for a long time to come. But we are determined to do what we must to secure our freedoms and to keep our people safe.