Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Interview with Rory Medcalf

RORY MEDCALF: Minister, thank you very much and I know we've only got a small amount of time and I think the record will be before your podcast later this week, where we will go into these issues in some more detail. But naturally, the national security podcast, please. So just three very brief questions, now that's a [indistinct] speech tells those who work in national security things that we probably have been thinking about, but for the broader community, I think there's lots of eye opening specifics there. Can I ask you really, why now? You know, is there some significant policy shift in the works, is there a particular response [indistinct] what's the timing [indistinct] today?

CLARE O'NEIL: Thanks, Rory. So, as I mentioned in my speech, I've been Home Affairs Minister now for eight months. I, as you can imagine, consume enormous amounts of intelligence in the work that I do. And I think one of the things I've really been struck by is the disconnect between what I'm reading in intelligence and the public conversation about these matters. And that really worries me because I see that gap as a national security risk. Foreign intelligence is not something that we are going to fight and defeat and tackle by me and Mike Pezzullo and Mike Burgess sitting in rooms talking about it.

The best protection that we have here is a public that understands this problem is real. I talked a bit in my speech about trust, Rory, and I just really want to underscore that point. I have a very multicultural community in my electorate, and I have a community where I've got lots of activists who are very active in protest movements against the country that they came from, lots of deep populations. Those people need to trust me, they need to trust the Australian government and if there is any hint of politics in all of this, the trust disappears. And then when we really need to engage those communities, they're not going to believe that the government is there with their best interests at heart. And that's a real problem for us. So I really want to try to reset this conversation around openness, sharing the information we have and around apoliticalness in the national interest. And that's the conversation that I think is going to make the country safe for the future.

You just asked me why now? You know, frankly, probably we could have been doing this a few years ago. That wasn't the choice of the previous Australian government. And I don't say that too much to politicise it, just to make the point that this is an urgent national problem. It is growing, it is not getting smaller. And anyone following the geo-political outlook can see as clear as a bell that there is a significant problem that is going to get worse at the years past. We've got to plant that seed with Australians, that there is foreign interference in our country. It is insidious and it is relentless, and it is everywhere. And the only way we're going to protect ourselves is an Australian community to understand what is going on and know what to do when they see it.

RORY MEDCALF: Thank you and you refer to the geopolitics so I'll go into that, now. By now it's also the question why Iran and there's some particular cases you identify [indistinct] certain activity and I think [indistinct] what's been unfolding in Iran, the courage of the people of the resistance. But of course, there is a constellation of foreign interference actors out there. So much of the debate in recent news has been about China. So it would be interesting to hear more thoughts on where does China, Russia sit] in that hierarchy of the three [indistinct].

CLARE O'NEIL: So it is pervasive and it is coming from many different directions. And the reason I'm talking about Iran today is because this is an area where I think there hasn't been a lot of public discussion. There's plenty of conversation about Iran and what Iran is doing geopolitically, but I think it will be news to a lot of Australians that this is having very significant impacts on the life of diaspora communities in particular right now. What I would really like to do is try to broaden the conversation to reflect the accurate picture, and that is that we are the subject of foreign interference in very many countries. This is not just a China problem, although it is a China problem. And it's really important for me to be open and honest about the different directions from which this comes. Today, I've chosen to talk about Iran. It's really important that we put that matter on the public record. But this will be the first in a series of interventions where, Rory, where I'm able to speak about some specific examples of foreign interference received from specific countries and Iran's first cab off the rank.

RORY MEDCALF: So I know time is short and we'll have a long conversation another day and I just want to go to that question of expectations on the community, which I think you put [indistict] expectations on the community, it was really a sense of the government's obligation to communities, that is to say, communities. That is to say, communities are not only the first line of attack, but also first line of defence. So how would you present the reasonable expectation is we should face [indistinct] in Iran [indistinct]?

CLARE O'NEIL: Thanks, Rory. I think the language we use is really important. And where this frames obligations and expectations, I don't think that's the most constructive way for us to talk about this. Remember that these guys for a community by the victims of foreign interference. And it is our job as Australians and as Australian government agencies to wrap ourselves around these people and protect them. They're the ones that are subject to the hurt and the harm that comes from this. So in terms of obligations, of course, we want people to report nefarious conduct when it comes into their orbit, and they can do that through the National Security Hotline. But the main message to diaspora communities and multicultural communities today is that Australia's democracy is our most valuable national asset and our multiculturalism is a core part of that. We are going to be a successful, brilliant country for many centuries to come because of those diaspora communities. Now, our job as Australians and as national security experts is to help protect them, to help them understand our democratic values extend to them too. And so this is really what this is about, trying to work with those communities in a trusting, collaborative way to show them that we're on their side.

RORY MEDCALF: We have time for one more. Universities. So, you've came [indistinct] at the Australian National University you've had sort of conversations involving the Vice-Chancellor today [indistinct] clear message about where universities sit in both the risk and the response to the risk of foreign interference. Any further thoughts on how you see universities if you like, balancing the international openness that is so much at the core of the university tradition of what makes a university in Australia such a national asset, how to balance that being part of the national policy responsible [indistinct]. You're a Vice Chancellor how do you [indistinct]?

CLARE O'NEIL: I'll leave that to the [indistinct]. So yes, really difficult question and this is a little bit of a cultural shift that has to take place. It's not the only cultural shift that has to take place. I mentioned before about the work that we did with ASIO. One of the issues for us as an intelligence community here is thinking about openness and transparency when these organisations are by their very nature closed and secret. So this is a challenge that these [indistinct] they've worked on really well with ASIO, but I just point out universities are not the only organisations here having to shift a little bit how they think about these big problems.

Well, the universities, of course, I think the most important thing is it's the management of risk. And I would say, Brian, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this, but there probably was a time, perhaps a decade ago, where the belief was openness, everyone's welcome, all views are welcome, and there was a real resistance to acknowledging that there might be nefarious objectives of foreign governments trying to influence what happens. I do think that's really shifted and the universities, I think, are doing a good job of trying to think about partnerships in particular.

So, this is a work in progress. As I say, this problem is going to get bigger, not smaller, over time and I think that structure that we have set up to deal with the universities is the centrepiece of something that will help us protect Australian universities and democracy for a long time to come.

RORY MEDCALF: Thank you.