Thursday, 08 December 2022

National Press Club Address - Q&A

LAURA TINGLE: Thanks, Minister. And if you could just indulge us for one moment. We wanted to announce and give our congratulations to John Ross, the Times Higher Education Asia Pacific editor, who has won the Universities Australia Higher Education Journalist of the Year Award today. He wasn’t here when we announced it, so congratulations to John who is now here.

If I could just take you to the points about the home-front implications of climate change and building resilience. Can you explain to us a little bit – I mean, as you say, there’s institutionalising disaster management, but those bigger questions about supply chains and things, how far can you see those reaching. Would it involve going as far as actually establishing industries under sort of the direction of government, if you like, to address supply chain vulnerabilities? What’s the scope of those sorts of issues?

CLARE O’NEIL: Yeah, thank you, Laura. If I can just say briefly, you know, we should as a nation be already able to answer these questions easily, and the fact that we can’t I think does demonstrate that we’re behind where we need to be because of the reckless unwillingness of the former government to accept the realities of climate change and what it is inevitably going to mean for our country. 

So, in terms of the work that the department will do, the institutionalising of disaster management will be very important. One of the things that we need to be aware of is just consuming distraction that will be created by rolling natural disasters, and that will be a part of our future, and we need to work out how government can basically walk and chew gum at the same time. How can we manage what may be a handful of natural disasters occurring in our country and at the same time manage security issues that could arise at that same time.

Then you raise a broader point, Laura, about what the bigger picture implications of this are. Home Affairs is going to look at these questions. What will a radically changed climate mean for us in a decade and in 20 years, and how are we going to start to prepare what we will need to be able to do for ourselves in some instances to cope with those changes. 

LAURA TINGLE: Ben Packham has a question.

BEN PACKHAM: Thank you, Minister. Just on the issue of community cohesion, the Indian Government has raised concerns with you and Foreign Minister Wong about the rise of Sikh separatism in Australia and its links to proscribed terrorist groups in India. It’s alleged that a number of individuals have come into the country seeking to form a division in the Indian community, particularly in Victoria. What’s the Albanese Government’s assessment of the threat posed by the Khalistan movement? Is there a national security response to this situation and will the Australian Government consider proscribing pro-Khalistan groups as terrorist organisations? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you so much, Ben. Firstly, can I say I represent a very multicultural community, a beautiful place in South East Melbourne, and one of the things that’s so extraordinary about that part of Australia is we often have diaspora communities that come from different sides of conflict in their home country and they come to Australia and they become Australian and those conflicts dissipate and fall away. And we have one of the most socially cohesive multicultural countries in the world and we should be very, very proud of that, and that is the prism through which I see most of these issues. 

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of the reporting that you have done, Ben, and I think those have been very good news stories. I don’t think it’s helpful for me to use a national stage to pick out one community group and make comments about them, but if I could just say we’ve got a number of people in this room who have been involved in our counter-terror efforts over a long period of time. Their work has been extraordinary. The extent to which they have foiled plots and kept us safe is an enormous national service, and I have got a lot of confidence in the maturity of those arrangements to manage conflicts and situations that will arise. 

BEN PACKHAM: If you don’t mind, I’m just going to quickly follow that up. 

CLARE O’NEIL: It’s like question time for me. 

BEN PACKHAM: Is the government looking closely at this situation in a national security sense? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Again, Ben, thank you for the question, but I’m not going to get into detail about subgroups of communities on a national stage. It’s just not helpful for politicians to wade into these conversations. We’ve got really good institutional arrangements to manage these issues and I have confidence in all those arrangements. 

LAURA TINGLE: So, all the other questioners don’t get ideas from [indistinct]. David Crowe. 

DAVID CROWE: Thanks, Laura. David Crowe from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne. Thanks for your speech, Minister. You had some quite alarming figures there on the number of cyberattacks that we’re seeing. Can you put it in a budget perspective because over the last couple of years there’s been more money allocated to cyber‑defence of Australia in Federal Budgets? There was $9.9 billion in this year’s budget; there were projects such as REDSPICE. I can’t remember what the acronym stood for, but it was funded. Now, are you banking that money and repurposing it all and putting it to other functions? Is any money being returned to consolidated revenue are you keeping all the funding that’s been given there to your department over time? And given the scale of the challenge that you have outlined, are we going to need to spend more money on this over time? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, David. Really good question. I’m not in the habit of lavishly praising the former government but one important thing they did was make the REDSPICE investment, which is run through the Australian Signals Directorate. It’s a very important thing for the security of our country and our government is 100 per cent committed to it. 

We are not spending enough on cyber‑defence at the moment and so one of my challenges is how we are going to address that problem. One of the elements of this that is going to be expensive is securing government infrastructure. We have talked a lot and thought a lot in the public sphere in recent months about cybersecurity in the private sector. Well, we’ve got to come at that discussion with a bit of humanity because government has its problems too. Part of the cyber strategy, one of the four goals is to establish how we’re going to lift and fund the security of Australian government infrastructure, and it is going to require more money. 

LAURA TINGLE: Anna Henderson. 

ANNA HENDERSON: Anna Henderson, SBS and NITV. Minister, I wanted to get your reaction to the release of the Bali bomber, Umar Patek, today. The families have expressed great disappointment. The Prime Minister has formally described him as abhorrent. Should he still be behind bars? And you’ve just been in Indonesia. What efforts did you make to change this outcome? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, Anna. I think it’s an absolutely horrible day for the victims and families of the Bali bombings. We lost 88 Australians in the Bali bombings. Those people are never coming back, and my thoughts today are very much with the families and communities who have lost a loved one. This is a person who was in the Indonesian justice system. My personal view is his actions are inexcusable and completely abhorrent. We don’t control the Indonesian justice system and that is the way of the world. But can I just say I think all Australians should be thinking today of those families and communities? That was a complete tragedy what happened in Bali, one of our worst terrorist incidents in Australian history in the sense to which it targeted Australians, and they have the deepest sympathies of me personally and the Australian Government today. 

ANNA HENDERSON: Did you lobby personally while you were in Indonesia?

CLARE O’NEIL: Anna, I’m not going to explain the discussions had, but I can tell you that the Australian Government has put in the strongest possible terms our views about what has occurred, and we have done that really clearly. Thank you. 

LAURA TINGLE: Jade Gailberger. 

JADE GAILBERGER: Jade Gailberger from the Herald Sun. In August you raised concerns about people being radicalised in Australia were getting younger and younger. Have there been any more cases of children this year being radicalised in the playground and what is your message to parents that might be concerned about their own children being radicalised? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, Jade. That’s a really important question. I haven’t talked a lot about terrorism today not because it’s not crucially important to me and sits very much at the top of my agenda. I’ve had an opportunity in other forums to speak a bit about trends that you’re referring to there. If I can say briefly one of the elements that’s changed for our security environment is what terrorism looks like. If you go back to 2014, 15, 16, we did see a presentation of terrorism that looked very different. It was highly organised terrorist attacks that were months in the planning, very well resourced, aimed to cause maximum loss of life and destruction, and what we see now is a number of things have changed. We see much more lone-wolf actors. We see a diversity of ideologies away from religious fundamentalism and into other kinds of motivations for violence. And we see lower sophistication attacks and the final thing to mention there is we see a lot more young people in the caseload and that is, of course, enormously concerning to me as the Minister and something I’m working very hard on with my agencies to look at. 

So, over the last year, somewhere around half of ASIO’s people of most concern have been under the age of 18. A big change in the shape of this problem. So, we are having to look at the model of CT that we adopt because we do need to think differently about this cohort of people. We need to think a lot more about what may be driving them and motivating them to violence and then how do we get them off that path and onto something that will allow them to lead a constructive life. It is meaning that we have to work, equally as importantly, with police but also with healthcare professionals and State Governments who are responsible for child welfare. And so, I won’t speak to the specifics of numbers. I’ll let the Director General of ASIO do that which he will do when it’s appropriate for Australians to understand how that problem is shifting and changing but, hopefully, that gives you a bit of information. 

JADE GAILBERGER: And to the parents? 

CLARE O’NEIL: So, to the parents, you know, one of the features that I think is important here is long periods of time that young people are online and unsupervised. And one of the theories about why we’re seeing this problem is because we’ve just been through two years where lots of Australia’s young people have been removed from families and communities and sporting groups that might normally normalise their behaviour and thinking and they’ve spent extensive amounts of time alone and online. I just really think all parents are worried about this and I guess I just urge people to think about if you’ve got a child who’s spending inordinate amounts of time online, make sure you’re talking to go them about what they’re seeing and there’s help for you if there are any issues. 

LAURA TINGLE: Andrew Green. 

ANDREW GREEN: Minister, Andrew Green from the ABC. To Indonesia again, with the passing of the recent marital law which has been dubbed a “Bali bonk ban”, what is your warnings to Australians when that legislation comes into effect? Are you concerned about the consequences for Australian tourists and is this a trend that you fear similar laws occurring across South‑East Asia? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, Andrew. It’s a good question. I won’t repeat your slightly humorous remark there. It’s not appropriate, very much not appropriate. What I will just say is this is not fresh; in all countries around the world the laws look different, and Australians need to follow the laws of those countries when they are in them. I will leave the Foreign Minister to run the advocacy around the impacts of Australian travellers on this problem in Indonesia. 

LAURA TINGLE: Josh Butler. 

JOSH BUTLER: Hi, Minister. Thanks for your speech. Josh Butler from The Guardian. To follow Jade’s question, but to go to a specific, I wanted to ask you about right‑wing extremism. I know you talk about the umbrella term of ideological-based extremism now but your predecessor in Labor, Kristina Keneally, talked a lot about right-wing extremism specifically – security agencies in this room as well. Where does this issue rank in terms of threats that you have to address in your portfolio? And could I ask what work is being done in that area sort of generally, but if I could ask specifically about hate speech and radicalisation online?

CLARE O’NEIL: Thanks, Josh. Thank you, Josh, really, really important question. So, one of the trends I just referred to earlier is this sort of proliferation of ideologies that are driving people to violence. We see big groups of people who are still on a religious fundamentalism pathway, but now a very large group of people who are of interest who subscribe to various forms of right-wing nationalism, Nazism, those sorts of things, and it’s obviously enormously concerning. We had the Christchurch bombing, which was an Australian committing a heinous act of terror in Christchurch in New Zealand, and so this is a problem I do take very seriously. 

We are actually looking at the way we think about and manage terrorism in Australia to consider whether it is appropriate for these new forms of terrorism that we are seeing. There was a lot of legislation passed in the second half of the last decade, which was very targeted at a specific type of terrorism, and some of the elements or features of the criminal law require features that aren’t present in the way that right-wing groups organise themselves. So, Mark Dreyfus and I are working together to look at some of those laws and see whether there are legal changes that will be needed to capture violent conduct in the right-wing terror world that perhaps is not being caught by what’s going on in religious fundamentalism.

JOSH BUTLER: Do you imagine that will be some legislation you introduce next year or – 

CLARE O’NEIL: I think that was a leading question. So, I’m not ready to get into specifics yet, Josh, but it’s certainly something we’re very concerned about. You see this with the proscribed organisations. Most of those proscribed organisations remain religiously fundamentalist organisations, yet the shape of our terror threat has evolved, and I think we have to ask why that listing of proscribed organisations is not reflecting the shape of the problem. 

LAURA TINGLE: Rob Scott, and if I could just appeal to the rest of the people asking questions to ask one question because, otherwise, your colleagues are going to miss out.

 ROB SCOTT: Rob Scott from 7NEWS. Thank you, Minister, for your address. I wanted to ask you about the Medibank hack. In the group’s last upload to the dark web, it said this was the final tranche of stolen information. Have you been able to work out whether that is in fact all the information – or has Medibank told you that’s all the information that was stolen, it’s out there now, or can we expect more to come trickling out? And on that same issue – sorry, Laura. On that same issue – it’s connected. On that same issue has any of that information been used by those criminals or other people on the dark web to steal identities or extract money from the victims? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, Rob. So, I think the best evidence that we have at the moment is that the hackers have dumped the remaining data and walked away seeing that they are not getting to get payment out of the attempted situation that they tried to create. But one of the most disturbing aspects of these incidents is that once stolen, the data is gone. And this is the same with Optus. We’ve kind of moved on mentally from Optus as a country. The data is still gone. One of the reasons we need to work so hard nationally to lift protections around sensitive data is just the extremely severe consequences of what happens when it does get stolen. 

Can I say something about how the data has been used or not been used. As Cybersecurity Minister, I felt so proud of how Australia handled that situation. There was data circulating about Australians that was extremely sensitive and hurtful. I did not see any of it printed in newspapers. I didn’t see it circulating on social media, and I didn’t see anyone seriously argue that Medibank should have paid the ransom and then we could have all gone off into our fairyland thinking that could have solved the problem. And from my perspective, we stood up to a bully and we won.


LAURA TINGLE: Sorry. Trudy Macintosh.

CLARE O’NEIL: Three questions is a bridge too far, Laura? 

TRUDY MACINTOSH: Trudy Macintosh from Sky News. What lessons have you learned from the repatriation of former ISIS brides and their families back to Western Sydney; and, if and when there is to be a second cohort brought home, do you promise to consult with communities first this time? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you, Trudy. I think it was a really important thing for the Australian Government to bring back the four women and 13 children, the eldest of whom is a 13-year-old girl, who’ve been repatriated so far to Syria. When I am asked about this, I am at pains to explain why the Australian Government has done that and I really want people to understand that the people at the heart of this matter are Australian citizens and so they are entitled to request a passport and return to our country when they are able to do so. So, the question for us is: is the safest thing for these 13 children to grow up in a squalid camp where they are subjected to radical ideologies every single day and then return to Australia at some point when they’re an adult or is it safer for us to bring them here so they can live a life around Australian values. And With regards to these specific people, the Australian Government made the latter decision. 

In terms of lessons, we followed very closely when the former government did exactly the same thing with a number of children and one adult they repatriated from Syria. The operation was very successful, from my point of view. I went to Western Sydney and talked to community leaders. I fiercely believe, and I think every politician would agree, that when we do something that affects local communities, they are entitled to have us go to them and talk to them and that is what I did. With regard to future repatriations, we have not made any further decisions about that. 

LAURA TINGLE: Ben Westcott. 

BEN WESTCOTT: Sorry about that. Bit of a maze back there. Ben Westcott from Bloomberg. Thanks for your speech. There was a lot of interesting stuff in there. There seem to be conflicting messages about our cybersecurity capabilities to international listeners. So, on the one hand, obviously, Australia has sent cyber experts to the Ukraine to help out there and you yourself have announced we will be leading a ransomware initiative. On the other hand, you’ve just described the past 10 years as a cyber slumber – which is a great phrase – and you’ve ordered this new cybersecurity strategy. How do we balance those two conflicting views of Australia’s cyber‑readiness? And do you think Australia is in a position yet to lead the world on cybersecurity? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Yep, what a great question. Thank you. I would say two things about that. We have the best cyber minds in the world in Australia and we have a lot of patchiness around cybersecurity in Australia, and those two things can exist at once and the goal of a cyber strategy to bring the nation into this fight so we can lift the country up together and that is where the effort is required. 

In terms of world-leading skills and expertise, you know, the Australian Signals Directorate is a truly amazing organisation that countries around the world fight to partner with Australia because of the skills and capabilities we have in that organisation. The Australian Federal Police also has enormous skills and capabilities. If you look at the work that was done, led by the secretary of my department, Mike Pezzullo, who’s just behind you there, on the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act in the last Parliament when I describe that law to politicians around the world, their mouths are open thinking, “how can we construct something similar in our country?” I think you’re seeing something where there’s patches of world-leading brilliance, but I think a long tail of areas where we really need to lift our game. That’s what the cyber strategy is about.

LAURA TINGLE: Sarah Basford Canales. 

SARAH BASFORD CANALES: Thanks, Minister. Sarah Basford Canales from The Canberra Times. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Apple is looking to strengthen even further its data encryption protections. It’s something that agencies and your own department have sort of described as detrimental to public safety and a barrier to investigations. Tech experts also warn that putting in these back doors for those investigations can also lead to giving a back door to hackers. How do you strike the right balance for data privacy in the age that we’re in following the breaches at Optus and Medibank as well? 

CLARE O’NEIL: That might need to be the subject of a future speech, I think. You’ve asked me something very difficult and complex there. Look, we do have to strike a balance and I don’t think it’s possible to lay out what those decisions look like to cover the whole scope of the decision‑making that we will need to do. I would just say with regard to encryption and the laws that were passed by the former government, there was a lot of discussion at the time that this would destroy the technology industry in Australia and that we would never recover from those changes, and the laws passed and I just haven’t seen any evidence that was real, so just note that for future discussions these subjects. We have to have an open and free society where people are entitled to privacy and be able to fight crime at the same time. And that’s the balance we need to strike. 

I’ll finish by saying the so‑called back door hasn’t been a feature of any cyberattack that I’m aware of. There may be ones that I’m not. But it certainly wasn’t an issue with Optus and Medibank. One of the features of cybersecurity that any cyber expert in this room – and there is many, many of them – will tell you is that most cyberattacks actually aren’t very sophisticated and this is one of the issues we need to grapple with. Most people can protect themselves better. Most companies can protect themselves better. And it is about, I think, nailing the basics in many instances when we spend a lot of time worrying about and talking about kind of nth degree of complexity, which isn’t, usually, a feature of these attacks. 

LAURA TINGLE: Melissa Coade. 

MELISSA COADE: Hi, Minister, thanks for your speech. Melissa Coade from The Mandarin. My question is also about sovereign capability with respect to cybersecurity the great transformation and reset you described, which touches on both institutional change and policy change, echoes a sentiment that we need better cybersecurity capability in Australia. What is your position on the professionalisation of cybersecurity and the impacts that might have on diversity and women? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Fantastic. Great. So, I think, I mean, these are questions that the cyber strategy team will explore and one of the most important things that I want to end up with at the end of the strategy work is a clear pathway to Australia being a fantastic place to open a cybersecurity business. There are lots of things, assets, that we bring to this conversation that are common around the world. We’ve got great cyber skills; we’ve got good tech skills in our country; we need more of them. What we have here, which is quite rare, is a functional regulatory environment. And I know that’s a bit controversial, but our Parliament works quite well, and we can legislate in ways that are very hard for other countries around the world, and I think that is actually part of the solution here around sovereign capabilities. 

You make a really important point about diversity. And it’s very interesting. I spend a lot of time with the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Their organisations and indeed their equivalents around the world are really pushing on this because we know if we only have cyber experts that look a particular way, we’re missing huge skills and capabilities across the rest of the population. So, we’ll work with the cybersecurity strategy to try to drive more diversity in the sector and it’s going to be a critical part of us meeting our goals. 

LAURA TINGLE: Brandon How. 

BRANDON HOW: Thanks, Minister, for your speech. Brandon How from InnovationAus.com. Ahead of announcing the cybersecurity strategy today, Home Affairs consulted on a national data security action plan, which sought consideration on an explicit approach to data localisation, noting that a lot of free trade agreements Australia signs include a commitment against introducing data localisation laws. I was just wondering what role you see data localisation playing in enhancing data security. And in your work so far, what’s the reaction been from big tech companies? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you. It is really important. Data localisation is going to very much be a feature of the discussion that the cyber strategy has, and indeed that the work of the national resilience taskforce does. We have existed for a long time in the benign belief that wherever the data is located it can be equally held safe, and I think anyone who pays vague attention to these matters knows today that is absolutely untrue. It’s part of the work of my department. 

In terms of, you know, specific feedback with these discussions with tech companies, you always get a whole variety of feedback. I think some people recognise this as crucially important. Others see it principally as a cost to their business and we just have to negotiate those different views. 

LAURA TINGLE: Ashley Wick. 

ASHLEY WICK: Hi, Minister. Ashley Wick from Nine News here. Thank you for your speech. Just back to Bali bomber Umar Patek. The Indonesian Government says he has been rehabilitated. How confident is the Australian Government that he’s not a threat to Australia or Australians travelling in Indonesia? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Thank you. So, I have read that’s the view of the Indonesia Government. I don’t have any independent information that verifies that, and I don’t think either it’s appropriate for me to comment on outcomes in the Indonesian justice system. I would just say again that this is a horrible day for families of Bali bomb victims. We have 88 people who were tragically and violently killed for no reason other than that they were Australian, and so I think everyone around our country is feeling really aggrieved by this and that’s my answer. 

LAURA TINGLE: Our final question today is from the Universities Australia higher education journalist of the year John Ross. 

JOHN ROSS: Thanks, Laura, and thanks, Minister. You mentioned the backlog of a million unprocessed visa applications, so hundreds of them came from a group of people, people who’d been accepted to do PhDs in this country from three specific countries – China, Pakistan, Iran. Some of these people have been waiting for three years now. The government changed six months ago; they’re still waiting. My sense is Australia is not inclined to trust research students from certain countries, but it doesn’t want to say so, so it fobs them off with pro forma emails and things like that. These people are tearing their hair out. They paid $650 a pop at least asking Australia to consider them coming here or getting a visa. Quite apart from the damage this is doing to our research sector, it seems like a straight‑out consumer affairs issue to me. Is this a reasonable way for a civilised country to treat people? 

CLARE O’NEIL: Well, John, thank you for your question and my warm congratulations on your award today. So, I don’t agree with your characterisation of what’s happened here. We have got, as I said, a million unprocessed visas sitting in the system. Some of those are more conflicted than others and I’m happy to hear a bit more about the applications that you’re referring to. Can I say as a general statement that having young people studying PhDs in our country on areas of significance to our nation is crucially important and we are not going to continue to see that if we are forcing people to wait for years at a time? 

We have got Professor Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University here who came to our country as a young person and – I can’t remember the details. I think his visa was processed within three weeks. 

BRIAN SCHMIDT: Four days. 

CLARE O’NEIL: Three days. Four days. His visa was processed in four days. Now, this is one of the smartest people in Australia and if we had made him wait for three years, well, of course, he would never have come here and as we had lost that intellect and drive and the Nobel Prize that came with it – thank you, Brian Schmidt – to another country. So, I just say we’ve got to get this system working for the country and we are really trying to do that at the moment, but I can tell you it is turning the Titanic. It has been dormant for a long time, and I can’t see the mildest shred of evidence of any interest of the two former Home Affairs Ministers in the kinds of questions that you are asking me here. This is a driver of our productivity, our wealth, our prosperity, our wealth, our future as a country, and yet it was essentially left to its own devices for too long and we are trying to change that. 

JOHN ROSS: Thank you. 

LAURA TINGLE: Please thank Clare O’Neil.