Joint doorstop interview with the Hon Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister, the Hon Peter Dutton MP, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and the Hon Michael Keenan MP, Minister for Justice.
Prime Minister: It’s good to be here with my ministerial colleagues, Peter Dutton and Michael Keenan, to talk to the personnel at Strategic Border Command. These are the people who are keeping our country safe, these are the people who are keeping our borders secure, these are the people who are stopping the boats, stopping the guns and stopping the drugs.
This is a very important national task, if you can’t keep our borders secure you can’t run our country, you can’t do the job which is expected by our citizens of government and I am pleased to say that this Government is doing this job and it is doing it very well indeed.
As I am sure you remember we restored $700 million that the former Government had cut out of customs, in particular we restored $88 million that the former Government had cut from border screening and what that means is that the 25 per cent reduction in sea cargo screening, the 75 per cent reduction in air cargo screening which took place under the former Government has now been reversed.
We are doing enormous work when it comes to stopping contraband of various sorts at our borders. I am particularly pleased that, in the last seven months, some 5.7 tonnes of illicit drugs, drug-making material has been seized on our borders thanks to the operation of our customs and border protection force.
As you know, in the middle of last year, we committed an extra $630 million to our police and security agencies. Part of that was $50 million to customs and border protection to set up counter terrorist units at all eight international airports. These units have been operating with increasing effectiveness and success. Some 200 people who have been reasonably suspected of travelling to the Middle East to participate in terrorist activities have now been off-loaded and Minister Dutton will have a bit more to say about that in a moment. Minister Keenan will have more to say about our anti-drug efforts in a moment.
What I really want to do is publicly thank and congratulate all of our arms and agencies but particularly Strategic Border Command on the work that they are doing. Our borders are secure in a way that they weren't just a couple of years ago. Our country is safe in a way that it wasn't just a couple of years ago and it is the skill, the professionalism, the commitment and the dedication of the people here at Strategic Border Command as well as our personnel and our agents right around our country and around the world who are doing this magnificent job.
Immigration Minister: Prime Minister, thanks very much, it is a great pleasure to be here with the Prime Minister and Michael Keenan this morning. I would like to say thank you very much to the staff within customs and border protection and immigration. They do an outstanding job defending Australia each and every day.
As the Prime Minister pointed out, last August, we stood up offices at the eight international airports. It was a $50 million funding commitment by this Government over a period of four years. With those counter-terrorism units, officers have spoken to 85,000 people over the course of that period of time already and 200 people or so have been offloaded off flights.
I wanted to update you that on 12 March there was a male, 17 years of age, who was off-loaded after being interviewed by counter-terrorism unit officers at the Sydney Airport. He was on his way to conflict in the Middle East and it comes off the back of two individuals 16 and 17-year-olds, as you would be aware, who had been intercepted by CTU officers just before that.
The point of all this is that there is a significant and growing threat at our airports, at our borders. It is part of the reason that the Government is so absolutely determined to make sure that we stop the boats and to make sure that at our airports and our sea ports, we provide whatever support we can to those counter-terrorism unit officers, to officers within customs and border protection. I want to say thank you very much today to Minister Keenan. There is an unprecedented level of support and coordination between his department and mine, between the Federal Police and Customs and Border Protection. That relationship will continue to grow because it is absolutely necessary to stare down the threat of terrorism here and as it would approach our borders as well.
So, I am very pleased to be here today to recognise the great work of officers within the department. They do a sterling job and it is great that we recognise it today.
Justice Minister: Thanks Prime Minister, to Peter as well. I would like to echo the comments that Minister Dutton has made about the enormous cooperation we have between agencies here at the operations centre of Strategic Border Command. Upstairs, you will find officers from the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Crime Commission, AUSTRAC, ASIO and other agencies representing the full focus of the Commonwealth Government coming together to cooperate to keep Australia's borders safe.
That approach is paying significant dividends. We have record seizures of drugs, record seizures of precursors. The CEO of Customs was taking us through an occasion last year in November when the joint efforts of Australia's law enforcement community intercepted the second largest drugs seizure on record in Australia. Drugs to the street value of $1.5 billion. So, this approach is working and the dividends of the joined up cooperative approach involving all arms of the Commonwealth is working to keep Australia's borders safe.
Question: Last night Stephen Harper announced Canada would renew its mission in Iraq for an additional 12 months. Australia's mission there is due for renewal, a decision is due later this year. Are you minded to extend our mission there? And secondly, Mr Harper also announced the Canadian air force would join bombing missions in Syria. Is that something that we would consider?
Prime Minister: When we sent our force, our strong force, to the Middle East last year, we indicated that we expected that this job would take quite some time. We certainly didn't put a time limit on it, although obviously it is something which from time to time we review. As far as I am concerned, our people will stay in the Middle East fighting against the ISIL or Daesh death cult for as long as is necessary because, as we know, this is not just a threat to Iraq and Syria and the countries of the Middle East – this is a direct threat to Australia's national interests. We have had two brushes with terrorism here in Australia that were plainly inspired by the death cult in the Middle East.
Now, you have asked me about Syria. We are not conducting air strikes in Syria at this time and we have no plans ourselves to do so. Nevertheless, as well as our six Super Hornet Strike Fighters, we have also got two other aircraft there, a refueler and an airborne control aircraft and they are certainly assisting with air operations throughout the theatre and that includes air operations in Syria. So, while we are not ourselves mounting strikes against targets in Syria, our two support aircraft are supporting strikes in Syria. They have been doing that for some time and they will no doubt continue to do that.
Question: What is the latest information you have about the plane crash in the French Alps and will Australia help France in the recovery effort?
Prime Minister: Look, thank you for asking me about that. The Foreign Minister has obviously made a detailed statement on this subject earlier today and she will continue to update the Australian people and indeed the Parliament on this as the day goes on.
All we can say at the moment is that a terrible tragedy has taken place. Two Australians were on board. Our hearts go out to the friends and family of all on board but particularly to the friends and family of the two Australians. We have sent consular officials to the area to assist. We stand ready to help in any way we can but I have to say that the main countries involved, France, Germany and Spain, are highly capable and I would expect this investigation to be in the best possible hands.
Question: Do you have any information to suggest this may have been anything other than a tragic accident?
Prime Minister: I don’t and I think it would be wrong at this point to speculate.
Question: Prime Minister and perhaps Minister Dutton, can you give us any more information about this 17-year-old that was intercepted at Sydney Airport trying to fly to the Middle East?
Prime minister: I will ask Peter to say some more in a moment. It is absolutely critical that the people of Australia appreciate that the death cult is reaching out to vulnerable and impressionable young people. The death cult is reaching out, seeking effectively to brain wash people online and this is why we not only have $13 million allocated to countering violent extremism amongst individuals who have in some way succumbed to it, but we’re also committing $20 million to our online defences against this death cult. Plainly, Australians, hard to believe in some respects, but nevertheless, people who have grown up, born and bred in a free and open society, sadly do seem susceptible to the lure of the death cult and some of them are tempted to go overseas. My message to them is: don't go, don't go; it is very dangerous for you, it is very dangerous for others and we will do everything we can to stop you if you do try and go.
Immigration Minister: There’s not much more that I can add to my earlier statement. Obviously, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are dealing with and investigating this issue at the moment. But, as I say, the incident occurred on 12 March at the Sydney International Airport. The individual was 17 years of age and he was identified by the counter-terrorism unit officers and this is the threat, as I say, that they face every day. Also, people returning from conflict zones in the Middle East, that is a significant threat for us as people come back even more radicalised and this is made even more difficult, as the Prime Minister points out, because many of these young people, even without the knowledge of their parents, are downloading and receiving information through social media and on the Internet otherwise.
So, essentially this death cult is reaching through the computer screens into the minds of young Australians, brainwashing them and that is a great difficulty that all Western democracies have. So, we need whatever tools we have to apply to this situation, but the CTU officers are really the frontline response for us to investigate these matters, stop people travelling to an almost certain death or for contribution to the death of others and then ultimately if they do survive returning to our country.
Question: Has he returned to his family or is he being further investigated or has he been charged?
Immigration Minister: The individual has been returned to his family and obviously ASIO and the AFP are investigating that matter. I don't have anything further to contribute at this time.
Question: [inaudible] their reaction was to this – the family’s reaction?
Immigration Minister: I just don't have anything further to add at this time.
Question: Prime Minister, Andrew Forrest has made a speech overnight in which he suggested that iron ore producers should cap production to force up prices. Do you have any concerns that this could constitute cartel-like behaviour?
Prime Minister: Look, I’m not aware of Andrew's speech. Obviously, I am very conscious of the fact that the iron ore price has been heading south for quite some time. As you know, it has quite a big impact on our budget. One of the reasons why we are so determined to get the budget back under control is because Australia is a highly trade exposed economy. We are a fundamentally strong economy, particularly now that the budget is coming back under control under this Government. But nevertheless we are a trade exposed economy and we support free markets. But obviously, in a free market prices can go down as well as up and that has consequences.
Question: Does it annoy you or irritate you that BHP and Rio Tinto appear to be flooding the iron ore market at the moment to deliberately drive prices down and that impacts on the budget?
Prime Minister: I am not going to run a commentary on the behaviour of our major producers. Obviously, they are all big enough to talk for themselves. They are more than capable of making decisions that they believe are in the best interests of their shareholders, their workforce, their customers and ultimately their country and this is the way markets operate.
Question: On the infrastructure bank – PM – just quickly. Have you spoken to President Obama yet? Will you speak to Prime Minister Abe about it as well?
Prime Minister: Well, just on the overall principle, Australia is a good international citizen. We are a member of important and vital multinational, multilateral entities such as the World Bank, such as the Asian Development Bank and what is proposed by China and now joined by many other countries could serve a very useful purpose because we have a massive infrastructure deficit in this country and in our region and in the wider world and a new multilateral bank to fund infrastructure, particularly in our region, could play a really important part for good in the years and decades to come.
So, we’re certainly well and truly disposed to joining something which is in fact a genuinely multilateral institution with transparent governance, with clear accountability and with major decisions made by the board. That is really the fundamental thing for us, would major decisions be made by the board and is it going to be a multilateral institution rather than one that is controlled by any one country. Now, I have had a number of conversations with President Obama, I have had a number of conversations with Prime Minister Abe and those conversations are continuing.