Joint press conference with the Hon. Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister, the Hon. Peter Dutton MP, Minister for Immigration, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services and the Attorney General, The Hon. Philip Ruddock MP, Federal Member for Berowra.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, thanks everyone for being here. As you all know Australia does face an increasing threat from those, including those in our midst, who would do us harm. As I pointed out yesterday, there are at least 100 Australians who are known to be fighting with terrorist groups in the Middle East. There's at least 150 Australians who are actively supporting those terrorist groups here in Australia and ASIO currently has more than 400 high priority terrorist investigations.
This is a very serious problem. It is perhaps the most serious national security challenge that we will face in our lifetimes.
The Australian Government has increasingly, over the last 12 months, been escalating our response. As you know, we have a powerful military force in the Middle East, acting against the Islamist death cult in Iraq. We have committed an extra $1.3 billion to our police and security agencies here in Australia. The first duty of Government is to keep our community safe.
Yesterday, as you will recall, I announced that there would be a counter-terrorism coordinator, Greg Moriarty, a very senior and distinguished official. I also announced that there would be a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for counter-terrorism, Michael Keenan the Minister for Justice, who would be responsible for our Countering Violent Extremism programmes amongst other things.
Today, I announce that as flagged by me in my national security statement in February, we will be legislating within a few weeks to strip dual citizens involved in terrorism of their Australian citizenship. For a long time, since 1948 in fact, the Citizenship Act has provided that a dual citizen who is fighting against our country will automatically forfeit citizenship.
In the old days fighting against our country normally involved service with the army of an enemy nation. These days fighting against our country can often involve working with terrorist groups that have pledged to do us harm and are urging people to do us harm. So, what in effect we are proposing to do is bring this element of the Citizenship Act into the modern world. We are making it more contemporary, if you like.
I want to stress we will be ensuring that as far as we can humanly make it, no-one becomes stateless, and any decision by the Minister to strip someone of their citizenship – to strip a dual national of Australian citizenship – will be subject to judicial review.
As well, we want to have a national conversation about the responsibilities, as well as the rights, of citizenship. About the duties as well as the privileges of citizenship. As you all know, every new citizen takes the citizenship pledge, increasingly at citizenship ceremonies all of us are invited to take the citizenship pledge. We pledge our commitment to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs we share, whose rights and liberties we expect, whose laws we will uphold and obey – and these words must mean something.
That's the point. The words of the citizenship pledge must mean something.
This is the discussion which we need to have, and I'm very pleased that it's going to be led by Phillip Ruddock as my Special Envoy for Citizenship and Community Engagement, and also by Parliamentary Secretary Connie Fierravanti-Wells, in addition to her current role as Parliamentary Secretary for Social Services, Connie will also become Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General.
Connie has been doing mighty work in community engagement already, but because we have community engagement programmes in both the Social Services and the Attorney-General's portfolios, it will be good to help integrate those by double-hatting, as it were, Connie Fierravanti-Wells.
As all of you know, there is almost no-one who has done more to promote community harmony, who has done more to promote Australia as a cohesive multicultural society than Phillip Ruddock.
Phillip has in some respects changed the face of Australia and certainly if I might be political for a moment, he has transformed the Liberal Party and our standing in the diverse Australian community over the last 40 years. I'm very, very pleased that Phillip has agreed to take on this important role at my request.
Finally, I just want to stress that this is all about combating terror – it's all about combating terrorism. We had an excellent discussion in the Party Room about this this morning – a very full discussion in the Party Room this morning. Everyone who spoke supported the Government's intentions in these matters but I do want to quote one person from the Party Room who made a particularly profound observation and it was Senator Scott Ryan. He said, “If you take the oath and live by it, it doesn't matter where you come from, who you are, what else you believe, you are absolutely a first-class Australian.” So, I want to offer that absolutely profound reassurance. I want to offer my personal guarantee as well as the commitment of this Government, that we are in the business of bringing our country together. And obviously if we are bringing our country together, it's got to be on the basis of a profound commitment to this country by everyone.
So, Peter, over to you, then Connie, then Phillip.
IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Thanks very much, Prime Minister, Philip, Connie. Holding Australian citizenship is an enormous privilege and many Australians who have taken that oath swear it in a way that is meaningful to them and to their families and to our country. If people break that solemn oath, then there needs to be a consequence that flows from it. If people seek to do harm to Australian citizens, if they seek to act in the name of terrorism against our national interests offshore, then there is a consequence for that action. When you look at the actions of our Five Eye partners, all of them have moved in relation to citizenship, revocation, suspension and we have looked very closely at the example set by countries including the United Kingdom and the legislation that we will be putting forward to the Parliament recognises in part the UK model, and that is, if we start with the overriding and most important principle, that somebody can't be rendered stateless. The Minister has the discretion if somebody has engaged in activities that may constitute an offence, in our case under the criminal code relating to certain sections. If that is the case, they are a dual citizen, they are not going to be rendered stateless, then we can revoke their Australian citizenship.
There are other aspects of the UK model which have been included in the discussion paper and I think Australians will want to have their say in relation to this very important matter. As I say, Australia is not acting alone here. We are not ahead of the pack. We have taken advice from our partners, we have looked at, in a very careful way, what our like-minded partners are doing and we’ve acted accordingly and, I believe, very strongly in the national interest.
PRIME MINISTER: Connie?
SENATOR THE HON. CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thank you, Prime Minister, Peter, Philip. As the daughter of migrants myself, I have lived the journey of migration. Citizenship is a very important step in a migrant's journey and so it's very appropriate that today we have a conversation about citizenship. Can I also thank you, Prime Minister, for the responsibilities that you have given to me in addition to my current role. This will complement and build on the work that I have been doing in the multicultural affairs and settlement services area, and most especially, the work that I have been doing with communities at risk. Thank you.
THE HON. PHILIP RUDDOCK MP: Thank you very much, Prime Minister, for this opportunity to reaffirm the nature of our society. We are a society that has drawn people from all over the world. We have the third largest proportion of overseas-born people of any of the countries of the world – I think it’s only Israel and Luxembourg that exceed Australia. For all its faults, I think we have the best system in the world for ensuring that people are able to settle, but it's important that it is understood that there is a framework in which that happens.
We offer people respect for their race, their country of origin, their religion, their cultures, but we do have expectations that all who make a commitment to this nation and its future will observe the laws of Australia. There is nothing new in that. It's been part of the national agenda for a multicultural Australia over a long period of time. There is nothing new in the fact that citizenship is dependent upon you accepting the rule of law. There are already provisions in the Act that enable it to be terminated where people have committed treason or fought on behalf of a foreign army against Australia. Expanding this to terrorism reflects that – it's important that that be understood. But to the extent that we can, through the work that we do, to enhance people's understanding of citizenship, the steps that are taken to ensure that people know the obligations that they are assuming, I believe the work that we are going to do will be very important. Thank you very much.
PRIME MINISTER: Ok, do we have some questions? Michelle?
QUESTION: People who are going to engage in a terrorist act or are found to have met the qualification for citizenship being withdrawn – are they going to be put in jail or are they going to be deported?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you can only be put in jail if you've been convicted of an offence that is punishable by imprisonment. So, there are essentially two different processes here. If people are charged and convicted of terrorist offences regardless of their citizenship, they will be put in jail – they will absolutely be put in jail.
QUESTION: [Inaudible] deported at some stage?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, if they no longer have Australian citizenship, very likely. The point is that there are a lot of Australians overseas right now – about 100 – fighting with terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Forty to fifty per cent appear to be dual nationals. Under the legislation that we intend to introduce in the next few weeks – and that's separate from the further discussion about citizenship – under the legislation that we intend to introduce in the next few weeks, if the Minister is satisfied of this, he may, subject ultimately to judicial review, strip the Australian citizenship from those individuals and obviously they will then no longer have an entitlement to return to Australia.
QUESTION: What's your view on those fighting overseas who are not dual citizens, who are basically Australian citizens – what should the consequences be for them?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, they should suffer the full severity of the law, if they get back alive. We know that perhaps 30 or more have already been killed. It's just about the most dangerous thing anyone can do, to go to the Middle East to fight with the various Islamist terror groups over there. So, first of all they shouldn't go. Then if they go, they obviously face the consequences of going. If they seek to come back, they will face the full severity of our law.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is something that will be canvased as part of the citizenship discussion paper. There are obviously some circumstances in which Australian citizens already can lose some of the privileges of citizenship. For instance, Australian citizens who are serving lengthy jail terms lose the right to vote. In the United Kingdom, as I understand it, there are some provisions for action to be taken in the citizenship area, even against UK citizens. That's the kind of thing that we will be open to community debate on.
QUESTION: Mr Abbott, have there been discussions with community groups about this and how do you hope to bring them along with you?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm constantly in discussion with a whole range of people, including people of different faiths and backgrounds. The thing that impresses me is that the overwhelming majority of migrants to our country are absolutely committed to this country and they are appalled at what's going on; including so many people in the communities from which these terrorists and would-be terrorists are being drawn.
Let's never forget that every single person who comes to this country from somewhere else votes with his or her feet for Australia. So, we should never underestimate the commitment to this country of migrants. We should never underestimate that for a second. Unfortunately, though, there are some people with Australian citizenship – some are wholly and solely Australian citizens, some are dual citizens who have turned against our country – have turned against our country in a way that is really putting them beyond the pale and, in part, that's what this will address.
QUESTION: Will the stripping – the power to strip citizenships of dual nationals – will that be applied at the Minister's discretion in absence of a conviction?
PRIME MINISTER: That is correct.
QUESTION: That is the case? And secondly, if this is such an important step for Australia's national security – this was first flagged in January last year by Scott Morrison in his discussions – why has it taken so long to get to this point?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Scott first raised this as a possibility, as you say, some time ago. I signalled an intention to move down this path in February. I think it's three months later we have committed to bringing legislation to the Parliament within a few weeks. It's a weighty business to take away someone's citizenship – even the citizenship of a dual national – and we don't lightly do it. Nevertheless, given the challenges that we face, we think this is an important addition to the armoury that we have to keep the Australian people safe. If a dual national does go abroad, if the Minister believes, on a basis that will stand up to judicial review if necessary, that someone is engaged with a terrorist organisation overseas and strips the Australian citizenship from that person, obviously that person has no right to return to our country.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question on a separate matter?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, let's deal with this and then we’ll come to other subjects.
QUESTION: Can you spell out a timeline for the consultation process given that roughly about 50 of the foreign fighters are Australian – not dual nationals. Is there a timeframe for dealing with those citizenship issues?
PRIME MINISTER: I want Phillip and Connie to take as much time as they think they need. I don't imagine that this is going to take many, many months, but I don't want them to rush their discussions either. I certainly anticipate the legislation in the terms that Minister Dutton and I have outlined to come into the Parliament in a few weeks. And then if, as a result of the Ruddock–Fierravanti-Wells consultations the Government believes there should be further legislation, then that would come in at a subsequent period.
QUESTION: With the sole Australian citizens, is it your preferred aim to be able to strip them of their citizenship and can you confirm whether there was significant division in Cabinet on this?
PRIME MINISTER: I want to have the discussion. I want to keep Australia safe. I am open to all mechanisms which are consistent with a free and fair and tolerant society that will help this Government to keep Australians as safe as we possibly can be. So, I'm certainly open, but at this stage, I'm not flagging any particular intention by the Government. Look, this is a Cabinet that has very vigorous discussions – as you would expect. In the course of Cabinet discussion a whole lot of points are made, invariably good points, but Cabinet comes to a unanimous view and as I'm sure you've all been told out of the Party Room discussion today, something like 20 people spoke. Every contribution was a good one and no-one opposed what the Government was intending to do.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, this weighty decision which will be at the discretion of the Minister, is there any form of judicial appeal against it?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, there is.
QUESTION: How would that be conducted?
PRIME MINISTER: In the same way that administrative decisions are judicially reviewed.
QUESTION: A tribunal rather than a court?
PRIME MINISTER: The intention is that it would be subject to judicial review and normally that starts in the administrative appeals tribunal and goes off into the Federal Court.
QUESTION: Minister Dutton, in making the decision to revoke citizenship and citizenship of Australians, who will you consult in making your decision and, Tony Abbott, how do you respond to those from your side of politics who say they don't believe multiculturalism?
IMMIGRATION MINISTER: Well, the situation as it operates, as I say in the UK and in the US, and in Canada and elsewhere across Europe, has obviously informed our thinking and like we receive advice now through the intelligence agencies, we form judgments based on that advice. The difficulty, of course, is that if somebody is off fighting in Syria, they may be involved in a terrorist act there, they may, as we’re learning from the death cult over there, involving themselves in rape or blowing up buildings, other treacherous acts, it is very difficult, of course, to gather sufficient evidence to satisfy an Australian court beyond reasonable doubt that that person committed that offence in that part of the world.
Now, right now, I rely on security assessments from ASIO in relation to people who come to our country and if there is an adverse security assessment, I make a judgment about whether or not that person can be released into the community and a similar process would follow. So we would gather as much evidence as was possible and we would make a decision whether or not we thought somebody was captured by what is a tight definition, in relation to somebody committing an act of terrorism, an act preparatory to, fund raising or supporting a terrorist organisation or providing financial support or indoctrinating young people into the ways of one of these cults. So, that's the robust process that other like-minded nations go through that we go through in other areas now and that's what we would adopt in relation to this matter.
PRIME MINISTER: Sabra, I know that over the years various elements of multiculturalism have been criticised by a whole range of people. I think if you go back far enough, someone like Stephen Fitzgerald was critical of some aspects of multiculturalism as it was then practiced. I think we pretty well got it right, if I may say so, in the time of the Howard Government.
We are very content to see people become Australian in their own way and at their own pace, but we are absolutely determined to ensure that everyone who is here in Australia, certainly everyone who has taken the citizenship pledge, understands that you've got to obey the law and there are some ordinary values of human decency which we expect you to live by.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, are there any specific ramifications from this discussion for second generation migrants, for second generation Australians?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, one of the elements of the law in the UK, as I understand it, is the ability, if the Minister so chooses, to strip the citizenship of people who may be entitled to the citizenship of another country but don't necessarily have it. Now, because this is something which one of our principal partners and allies does, I expect it's something that may be canvased in the discussion paper, but we certainly have formed no intention to go down that path.
QUESTION: Yourself and Philip Ruddock 15 years ago were part of a government that went through considerable pain with regards to GST and sanitary products for women. In fact, David Kemp got hit on the head by a sanitary pad during one of these protests directed at the Cabinet. Why on earth would a government that experienced so much pain 15 years ago revisit such a subject when the topic that’s often talked about is about broadening the GST and not narrowing it?
PRIME MINISTER: I understand that there has long been a push to take the GST off goods which are one way or another regarded as health products. It's certainly not something that this Government has a plan to do. My understanding is that when the Treasurer was asked about this on Q&A last night, he said that it really was a matter for the states and that's the general position when it comes to the GST: it is a state tax, it's collected for the states to be used by the states and any changes to the GST are a matter for the states.
QUESTION: The Treasurer also said last night it should happen – that the GST should be removed and you are saying that it shouldn't?
PRIME MINISTER: I know everyone is always hunting for semiotic interpretations and so on. The point I'm making is that we cannot change the GST without the states and territories.
QUESTION: What is your preference, Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: My preference is that the states and territories should make up their minds whether they want any changes to the GST and if they do, then they are welcome to come to us.
QUESTION: Just also concerning last night, the Treasurer said it was basically inevitable there would be a review into the aged retirement income system. He said not now, but he said you can't commit to never ever. Will there be a review in the lifetime of an Abbott Government over this term or the next?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we said going into the election was that there would be no adverse changes to superannuation in this term of Parliament and that's a commitment that we’ve kept and certainly intend to keep. I’ve said, and let me repeat it now, that we have no plans to change the superannuation system – no plans to change the superannuation system. I can't give a commitment for forever, but certainly, there will be no adverse changes in this term of Parliament, we have no plans to make changes in subsequent terms of Parliament should we get them. And look, our view – and this is very important, Phil – is that superannuation is the people's money. Your superannuation account is your money, it's not the Government's money. Yes, it's tax advantaged, but, nevertheless, it's your money and Government has no right to treat your superannuation nest egg as some kind of a piggy bank that the government can raid at will. That's Labor's view. It's certainly not the view of this Government. One last question.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, do you think Carlton Football Club should sack Mick Malthouse?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, I don't profess to be an expert on the ins and outs of Aussie Rules coaching. I coached Rugby Union in a relatively junior capacity many, many years ago and even there, I would be very reluctant to offer an opinion on a coach. All I know is that Mick Malthouse has an extraordinary record – he's the Wayne Bennett, I guess, of Aussie Rules coaching – absolutely extraordinary record.
Now, occasionally even the best of us, in whatever field, have downs as well as ups and my instinct is that Mick Malthouse should be given a chance to bring his team back to the success that I'm sure he's capable of coaching it to.