Subjects: Counter-Terrorism arrests; Temporary Exclusion Orders Bill.
Thank you very much for being here. I will make a statement in relation to warrant activity today in New South Wales. I don't propose to take many questions in relation to matters which obviously remain under investigations and/or are before the courts, but I'll provide you with the following information.
Following a 12 month investigation, the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales police officers have today taken action to disrupt and arrest three persons in Sydney who posed a serious risk to our community and to our national security.
This is an effort by 200 police officers over a 12 month period, and one man, a 20 year old from Greenacre in New South Wales has been arrested and will be charged with the following offences: being a member of a terrorist organisation, namely Islamic State; secondly; acts in preparation of a terrorist act; and thirdly, preparations to enter a foreign country with the intent of engaging in hostile activities.
One man, who is 30 years of age from Chester Hill has been arrested and will be charged with fraudulently claiming Commonwealth unemployment benefits, and a third individual, a 23-year-old male from Toongabbie, has been arrested and will be charged with being a member of a terrorist organisation; namely Islamic State.
In relation to acts in preparation and foreign incursion preparation offences, both offences as you know carry a penalty of life imprisonment if convicted. The man indicated a range of potential targets, including police stations, defence establishments, embassies and consulates, courts, and churches.
The men facing terrorism offences are associates who became known to each other as a result of sharing extremist views online. Since the national terrorism threat level was raised on 12 September 2014, this is now the 16th major counter-terrorism interruption.
I want to truly pay tribute to all of those police officers who have been involved in today's activity. I want to highlight the incredible partnership that exists between the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, and in this case, the New South Wales Police, as well as other agencies involved in keeping Australians safe. The collaboration and partnership between our law enforcement agencies is the important reason why we brought together the Department of Home Affairs.
As you'd be aware, earlier today, through the Party Room of the Joint Party, we were able to have agreement from the Party to introduce legislation into the Parliament this Thursday of a Temporary Exclusion Orders Bill. This is incredibly important because it will be alleged in relation to one of the individuals who has been arrested and charged today, that he returned from overseas as an Australian citizen and obviously, given his activities that he's alleged to have been involved in over the course of the last 12 months, has resulted in his arrest today.
We obviously have a very serious threat in this country. The fact that now 16 attempted terrorist attacks have been disrupted successfully within our country says to the Australian public that this threat has not diminished, it's not going away, and it remains current, particularly when we've got Australians overseas in a theatre of war being trained by ISIL or being inspired otherwise online, and we want to deal with those people as best we can.
The United Kingdom has had a system operating in relation to Temporary Exclusion Orders which allows the Minister in the UK, as we would propose here, to exclude citizens for a period of up to two years, and it would be us building on the tools we have already to deal with people who we think pose a serious threat to Australians.
So the fact that these warrants were executed today in Greenacre, in Toongabbie, in Chester Hill, in Ingleburn, in Green Valley, and in Canada Bay, says to all Australians that this remains a very serious threat to us and the work that the police, ASIO, all of our agencies do on a daily basis, help save lives, the lives of Australians and the lives of people overseas, particularly where we're involved in those operations with our partners within the Five Eyes community and well beyond that.
So, this is a very, very serious development and again, I thank those officers who have been directly involved on the front line for the work that they've been involved in that has resulted in protecting Australians today.
So Minister, presumably you are indicating that this man could not have returned to Australia if the Temporary Exclusion Orders were in place already?
Well, without talking about the specific case, what the Government proposes with the Temporary Exclusion Order is the ability for a person to be excluded; to be prevented from returning back from Syria or Iraq, for example, for up to a two-year period. It allows us more time to manage individuals.
Now, as we know, when some people come back, it is very difficult to gather the evidence that would be admissible in a court of law in Australia to convict that person beyond reasonable doubt and so we need just to make sure that we've got every tool available to us to keep Australians safe and people coming back from the Middle East, who have either been members of Islamic State or have been trained in the art of terrorism otherwise, they pose a very significant threat and we've seen that in our own region, in Indonesia, we've seen it in Europe, across North America, right around the world.
This is a very significant threat and the Australian Government wants to do all we can to keep Australians safe and that's why we think the TEO Bill is something that should be supported on a bipartisan basis.
Minister, the Law Council and others have raised serious concerns about these exclusion orders. Will you be asking them for further advice on the legislation?
We'll consult, but in the end my responsibility as the Home Affairs Minister is to do all that I can to keep Australians safe. Now, we've been able to disrupt 16 attempted terrorist attacks in our country, but we have three individuals today who it's alleged pose a serious threat to the security of our nation. So I will be doing all I can, the Prime Minister will be doing all he can, to make sure that we keep Australians safe and the Temporary Exclusion Orders Bill, we will consult on, but ultimately, we're going to make decisions that are based in law. We will act within the constitutional realities that we deal with, obviously, but we will pass laws and we need the support, particularly in the Senate, to pass those laws to keep Australians safe, and that's what the TEO Bill is proposed to do.
Without going into the specifics in respect to this case, you talk about how this gentleman [inaudible] through the online world [inaudible] encrypted messaging services. Is this sort of…any vindication for the encryption laws that were passed last year at all?
Look, I won't go into this operation, but I've received advice from ASIO, from the Federal Police, that the laws that we passed in relation to giving them the ability to gather this evidence, particularly where you've got people who are communicating on encrypted messaging apps; that it has been crucial in their ability to disrupt and to monitor people that would seek to do us harm. It's the modern reality. I mean all of us use our devices. Our kids use their devices to communicate and the reality of many of the apps is that they are encrypted and when we're talking about now close to 100 per cent of messaging that takes place between terrorist groups or paedophile groups is done on encrypted devices or applications, then that's a very serious threat that we need to deal with.
The Government has provided balance in the range of packages we've brought before the Parliament. Ultimately I hope that it provides whatever assistance is possible to the Federal Police – in this case to the New South Wales Police – to stop Australians being killed.
Minister, with regards to these exclusion orders, can you walk us through what the process would be [inaudible] the Minister would make such an order? How do you get to that stage and are there sort of rights of appeal to those people who are subject to them?
Yes there will be. So there'll be, as you would expect, the ability for people to test that decision, which I think is appropriate and the advice, obviously of ASIO and the other intelligence products that perhaps might come to us from our Five Eyes partners or we've been able to collect otherwise, would inform the decision of the Minister of the day.
So there are checks and balances that are put in place, but as we've seen today, I mean it's unlike any other crime group where if somebody breaks into a bank or into a house or commits an offence, the police can gather the evidence and they can present that before the court. It necessarily the case that in many investigations where terrorism is the subject matter, that they do have to act before, and rightly before, an act is committed and Australians are killed.
We need to be realistic about the approach here; about supporting the police; having the appropriate checks and balances in place, but we have a very high per capita number of people that have gone off to other countries, to Syria, Iraq, etc and many of them are entitled to come back because they're Australian citizens – and so it's a very serious concern for us.
And roughly how many of those people who went in that ISIS era, over the last five years or so, do you know of that are alive and not in Kurdish or Iraqi custody?
We don't know the answer to that because there is certainly differing advice in relation to how formed up people are, even within Syria now or within parts of Iraq, whether or not there is – even though obviously there's been enormous disruption and taking over of areas to the credit of the Americans and others – nonetheless there are many people who still are involved in different theatres, skirmishes, regroupings, etc.
So, it may be the case that some Australians we assume have been killed in the theatre of war, may not have been, and honestly, some cases where you just don't know because we don't have the ability to gather that intelligence or that evidence on the ground – so it's very hard to provide, you know, at point-in-time number, but there are estimates about it.
But the fact is that if somebody's an Australian citizen they have a right to come back to our country and the Temporary Exclusion Order is a sensible approach, as we've seen exercised by the Brits and elsewhere, to manage the return or to delay the return in certain circumstances, particularly where we know that there might be intelligence holdings about the threat that a person poses, but that we don't have sufficient evidence that would be admissible in a court here to bring those charges against that person. It is very difficult for the police and the intelligence agencies in those circumstances and the TEOs will provide, I think, greater protection for Australians and that's why we want the support of the Parliament.
Minister, is there a risk with those orders, though, that someone stays overseas, falls off the radar of authorities and we don't know where they go and they somehow come back to Australia and[inaudible]; whereas if they'd come back through the conventional channels, authorities – as it seems to have been the case in this case – have been able to put them under surveillance for 12 months and gather that evidence. I mean is there a danger that these people just disappear and maybe pop up without us knowing about it?
To the premise of your question, the risk isn't them returning to Australia under an assumed identity – now that's very hard for people to do because we have one of the most advanced border protection systems in the world, people can't board a plane without a valid visa document to come into our country, they need travel documents and passports, etc to be issued with that visa – so there are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in the question, but if we are in a position to take out a TEO, it's based on advice that we've got – either intelligence that we've been able to bring together ourselves or that's been provided to us by our partners – and we would in that circumstance, I think, have a fair knowledge of, at least the prior movements or the intent of that individual, which would justify the issuance of the TEO.
Look, it's not a perfect science because people in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, can move around in a way that they can't within our country or the United States or New Zealand for example.
So we just need to deal with each case as best we can and obviously there is an enormous amount of complexity around each individual case, and the TEOs may not be the silver bullet for one individual because there's another way in which we can manage the return of that person, but it may be completely appropriate for the next case and that's the basis on which we work.
Thanks very much.