Subjects: Melbourne terror arrests; migration.
I wanted to just give a bit of an update obviously on the arrests that have taken place.
Firstly I want to record my thanks very much to the Australian Federal Police, to ASIO, to the Victorian Police for the work that they've done. This is a very significant intervention and this was an attack that was planned allegedly, to cause maximum damage to a number of people.
Now one of the great concerns we have in the counter-terrorism space of course is that people get their hands on semi-automatic weapons or on firearms otherwise. So the work here is really quite remarkable of the officers involved and what it demonstrates I think in the first instance is a great level of cooperation, obviously with the Joint Taskforce that operates not only in Victoria and New South Wales and elsewhere, really means that we have a very tight collaboration between the different agencies and they're able to provide information, to swap information and intelligence.
Now in 15 cases, they have been able to intervene in circumstances where it's alleged that a mass or terrorist attack otherwise would take place. So significant efforts by the front-line officers involved.
The second point that I want to make is that there is a significant problem, as we've pointed out before, as we highlighted off the back of the Bourke Street incident a couple of weeks ago, it is a significant problem in relation to the use of encryption messaging. This is a problem that a lot of Australians have heard about, but encryption is very important for us when we're using internet banking and secure messaging. But the fact is at the moment we have paedophiles, we have people who are involved in terrorist planning, in criminal activity otherwise, who are using encrypted messages. And as the police pointed out this morning, that was a significant matter in relation to this particular case.
We have people now who are swapping messages, using encrypted messaging apps and the police are blind to those messages. Now years ago, if people had a handwritten note, the police, through a warrant, would have been able to discover that, perhaps foil an attack or gather that evidence. When the message came via a message, that same information conveyed by text or by pager was able to be discovered by warrant, by the police and used as evidence or to foil an attack. The problem that we have now is that the messages being swapped between terrorist cells and people involved in terrorist activity, as well as other significant criminals. They are doing it online through these messaging apps and the police don't have the ability to get across that technology. That is the significant issue.
Now I want to call today on the Intelligence Committee within the Parliament to return their advice back to the Parliament quickly because this is legislation that the Government needs to deal with urgently. We have a Bill before the Parliament that provides the appropriate safety mechanisms, the privacy protections in place, but it allows police and ASIO to do their jobs in relation to these terrorist investigations and in relation to matters, quite frankly, regarding the most serious sexual abuse against children.
You've now got paedophiles who are using encrypted messaging apps to direct activity online where children are being directed or an adult is being directed to conduct a certain sexual act and people are paying for this – pay-per-view – and having that streamed to them. They are using the encrypted messaging apps, as terrorist groups are, and it is unacceptable.
So the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security needs to deal with this very quickly and return it back so that the Government can deal with this in the Parliament.
Mr Shorten has been opposed to this legislation, but he needs to review his position as well. We are in a position of vulnerability, as the police pointed out this morning, when they have no ability to get beyond the technology. The technology now has got ahead of where the law is and we are finding ourselves in a particular black spot where the police are blind to the telecommunications across these messaging apps and it is unacceptable.
I also just very quickly, want to note that it is of concern to me and I think to Victorians as well, that the Attorney-General in Victoria hasn't yet, as I understand it, corrected the record in relation to a false statement he made about whether or not information was shared in relation to Shire Ali and the issues around bail, him being on a watch list and other information. As I said, we have excellent sharing arrangements between the Victorian Police, the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, other agencies that are involved in the Joint Taskforce and they are readily swapping information. And the fact that the Victorian Attorney-General wouldn't know that really is quite incredulous. So he needs to correct the record because he's made a statement which is incorrect. He needs to apologise for that and Premier Andrews frankly needs to chastise him for what is a very significant error. He misled the Victorian people and he should come out and correct the record.
I'm happy to take any questions.
Just on the encryption legislation, are you suggesting that the Government wants to get that through Parliament in these two sitting weeks?
I want to get it through as quickly as possible Michael. There is a significant gap for us now. We've demonstrated in two terrorist incidents – one successful, one that we allege was about to take place and that has now been foiled – and what's common in both of those cases, on the advice that's been given to me, is that there was extensive messaging using encrypted messaging apps which is designed to stop the police and ASIO from seeing the content of those messages.
And that's why the agency has advised me, ASIO has advised me, the Australian Federal Police have advised me in relation to, you know, something like nine out of 10 of their high priority cases at the moment now are being hampered because of the use of encrypted messaging apps. We've got a Bill, we've foreshadowed this, we've sought to deal with it, it's been delayed now within the committee process and we have to get it out of that process and into the Parliament as quickly as possible.
In this fortnight?
If that's possible. I hope that it is and I'd call on the committee to make sure that it's able to be released so that we can deal with it, in perfect circumstances, by the end of the year and that's what they should do.
Minister, in regard to the Melbourne arrest, could you confirm whether two of the people arrested had previously had their passports cancelled and could you tell us what sort of monitoring that those people was underway?
Well the advice that I've got is that in relation to the three individuals who have been charged today, that passport cancellations took place in 2018 and that's the situation in relation to the three individuals as I'm advised.
And could you confirm whether they're citizens of Turkey?
I can confirm that all three are Australian citizens and that's as I'm advised.
Do they have citizenship of another country?
Not to my knowledge no.
Today marks another arrest from Melbourne when it comes to terror. Are we thinking that, you know, there is holes in the plan to protect Melbourne? What do you think?
Look, I think we need to be realistic about the threat. As we've said before, it's very difficult when you have somebody that arms themselves with a kitchen knife, throws a couple of gas bottles onto the back of a ute or into the back of their car and goes down to a place of mass gathering, like a shopping centre or a shopping mall. It's very hard in that circumstance because it's not cued by intelligence. It's impossible to surveil thousands of people or hundreds of people at any one time, as you would expect, but we need to be realistic about the threat.
And this is why again I repeat my calls to neighbours – I read media reports today of one neighbour who's reported to have said that he thought he saw a change in behaviour of a particular individual that's alleged to have been involved in this matter. We need that information reported. You need to call the National Security Hotline. You need to provide information to Police, to Crime Stoppers. It can be done anonymously, but we need that information.
ASIO and the Australian Federal Police and the Victorian Police in this instance work hand in glove and I have absolutely nothing but praise for the work that the officers have done again in relation to this matter.
But if they were relying on the exchange of information over their smart devices, that wouldn't have foiled this attack, this attempted terrorist incident. This is a very serious issue and we need to be very honest about it. We need to make sure that the agencies are working together – yes they are. We need to make sure that the communities are providing information – in some circumstances yes. And in part, that's why we've been able to foil 15 attempted attacks. But in relation to this incident, this incident wouldn't have been stopped if the police were relying on exchange of information via messages.
The criminals, the terrorists, the paedophiles are using encrypted messaging apps because they know that the police can't view them. And that is an unacceptable risk in this environment and that's why I think the committee should release the report and let's get on with the legislation.
Minister, why do you think there is this high level of incidents in Melbourne in particular? What is not happening there that's happening in other parts of the country?
Well there can be a number of reasons. I mean obviously, you might have a higher concentration of people within a cosmopolitan city like Melbourne. There can be other factors.
But look, when you've got Australian citizens who are being radicalised online – people that have been born here or have arrived here as young children – and they've been radicalised online or they've taken direction from somebody else within their sphere of influence – a religious leader for example or somebody else within the community – we need to recognise it. That can manifest itself anywhere and these last two incidents have obviously been in Melbourne, there have been incidents in Sydney as we know and to a lesser degree elsewhere. But this problem at the moment is manifesting itself in Melbourne and in Sydney and we need to support the police and the agencies as best we can and we're doing that and they're doing excellent work.
Were Victorian Police derelict in not contacting counter-terrorism agencies when they saw that the man they'd arrested on driving offences was a person of interest to this?
No. No. Again, there are lots of people with 20/20 hindsight about what should have been done, what shouldn't have been done. The fact is that the police are making judgements, ASIO makes judgements and they make it with all of the facts known to them at the time.
The Victorian Attorney-General made a mistake – I hope it was a mistake – but certainly he misled the Victorian people when he said that certain information wasn't available. The fact is that there is an exchange of information. Commissioner Ashton has confirmed that. The Acting Director-General of ASIO and others have indicated that, that there is a free flow of information because the state and the Commonwealth is working very closely together to make sure that we can people safe.
So I don't have any criticism of the work that I see from the agencies behind the scene. I can give an assurance to all Australians that they are doing great work day and night to keep us safe, but they're dealing with a considerable number of people at a time of elevated risk.
Just on another matter in your portfolio. I think when you were campaigning for the leadership from memory I think that you advocated a cut in migration of about half. The Government now seems to be hinting at a cut of about 30,000. Is that enough?
Well that's not what I said at the time. I thought that we could cut back and obviously through integrity measures we did.
The Prime Minister's said very clearly that he wants a bottom-up approach here. There's no sense having Premiers write to one day saying that they want an increase in the number of people coming in through the Migration Program and then publicly arguing that they want it to be less.
So I think it's important that the Premiers – who by necessity will have different views in South Australia and Western Australia compared to some of the eastern states – so it will inform the process, it will be, I think, a more robust process at the moment. But I support very strongly the Prime Minister's announcements and the sentiment of his speech last night.
I spoke to demographer Peter McDonald this morning, who's consulted with governments on this for 20 years and has consulted with this Government on it. He says that you're joking if you're telling people that taking 15,000 people a year out of Sydney and Melbourne is going to make their commute less congested or ease congestion on the roads. Is that really what the Government's trying to tell people?
Well it'd be a strange position if you're arguing Michael that we should be cutting it by more. I'm not sure that's been the Fairfax position in the past.
So look, let's have a look at the process that the Prime Minister's got in place. He's very concerned, as we all are, about people sitting in cars, taking kids to school, picking kids up from sport, going to work, coming home from work. We want people out of cars and spending more time with their families, more time doing things that they want. We want to make sure that the Migration Program is working for our country.
And, you know, if you look at Sisto, whose funeral it was today – the tragedy of his loss of life is – have been remarked on by many people today and obviously everybody mourns his passing, but his is an amazing story of migration to this country, working hard, providing for his family, being a cherished part of the Melbourne community. And you contrast that to the migration story of some others; we should be bringing in 1000 of the people who are doing the right thing and reduce to zero the number of people we bring in who are doing the wrong thing.
So I think the Prime Minister's spot on with the remarks that he's made last night and the Migration Program in our country needs to work for us. We need to recognise that there are different demands and pressures in Sydney and Melbourne than there might be in South Australia and WA, particularly if the economy in WA is improving and the resource sector means that they can't fill those jobs with Australians. So there are a number of things that we've done to address some of the concerns, but I think the Prime Minister will have more to say about that.
Is the Prime Minister spot on with the numbers? He's talking a cap of 160,000 permanent intake each year. Do you think it should be lower than that?
Well again, the Prime Minister has said that he wants to see this bottom-up approach, which I think is important. Let's wait to see how the rest of that plays out and what the final numbers are and we can make comment at that stage alright?
Will there be a cost to the Budget of reducing migration?
Well it depends on a number of factors. Obviously, as we've said for a long period of time, our first priority is to fill jobs with Australians. Where those jobs can't be filled with Australians, then we need to look for people, again, who are going to be in our country's best interests and that means that through the Skilled Program, predominantly we want to try and bring younger people so that they can work for longer, pay taxes before they start to draw down on social welfare and health system and the aged care system etc. and to be as productive as possible for as long as possible. And that's always been the virtue of most migration schemes where you're trying to bring people in through the skilled intake and that will continue to be one of the anchors for our scheme as well.
Alright, last one.
Does that mean the cut is more likely to come from the family stream?
No it doesn't mean any of that. It means that the Prime Minister's initiated a process and he'll have a look at the different elements that make up the program.
But, as you know, in our country the skilled intake is about two-thirds/one-third to family and others so let's work through the detail of that.
But I think he's put in place an excellent process. I think most Australians would applaud the fact that the Prime Minister has listened to what Australians have had to say about migration. He's acting on the concerns that they've stated and I think that's a good process.
Alright, thanks very much.