by Alan Thornhill
“This is about Australian values:” Tony Abbott at question time today
The sweeping changes the Prime Minister made to Australia’s security arrangements today will inevitably be seen by some as an over-reaction.
The damage Australia has already suffered from terrorism has been bad enough.
The siege, to which Mr Abbott was responding today, led to the deaths of two innocent, peaceful victims – as well as that of the self-declared Islamic hostage taker – in Sydney last December.
There have also been attacks on two police constables in Melbourne.
So far, though, these events simply do not compare with losses arising from, say, traffic accidents which, sadly, are attracting much less attention these days.
That comparison, of course, does not even come close to making a case for accusing Mr Abbott of over-reacting, in his response to the Lindt cafe siege.
But it does, perhaps, put some perspective into debate on this issue.
The siege was, of course, a direct attack on Australia, which invoked a threat of more to come.
And it raised the grim prospect of more, if action is not taken.
Those are the real power points in all this.
But even Mr Abbott, himself, spoke with regret of the prospect of losing the open and transparent Australia that he loves, before he announced his fresh initiatives, today, to counter the rising threat of terrorism in Australia.
* confirmation that he would appoint an anti-terrorism co-ordinator, with wide powers
* urging friends and relatives to report people they believe are being taken in by violent Islamic propaganda and
* tightening visa, immigration and gun laws.
These are steps that some might associate more readily with Vladimir Putin, than an elected Australian leader.
But troubled times make their own demands.
Even so today’s announcements might well serve as a timely reminder that hard won personal freedoms are still delicate creatures, in a very hard abrasive world.
by Alan Thornhill
The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, says the Martin place siege shows that Australians “cannot wait” to tackle terrorism suspects.
Responding to the Prime Minister’s speech on terrorism, Mr Shorten said:” the Martin Place siege report makes it clear that we cannot wait for “at-risk individuals [to] develop into high level threats.”
“We must aim for a deeper level of prevention, pulling out the roots of extremism and stopping its growth.”
Mr Shorten had said earlier that he believes it is not beyond “the wit and wisdom” of parliament to mount a balanced response to terrorism.
He did not retreat from that position in his speech today.
by Alan Thornhill
Tony Abbott confirmed today that his government will appoint an “anti-terrorism co-ordinator” with wide powers.
The prospective appointee, already dubbed the anti-terrorism czar, will be expected to lead:-
* action against “hate preachers”
* tighter visa and immigration controls
* operations to gather information on Australians coming under the influence of persistent Islamic propaganda, on social media and
* police raids on suspected terrorists.
The Prime Minister, outlined these measures, in a speech on terrorism in Canberra today, saying:” We want to bring the same drive, focus and results to our counter terrorism efforts that worked so well in Operation Sovereign Borders and Operation Bring Them Home.”
His speech was a direct response to a siege at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney in mid-December, which resulted in the deaths of two hostages, and a self-declared Islamic terrorist.
Mr Abbott said Australia is not the only country to have been attacked in this way.
“Not only has Australia suffered at the hands of terrorists – but so have Canada, France, Denmark, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Japan, Jordan, the United Kingdom and the United States,” he said.
Mr Abbott was expected to deliver his speech in Parliament.
But he chose to do so at the headquarters of the Australian Federal Police in Canberra instead, saying: “By any measure, the threat to Australia is worsening.”
“The signs are ominous.
“ASIO currently has over 400 high-priority counter-terrorism investigations.
“That’s more than double the number a year ago.”
He said bad people had taken advantage of Australia’s freedoms.
That included the Sydney gun-man, Man Haron Monis.
“When it comes to someone like the Martin Place murderer, people feel like we have been taken for mugs,” Mr Abbott said.
“Australian citizenship is an extraordinary privilege that should involve a solemn and lifelong commitment to Australia,” he added.
The Prime Minister said:” Every single day, the Islamist death cult and its supporters churn out up to 100,000 social media messages in a variety of languages.
“Often, they are slick and well produced.
“That’s the contagion that’s infecting people, grooming them for terrorism.
“Already at least 110 Australians have travelled overseas to join the death cult in Iraq and Syria.
“At least 20 of them, so far, are dead.”
Mr Abbott urged friends and relatives, aware of people coming under the influence of this propaganda, to contact the police.
He said the authorities could not do their jobs without that co-operation.
The Prime Minister admitted that he could not guarantee that there would be no more terrorist attacks in Australia.
But he declared:”my Government will never underestimate the threat.
“We will make the difficult decisions that must be taken to keep you and your family safe.
“We have the best national security agencies and the best police forces in the world.
“Our agencies are working together.
“All levels of government are working together.
“We are doing our duty.
“That is what you have a right to expect – and to demand of me and of us,”Mr Abbott said.
by Alan Thornhill
The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, declared today that his government would take action against what he called “hate preachers.”
He said he could not guarantee that there would never be another terrorist attack on Australian soil.
But he declared:”My government will never underestimate the terrorist threat.”
And he said Australians could look forward to the stronger Australia, that they had a right to expect.
Mr Abbott was delivering a statement on terrorism to the Australian people.
He was expected to do that in Federal parliament.
However, he chose to do so in the Australian Federal Police conference room in Canberra instead.
His speech was centred on the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney, in which two hostages – and an Islamic terrorist – died.
That was in mid-December.
Mr Abbott appealed to relatives and friends of those attracted by Islamic terrorist propaganda to contact the police and other agencies.
He said the authorities could not do their job, without that help.
by Alan Thornhill
The full text of the speech the Prime Minister delivered today on terrorism is set out below
Today, I want to speak to you about keeping our country safe.
I want to speak to you about the threat that we face; the work done already to keep you as safe as we humanly can; and the things still needed to prevent further terrorist attacks.
Today, my colleagues and I are joined by representatives of the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Defence Force, ASIO and agencies like Crimtrac – which helps police and other law enforcement bodies share information.
The men and women in this room are on the frontline of Australia’s fight against terror.
There is no greater responsibility – on me – on the government – than keeping you safe.
This is the responsibility that’s discharged by the men and women in this room.
We know that these are testing times for everyone here – and for everyone sworn to protect democratic freedoms.
The terrorist threat is rising at home and abroad – and it’s becoming harder to combat.
We have seen on our TV screens and in our newspapers the evidence of the new dark age that has settled over much of Syria and Iraq.
We have seen the beheadings, the mass executions, the crucifixions and the sexual slavery in the name of religion.
There is no grievance here that can be addressed; there is no cause here that can be satisfied; it is the demand to submit – or die.
We have seen our fellow Australians – people born and bred to live and let live – succumb to the lure of this death cult.
We have heard the exhortations of their so-called caliphate to kill all or any of the unbelievers.
And we know that this message of the most primitive savagery is being spread through the most sophisticated technology.
By any measure, the threat to Australia is worsening.
The number of foreign fighters is up.
The number of known sympathisers and supporters of extremism is up.
The number of potential home grown terrorists is rising.
The number of serious investigations continues to increase.
During 2014, the Government consulted with our experts – many of whom are in this room today; we talked with our allies; and we worked with the Opposition, to improve Australia’s preparedness for any eventuality.
Last September, the National Terrorist Threat level was lifted to High, which means a terrorist attack is likely.
Critics said we were exaggerating.
But since then, we have witnessed the frenzied attack on two police officers in Melbourne and the horror of the Martin Place siege.
Twenty people have been arrested and charged as a result of six counter terrorism operations conducted around Australia.
That’s one third of all the terrorism-related arrests since 2001 – within the space of just six months.
The judgment to lift the Threat Level was correct.
In proclaiming a caliphate, the Islam-ist death-cult has declared war on the world.
Not only has Australia suffered at the hands of terrorists – but so have Canada, France, Denmark, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Japan, Jordan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
We have seen the tactics of terrorists evolve.
In the decade after 9/11, our agencies disrupted elaborate conspiracies to attack our electricity supplies, the Grand Final at the MCG and the Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney.
Now, in addition to the larger scale, more complex plots that typified the post 9/11 world, such as the atrocities in Bali and London, sick individuals are acting on the caliphate’s instruction to seize people at random and kill them.
Today’s terrorism requires little more than a camera-phone, a knife and a victim.
These lone actor attacks are not new, but they pose a unique set of problems.
All too often, alienated and unhappy people brood quietly.
Feeling persecuted and looking for meaning, they self-radicalise online.
Then they plan attacks which require little preparation, training or capability.
The short lead time from the moment they decide they are going to strike, and then actually undertake the attack, makes it hard to disrupt their activities.
Police do not have the luxury to wait and watch.
They apply their best judgement – and they do so, fully aware that armchair critics, will find fault.
Still, police act because they have enough facts to make an informed judgement.
Some of these raids may not result in prosecution.
But frankly, I’d rather lose a case, than lose a life.
The protection of life must always rank ahead of the prospects of a successful prosecution.
The arrest of two men in Sydney earlier this month, who’d already recorded a pre-attack message, is just one example of how quickly a threat can develop.
I should add that without our Foreign Fighters legislation, it is highly unlikely that these arrests could have been made.
This new terrorist environment is uniquely shaped by the way that extremist ideologies can now spread online.
Every single day, the Islam-ist death cult and its supporters churn out up to 100,000 social media messages in a variety of languages.
Often, they are slick and well produced.
That’s the contagion that’s infecting people, grooming them for terrorism.
Already at least 110 Australians have travelled overseas to join the death cult in Iraq and Syria.
At least 20 of them, so far, are dead.
Even if the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq stopped today, there’s an Australian cohort of hardened jihadists who are intent on radicalising and influencing others.
The number of Australians with hands-on terrorist experience is now several times larger than those who trained earlier in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Of that group, two-thirds became involved in terrorist activity back here in Australia.
The signs are ominous.
ASIO currently has over 400 high-priority counter-terrorism investigations.
That’s more than double the number a year ago.
We are not alone in facing such challenges.
The same phenomenon is evident across Europe, in the United States and in South East Asia.
Many of those involved in anti-Western attacks in Indonesia over the last decade are now being released from prison—some neither reformed nor rehabilitated.
Australian and Indonesian agencies will continue to work closely together to tackle extremists – because it is in both our interests to do so.
In Australia and elsewhere, the threat of terrorism has become a terrible fact of life that government must do all in its power to counter.
So far, this is what we have done.
Within weeks of taking office, I asked the Attorney-General to develop a government response to foreign fighters.
Last August, the Government invested $630 million in a range of new counter-terrorism measures.
This funding gives our security agencies the resources they asked for to combat home-grown terrorism and to help prevent Australians participating in terrorism overseas.
The effect of these new measures has already been felt.
• Counter-Terrorism Teams now operate at all eight major international airports;
• sixty-two additional biometric screening gates are being fast tracked for passengers at airports to detect and deal with people leaving on false passports;
• forty-nine extra AFP members are working in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra on the Foreign Fighter threat;
• seven new financial analysts have been engaged to help crack down on terrorist financing;
• a new “violent jihadist network mapping unit” in ASIO has been created to improve intelligence agencies’ understanding of the threat facing Australia;
• a Foreign Fighters Task Force has been established in the Australian Crime Commission with access to the commission’s coercive powers; and
• Last Thursday, the Attorney-General announced a series of measures designed to combat terrorist propaganda online.
• We have legislated to cancel the welfare payments of individuals assessed to be a threat to security.
This is not window dressing – as of last September, 55 of the 57 Australian extremists then fighting with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq had been on welfare.
We have made it easier to ban terrorist organisations which promote and encourage terrorist acts.
We have strengthened the offences of training with, recruiting for and funding terrorist organisations.
We have made it easier to prosecute foreign fighters by making it illegal to travel to a declared area overseas.
Last December, we proscribed travel to Syria’s Al Raqqa province – where the death cult is based – without a legitimate purpose.
We are now looking at listing Mosul district in Ninawa Province, in Iraq, which the death cult also controls.
And we have given ASIO the further power to request an Australian passport be suspended, pending further security assessment – that’s happened eight times so far.
This year, we will consider what further legislation is needed to combat terrorism and keep Australians safe.
But we cannot do it alone.
The Government is working with local communities to counter violent extremism.
I acknowledge the readiness of parents, siblings and community leaders to let the police know about people they think are falling under the death cult’s spell.
Our law enforcement agencies could not operate without their help.
I acknowledge the cooperation the Commonwealth enjoys with all States and Territories on counter-terrorism issues.
That cooperation was highlighted by the Martin Place siege.
Yesterday, Premier Mike Baird and I released the Martin Place Siege Joint Commonwealth – New South Wales Review.
What we learnt from that Review was that there were no major failings of intelligence or process in the lead up to Martin Place.
Everyone did their job as required by law.
But now, there’s more to do.
It’s clear that in too many instances the threshold for action was set too high – and the only beneficiary of that was the Martin Place murderer himself.
For too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt.
The perpetrator was given the benefit of the doubt when he applied for a visa.
He was given the benefit of the doubt for residency and citizenship.
He was given the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink.
He was given the benefit of the doubt when he applied for legal aid.
And in the courts, there has been bail, when there should have been jail.
This report marks a line in the sand.
There is always a trade-off between the rights of an individual and the safety of the community.
We will never sacrifice our freedoms in order to defend them – but we will not let our enemies exploit our decency either.
If Immigration and Border Protection faces a choice to let-in or keep out people with security questions over them – we should choose to keep them out.
If there is a choice between latitude for suspects or more powers to police and security agencies – more often, we should choose to support our agencies.
And if we can stop hate-preachers from grooming gullible young people for terrorism, we should.
We have already made a start on removing the benefit of the doubt for people who are taking advantage of us.
We’ve introduced legislation to refuse a protection visa to people who destroy evidence of their identity.
And the same applies if you present a bogus document.
This Bill is currently stalled in the Senate.
It’s in our country’s interest.
And I call on all senators to support it.
The Government’s Data Retention Bill – currently being reviewed by the Parliament – is the vital next step in giving our agencies the tools they need to keep Australia safe.
Access to metadata is the common element to most successful counter-terrorism investigations.
It’s essential in fighting most major crimes, including the most abhorrent of all – crimes against children.
Again, I call on Parliament to support this important legislation.
We need to give our agencies these powers to protect our community.
Today, I am releasing the Counter Terrorism review that the Government commissioned last August.
The Review finds that we face a new, long-term era of heightened terrorism threat, with a much more significant ‘home grown’ element.
While the Review did not recommend major structural changes, it did recommend strengthening our counter-terrorism strategy and improving our cooperation with at-risk communities.
The government will carefully consider the findings and act as quickly as possible.
In fact, some recommendations have already been acted upon:
We will ensure returning foreign fighters are prosecuted or closely monitored using strengthened control orders.
We will appoint a National Counter Terrorism Coordinator.
We want to bring the same drive, focus and results to our counter terrorism efforts that worked so well in Operation Sovereign Borders and Operation Bring Them Home.
Over recent months, I spent many hours listening to Australians from all walks of life.
Clearly, people are anxious about the national security threats we face.
Many are angry because all too often the threat comes from someone who has enjoyed the hospitality and generosity of the Australian people.
When it comes to someone like the Martin Place murderer, people feel like we have been taken for mugs.
Australian citizenship is an extraordinary privilege that should involve a solemn and lifelong commitment to Australia.
People who come to this country are free to live as they choose – provided they don’t steal that same freedom from others.
We are one of the most diverse nations on earth – and celebrating that is at the heart of what it means to be Australian.
We are a country built on immigration and are much the richer for it.
Always, Australia will continue to welcome people who want to make this country their home.
We will help them and support them to settle in.
But this is not a one-way street.
Those who come here must be as open and accepting of their adopted country, as we are of them.
Those who live here must be as tolerant of others as we are of them.
No one should live in our country while denying our values and rejecting the very idea of a free and open society.
It’s worth recalling the citizenship pledge that all of us have been encouraged to recite:
I pledge my commitment to Australia and its people; whose democratic beliefs I share; whose rights and liberties I respect; and whose laws I will uphold and obey.
This has to mean something.
Especially now that we face a home-grown threat from people who do reject our values.
Today, I am announcing that the Government will look at new measures to strengthen immigration laws, as well as new options for dealing with Australian citizens who are involved in terrorism.
We cannot allow bad people to use our good nature against us.
The Government will develop amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that we can revoke or suspend Australian citizenship in the case of dual nationals.
It has long been the case that people who fight against Australia forfeit their citizenship.
Australians who take up arms with terrorist groups, especially while Australian military personnel are engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, have sided against their country and should be treated accordingly.
For Australian nationals, we are examining suspending some of the privileges of citizenship for individuals involved in terrorism.
Those could include restricting the ability to leave or return to Australia, and access to consular services overseas, as well as access to welfare payments.
We will also clamp down on those organisations that incite religious or racial hatred.
No-one should make excuses for Islam-ist fanatics in the Middle East or their imitators here in Australia.
For a long time, successive governments have been concerned about organisations that breed hatred, and sometimes incite violence.
Organisations and individuals blatantly spreading discord and division – such as Hizb ut-Tahrir – should not do so with impunity.
Today, I can confirm that the Government will be taking action against hate preachers.
This includes enforcing our strengthened terrorism advocacy laws.
It includes new programs to challenge terrorist propaganda and to provide alternative online material based on Australian values.
And it will include stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting hatred.
These changes should empower community members to directly challenge terrorist propaganda.
I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’.
I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.
I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’.
In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking.
Everybody, including Muslim community leaders, needs to speak up clearly because, no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents must surely be a blasphemy against all religion.
I can’t promise that terrorist atrocities won’t ever again take place on Australian soil.
But let me give you this assurance:
My Government will never underestimate the threat.
We will make the difficult decisions that must be taken to keep you and your family safe.
We have the best national security agencies and the best police forces in the world.
Our agencies are working together.
All levels of government are working together.
We are doing our duty.
That is what you have a right to expect – and to demand of me and of us.
Weathercoast by Alan Thornhill
A novel on the murder of seven young Anglican Christian Brothers in the Solomon Islands.
Available now on the iTunes store.
Alan Thornhill is a parliamentary press gallery journalist.
Private Briefing is updated daily with Australian personal finance news, analysis, and commentary.
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