House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Matters of Public Importance

National Security

3:28 pm

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I think it would be appropriate for us to talk about this in a sober manner, and yelling slurs at each other across the chamber is not giving this its due consideration.

The decision to repatriate the women and children who are the subject of this debate was informed by individual assessments, which followed very, very detailed work by our national security agencies. I want to take a bit of time to outline to the House why this decision was important for our national security. As the House would know from media reports, the repatriation decision concerned four women and 13 children, the oldest of whom is a 13-year-old girl. The women in this instance were assessed in a detailed manner and have all received an assessment of being low risk.

I want to be absolutely clear to the House, because I think this important fact is getting somewhat lost in the debate about this matter: the women and children who have returned to Australia are Australian citizens. Now, there will be people in this chamber who see this matter from very different points of view. I am Australia's home affairs minister, and I have a very clear and simple prism through which I review these matters, and my concern is for the national security of Australians who are in Australia, full stop. That is the prism through which I see this matter.

We have a question here confronting our country about how we manage a situation where there are a number of women and children who are today living in camps in Syria. What the House and the Australian people need to absorb, in thinking through this issue, is that, as Australian citizens, these women and children have an enduring right to re-enter our country. There have been some attempts by this parliament to discuss taking citizenship away from people under certain circumstances. It is quite clear that that is not a legal avenue for the parliament to undertake. A home affairs minister from the conservative side of politics can't do it, just as a home affairs minister from the progressive side of politics can't do it.

We have to manage this issue, and the question for us is how we want the children at the heart of this matter to grow up and what the safest thing is for our country, for the type of childhood for these children to have. Is it in the nation's interests for a large group of Australian children, who will in all likelihood one day return to Australia, to spend their formative years living in a squalid refugee camp where they have very little access to health, where they do not get to go to school and where they are subjected every day to radical ideologies that tell them to hate their own country, or are they safer growing up here with Australian values? That is the decision we must make on a case-by-case basis, and we do it knowing that, at the moment, this country has control over whether and how these people return. We will not always have that control. There will come a point where we don't have the facility and ability to manage how these people return to our country, and they will return in an unplanned way, as happened under the previous government; I will get to some of the actions of the previous government in a moment, but let me focus on the matter at hand.

The national security decisions the government has made have been made on the advice of national security agencies, and the decision in these particular circumstances—and it will not be the case for every person who is Australian and in these camps—is that we manage this in a controlled way. That means the Australian government has been able to undertake individualised, very comprehensive security assessments of each individual that returns to this country. It means we can do it in a way where measures are implemented to protect the community. We can prepare for ongoing law enforcement monitoring, and, more importantly, we can connect these children with reintegration and rehabilitation so they can live a successful life in this country—which, surely, everyone in this parliament wants to see happen. If we don't do this, if we do as those opposite did—that is, stick our heads in the sand and pretend this problem is going to go away—then we are doing a disservice to our country. One of the things about being home affairs minister, which the member opposite should well know, is that sometimes we do difficult things in this job. There are no easy decisions here. There is no easy path forward. But this is the safest thing for our country, and that is why the government has made this decision.

I know those opposite are familiar with a lot of these arguments, because what is at the root of this debate is rank political hypocrisy that I would have thought would have been beyond even those opposite. I say that because we know the former government did exactly the same thing in 2019. The thing I fail to understand in this debate is why those opposite—some of whom are smart, free-thinking individuals—are getting up and criticising this decision when their government did exactly the same thing. Come on, let's have some standards for ourselves in this parliament; let's have some drive for consistency in this parliament. That decision of the former government to repatriate a group of Australians was made while the opposition leader was the home affairs minister. He had exactly the same choice I had as home affairs minister: would he leave these Australian children in Syria, to allow them to be continually subject to radical ideologies on a daily basis, or would he bring them to Australia? He made the decision to return those people to Australia.

I note that there has been some discussion about the consultation that has been undertaken here, and I want to turn to that matter. I have had a number of really good discussions with Western Sydney community leaders. They've been really good discussions because I think they show the level of complexity, seriousness and depth in the thoughts and beliefs that these communities take to these matters. As one community leader pointed out to me, no-one in Australia understands what is going on in Syria better than the people of Western Sydney. They are actually the experts on this matter. Not everyone is going to agree with the decision that the government is making, and there are people in the community who are asking very legitimate questions—ones that I am very happy to answer. But I do say that I have spoken to people in Western Sydney, including community leaders, who have deep regrets that this matter is being politicised. One said to me, 'This is about the only time that Peter Dutton has ever been to Fairfield.'

I met yesterday with the member for Fowler, who has been vocal in the debate. I hope she feels that was a good and constructive meeting, because I certainly felt that it was. She faithfully put the views of her constituents to me, which I gratefully appreciate. That is our role as members of parliament. I have spoken, I believe, to all of the MPs who have expressed an interest in this matter. If there are people have not had a discussion with me but seek one, please contact me. I'm very pleased to talk to you.

The Australian Federal Police have had a number of discussions with affected communities. Senior counterterrorism experts were in Western Sydney about a week ago, meeting with a large group of community leaders. We have more consultation planned. I think the calls for discussions in Western Sydney are very fair ones, and I am happy to comply with that, as I have said publicly.

I do want to ask those who follow me in this discussion to address the point of what consultation the former government undertook when it did a similar repatriation in 2019, because, as far as I am aware, none of this consultation occurred when those opposite did exactly the same thing. Again I invite those opposite, when they're on their feet, to give the parliament the courtesy of explaining why our government should be held to a completely different standard from the one your government was held to.

Our government has worked very hard across the Joint Counter Terrorism Teams, which have been a very important structure for our country in its successful fight in preventing terrorist attacks. We have incredibly smart people, with the deepest of community links, who help protect our community. I have confidence in those well-established frameworks that enable the Australian Federal Police to manage and respond to extremist threats in Australia, as they do every single day when they get out of bed every morning. I think it's important that we acknowledge the amazing efforts of those people and the repeated ways in which they have kept our community safe from radicalisation of all kinds.

I close by saying that the former Prime Minister the member for Cook was the greatest advocate for repatriating the group that came back. This what he said at the time in relation to the people who returned:

… they can't be held responsible for the crimes of their parents … they'll find their home in Australia and I'm sure they'll be embraced by Australians.

That was what the then Prime Minister said at the time, and I would just invite the opposition to consider why it is that they haven't continued in that tradition and instead have focused on the lazy politicking which has brought this before the parliament this afternoon.


No comments