House debates

Monday, 18 October 2010

Ministerial Statements

National Security

3:43 pm

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to update the House on the outcomes of the largest counterterrorism exercise conducted to date in Australia, Exercise Mercury 10. The threat of terrorist attack remains a major security challenge for Australia. In recent years, a number of plots have been disrupted by the dedicated and coordinated efforts of Australia’s security and law enforcement agencies, as well as our international partners.

Just as terrorists have proven to be creative and innovative, so Australia must also be flexible and adaptable to changes in the global security environment. Since 2007, the government has taken a number of important steps to strengthen our ability to understand and respond to national security threats, especially the threat of a possible terrorist attack. In 2008, the government delivered Australia’s first National Security Statement, and earlier this year a counterterrorism white paper was prepared to bring together both the international and domestic elements of Australia’s counterterrorism policy.

The government is committed to ensuring that our security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are adequately resourced and prepared to deal with these potential threats. A key element of this is testing and evaluating our ability to comprehensively respond to a major terrorist incident. This must be done in the most realistic manner possible if it is to be effective.

Exercise Mercury 10 was two years in the planning and was the largest, most complex and indeed most demanding national counterterrorism exercise that our country has been engaged in. It was also the first to include an international component, with the involvement of New Zealand authorities. The exercise was conducted over six months. It commenced in March this year. It led to the major deployment activities across Australia in August this year.

Mercury 10 simulated a series of coordinated terrorist attacks across the country and was designed to test our security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as key decision makers across federal, state and territory governments. Almost all of our key national security departments took part and every state and territory in the country participated. Importantly, for the very first time the exercise included a ‘prevention phase’ that simulated a national investigation into suspected terrorist activity.

To date, Australia’s intelligence and law enforcement communities have been highly successful in identifying and preventing terrorist actions in this country. We know, for example, that over the past eight years, four potentially very serious attacks intended to produce mass casualties have been prevented in this country as a result of their work. Obviously, however, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We have learned many lessons from these investigations and continually look to improve and strengthen national cooperation and coordination across all agencies and, importantly, at all levels of government. It is for this reason that the exercise brought together the police forces from every state and territory, as well as the Australian Federal Police and the Australian intelligence community. Through the exercise they were able to test and practise these processes in a high-pressure environment, with as much realism as possible.

In late August, the ‘deployment phase’ was conducted, where the federal government, along with the states and territories, simulated its response to coordinated terrorist attacks against multiple targets. This phase of the exercise tested the ability of almost all members of the national security community to respond to multiple incidents across Australia. The Attorney-General’s Department crisis centre provided national information coordination and, again, state and territory crisis committees, together with the National Crisis Committee, met to provide an effective and nationally coordinated response. Importantly, the Australian government provided leadership and tested its processes for providing substantial health, material and defence support in response to these attacks.

As I previously indicated, in another first for our counterterrorism exercise program, Mercury 10 included a simulated terrorist incident in New Zealand. This allowed our two countries to practise their response and support processes that may be called upon in a significant disaster or terrorist attack.

In fact, many of Australia’s crisis response and coordination mechanisms are common across the spectrum of natural disasters, emergency management and counterterrorism. Accordingly, the exercise also provided a unique opportunity to test our ability to respond to other national security threats, aside from a terrorist event. For example, the Australian Health Protection Committee and the aeromedical transport coordination group were able to test their ability to provide support and coordinate the transport and treatment of the critically injured.

At the conclusion of the ‘deployment phase’, authorities then simulated the possible prosecution of suspects involved in the simulated attacks.

The first responsibility of any government is to protect the safety and security of its citizens. In that context, I have recently reintroduced to the House legislation implementing key reforms to our national security and counterterrorism laws. They include:

  • the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2010, which will implement the recommendations of a number of independent and bipartisan reviews;
  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement Bill 2010, which will ensure transparency and accountability in the operation of national security legislation; and
  • the Telecommunications Interception and Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2010, which will facilitate greater cooperation and intelligence sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The measures contained in these bills are designed to give the Australian community confidence that our law enforcement and security services have the tools they need to fight terrorism, while at the same time ensuring that the laws and powers that are used are balanced, have appropriate safeguards and are accountable in their operation.

The government’s approach to counterterrorism is, and must be, one of collaboration between the Commonwealth, states and territories. The Council of Australian Governments places great emphasis on counterterrorism capability development, and our National Counter-Terrorism Committee ensures the appropriate prioritisation of resources against key needs.

Exercises such as Mercury 10 enable us to test our capabilities, prepare for what is ahead and continuously learn and improve. For this reason, the exercise was identified as highly successful and worth while. It provided the opportunity to focus on testing and practising our key national security agencies in counterterrorism prevention and response arrangements. There were many lessons learned, and significant outcomes were achieved.

Looking ahead, we will soon be opening new facilities for the National Crisis Coordination Centre and the Parliament House Briefing Room. These will ensure Australia’s whole-of-government crisis response mechanisms are updated. Exercise Mercury 10 enabled our crisis coordination agencies to practise key processes and resolve key issues, in advance of those centres becoming fully operational.

I have pleasure in commending the work of the more than 3,500 participants in the National Counter-Terrorism Committee exercise, whose dedication and hard work so vitally contributed to the continuous improvement of Australia’s counterterrorism capability.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Stirling to speak for nine minutes.

Leave granted.

I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the member for Stirling speaking for a period not exceeding nine minutes.

Question agreed to.

3:52 pm

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection) Share this | | Hansard source

While the risk of terrorist attack in Australia remains moderately low, the possibility of one is something that we cannot ignore, and we must prepare for any eventuality in the war against terror. Major counter-terrorism exercises such as Mercury 10 provide a full-scale, real-time test of our capacity and the capacity of our emergency and security services. Australia should be in a constant state of readiness, and exercises such as Mercury 10 are a valuable part of the preparations and training.

Since September 2001 the former coalition government provided over $10.4 billion of funding, up until the years 2010-11, to enhance Australia’s national security and counter-terrorism capacity by increasing the ability of our intelligence services, by boosting Australia’s aviation, maritime and border security and by enhancing our capacity to respond to and manage emergencies.

The coalition understands that isolationism will not make Australia any safer. To meet the security challenge and defeat the terrorist threat Australia must work with our allies and engage with the wider world. Australia’s relationship with the United States of America and our Asian neighbours has never been stronger, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the former Howard government.

Australia has played a strong role in promoting stability and democracy, both within our region and in the wider world, in particular the Middle East. Because strong and stable democracies are most likely to be peaceful allies, promoting stability and democracy abroad is not only right in principle but is in line with our own national interests.

Defending and securing Australia requires two things: a strong will and a strong economy. The Howard government had a very strong track record on both. To protect Australia against terrorism the former coalition government increased ASIO staffing numbers from 580 at the end of 2000-01 to around 1,400 by the end of 2007 and provided funding to increase staffing numbers to 1,860 by the end of next year. We gave our law enforcement agencies the legislative teeth required to combat the threat of terrorism by strengthening the legislative framework for terrorism related offences, and we supported that by constitutional reference of powers from the states.

The former coalition government increased international and regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism through the allocation of $266 million for three successive regional counter-terrorism assistance packages, including the counter-terrorism intelligence cooperation and joint intelligence, the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, the regional movement alert list and regional law enforcement liaison and capacity building. We also sought to ensure all relevant agencies and jurisdictions were well rehearsed to respond in the most effective way to a terrorist attack by conducting frequent counter-terrorism exercises, and we committed an additional $27.4 million in 2007-08 to maintain and expand the successful National Counter-Terrorism Committee.

In government the coalition increased regional and global cooperation in law enforcement, Customs activities and legal assistance to boost the fight against terrorism and transnational crime. For example, the Australian Federal Police’s international network was expanded to include 33 cities in 27 countries around the globe, enabling effective collaboration with international law enforcement agencies to combat transnational crime including terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, people-smuggling and sexual exploitation. We also established the National Security Hotline in December 2002, which has since received over 140,000 calls. In a report released by the Australian National Audit Office, agencies, including the AFP, ASIO and state and territory police forces, said they placed significant value on the information they received from the hotline.

Following the establishment of the Philippines Bomb Data Centre in 2006 the AFP’s Australian Bomb Data Centre began working with partner law enforcement agencies to establish bomb data centres in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. These centres collect, collate and analyse information concerning explosives incidents, contributing to intelligence on the threat posed by the use of explosives by terrorists.

As the 2010 counter-terrorism white paper noted, effective intelligence cooperation assists significantly in Australia’s ability to disrupt terrorists’ planning and operations before they can target Australians or Australians’ interests, and implement a range of measures to mitigate emerging threats or to inform and contribute to international counter-terrorism efforts. Under the former Howard government Australia worked hard to develop the capacity of security services in countries where Australia has counter-terrorism interests. An example of the value of international intelligence cooperation is Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Training Program, which was established in 2005 by the coalition. The program delivers counter-terrorism training and capacity building. The training program contributes to the development of trusted, cooperative relationships with counterpart agencies.

Strong border management is needed to prevent the movement of individuals seeking to enter Australia to conduct terrorist related activities, and we should not be blind in this parliament to the security implications of having porous borders. Over the past decade, as mentioned previously, the former coalition government massively expanded Australia’s border protection and counter-terrorism capabilities through Customs, Defence, state and Federal Police, ASIO and ASIS. We strengthened participation in intelligence sharing with our key allies. We cooperated closely with our key regional partners, in particular Indonesia. The fact that there have been no terrorist attacks in Australia, and few involving Australians abroad, testifies to our substantial success.

In this vital area it is important that the Gillard government continues to build on the good work of its predecessor coalition government. Keeping the Australian people safe is the most basic task of the government. The previous coalition administration left Australia economically, militarily and diplomatically stronger than it has ever been. Anti-terrorism intelligence operations are indeed an important element of national security. Thanks should go from this parliament to our hard-working men and women of our law enforcement and security agencies. Australia’s counterterrorism capability is extensive and the public can be confident that any terrorist incident can be responded to and dealt with effectively.

I would like to associate myself with the Attorney’s concluding remarks. The coalition also commends the work of the 3,500 participants in the national counterterrorism committee exercise Mercury 10. Their dedication has contributed to the improvement of Australia’s counterterrorism capability and this is welcomed by the opposition.