Thursday, 18 March 2021
In the last 24 hours, we've seen the release of the latest threat assessment by ASIO director-general Mike Burgess. It builds on last year's threat assessment, which dramatically signalled the growing threat of right-wing extremism. That was the first time that the agency had signalled their concern at the growth of right-wing extremism in such a public way. We saw terrible events, from Christchurch to El Paso, and plots disrupted in London, Paris and Madrid. The Christchurch events inspired other activity elsewhere. For example, the Ukrainian secret service raided cells of right-wing extremists and discovered translated copies of the Christchurch shooter's manifesto. This is all consistent with the charted rise in right-wing extremism. In 2019, the Global Terrorism Index revealed there had been a 320 per cent increase over five years in right-wing extremism.
On home soil, we saw weapons caches uncovered, secret meetings being held, swastika flags flown, public displays of Nazi salutes, mosques and synagogues attacked, daubed with swastikas or graffitied with the term 'Saint Tarrant'. How has the federal government responded? Not by seriously acknowledging the threat, I would submit. They've had trouble saying the phrase 'right-wing extremism'. Their biggest reaction is to the label itself, 'right-wing extremists'. We've had senators hectoring the ASIO director-general during estimates—for example, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells saying:
'Right' is associated with conservatism in this country, and there are many people of conservative background who take exception to being tarred with the same brush…
… … …
So I think the time has come, Director-General, especially from you, to ensure that you are very careful with the terminology that you use…
That's from a coalition senator. On 4 December, the home affairs minister, backing this in, said that argument around the terminology of extremist groups is 'silly', 'stupid' or 'petty'. But they've never been that reticent in the past to embrace the use of labels. For example, in this House, we've heard the minister regularly use the phrase 'Islamist terrorism' and we've seen the Attorney-General do the same thing. The former head of the PJCIS, the member for Canning, wrote a very strong piece, titled 'Denounce Islamic violence or quit', saying, 'I think that we should be free to question the roots of Islamic terrorism,' and that it was 'time for the Australian Muslim leadership to systematically and clearly make the case that Islam is a religion of peace'. We had to make that proof.
Now, we come back to the latest threat assessment, which says labels like right-wing extremist or Islamic extremism are 'no longer fit for purpose'. When I first heard that, I thought it was smart. I have enormous respect for the director-general and I have enormous gratitude for the work of ASIO. But I can't help but shake what I and other Muslims have had to live through. We abhorred what was being done by terrorists—the murderous acts. When we did call it out, we were told by conservatives that we had to do it louder, stronger and more regularly. I had former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop question me publicly on TV and say she wanted to know if I had been strong enough on the issue of 'Muslim terrorism'. That was said to me on air. But now, when conservatives are being asked to confront an errant, ugly streak within conservatism, this is now likened to being tarred by the same brush or, as the minister said, 'silly', 'stupid' or 'petty'.
The power to name is a significant power indeed, and conservatives have never shied from using that power. In any other circumstances, I'd have no problem embracing the director-general's recommendation, but I look at our journey and I can't help but think: an agency that has lifted its concern level about this threat, that has dedicated 40 per cent of its resources and effort to this issue, has now had to redefine the name of the threat just to get the government to take this issue seriously. It begs a deeper, more serious question: does the coalition only take certain national security threats seriously if it's politically convenient or comfortable to do so? I state again: I don't care if they're Islamist or white supremacist—if they are a threat to Australians, they are a threat to be taken seriously. I would say to the minister and others that if we can be told to 'denounce Islamic violence or quit' then maybe they should denounce right-wing extremism and do the same thing if they can't, just like the member for Canning recommended.