Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014; Second Reading
I am pleased to have the opportunity to rise to speak in support of the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014. This is of course the second tranche of the government's national security legislation. This legislation is comprehensive and reflects the extensive work of the Attorney-General and this government to protect Australians. It is important that as a government we do everything we reasonably can to protect our people. That is why we are urgently updating counter-terrorism legislation.
This bill, the foreign fighters bill, as it has come to be known, fills the most pressing gaps and will tailor many of our existing powers and offences to address the new threat of home-grown terrorism. It focuses on measures that will have the greatest impact on prevention and disruption of domestic threats. The government has accepted all the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security report on the foreign fighters bill. This legislation has some urgency since it deals with a clear and immediate threat for the safety of Australians. This legislation tackles the escalating threats posed by persons who have participated in foreign conflicts or undertaken training with extremist groups overseas and also by those whom they influence. The government is determined to give our law enforcement, intelligence and border protection agencies the tools they need to militate against such threats. This bill has a direct impact on their ability to protect the Australian public.
It amends 22 acts to respond to the threat posed by Australians engaging in, and returning from, conflicts in foreign states by providing additional powers for security agencies; strengthening border security measures; cancelling welfare payments for persons involved in terrorism; and implementing recommendations made by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor's second and fourth annual reports and the report of the Council of Australian Governments review of counterterrorism legislation. The legislation also repeals the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978. I commend the work of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquire into the bill. Their report provided a thorough consideration of the bill and the issues raised in evidence by a wide range of stakeholders. Those stakeholders who participated also made a valuable contribution to those deliberations.
We have accepted all of the committee's 36 recommendations outlined in its unanimous bipartisan report. Let me repeat: this committee was unanimous in its support and recommendations. The recommendations focused on improving the clarity of provisions in the bill and ensuring that the powers provided for in the bill are used appropriately and subject to proper review. Implementing the recommendations will further strengthen the provisions of the bill including the safeguards, transparency and oversight mechanisms. Most of the recommendations do not suggest amendment to the legislation itself. Importantly, the committee does not recommend against any of the substantive provisions of the bill but makes suggestions largely on definitional and process issues. Now it is time for us in the Senate to add our weight to the committee's recommendation, accept its 37th recommendation—its principal recommendation—and pass the bill.
This legislation is the product of a lot of community consultation, of which I have also had the privilege of being part. Unlike most legislation, which is inquired into after tabling by the minister, the Attorney-General took steps to consult about this legislation before tabling. This was an important step, given the sensitivities surrounding the proposed measures and their community impact. I stress that our security measures at home and abroad are directed against terrorism, not against religion and not against any sector of the community. Regrettably, though, it is the Muslim communities that have been affected, given that it is their young people who have been targeted by ISIL, or Daesh. For this reason, it was important to engage in consultations with the Muslim communities regarding aspects of concern about the legislation.
Having stated what this legislation does, I will correct some misconceptions about this bill. Firstly, it does not target journalists and freedom of the press. Despite the misgivings of a few journalists, they are not the target of these laws, and these provisions are not new to Australian law. This law only relates to special intelligence operations. As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services with special responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services, I reiterate that this legislation is not intended to target the Muslim communities. I want to reassure these communities that this government appreciates that the actions of a few should not overshadow the valuable contribution that so many in these communities have made to Australia. It is important to reiterate the work that has been done by many people in the Muslim communities in supporting, counselling and, in some cases, stopping disaffected youth from travelling overseas or being caught up in attempts to radicalise them. Much of this work has been done discreetly and quietly away from the public gaze by imams, families and community leaders.
This is the most significant risk to Australia's domestic security that we have faced in many years. There is a real risk that foreign fighters returning from abroad not only will become further radicalised but will seek to radicalise others, thereby enhancing the real prospect of terrorist attacks on home soil. I acknowledge the contributions made during the community consultations that the Attorney and I attended and those which I attended on my own. I believe those consultations have assisted in the refining of the legislation before us. Behind the scenes, I have appreciated the advice and counsel of many in the Muslim communities. I particularly acknowledge the women and the youth who have been so forthcoming with their experiences, challenges and advice.
I conclude by talking more generally about what has happened overseas and how it relates to us here in Australia as a free multicultural society. The overwhelming majority of Australians find the barbarism of the terrorist group ISIL, or Daesh, absolutely and utterly abhorrent. One of Australia's greatest strengths is our harmonious, diverse, multicultural, multi-faith community. We need to preserve and protect that. It is critical that at this time all Australians remain tolerant and respect our cultural diversity. To turn on each other on the basis of religion or race would be to play straight into the hands of ISIL, or Daesh, who want to divide us. Freedom of thought, speech and beliefs are important rights in our society and radical thinking can positively transform a country's political and social landscape. However, using violence or supporting its use to achieve ideological, political or social change is not acceptable; this is violent extremism. Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies are continuing their work to prevent and disrupt any individuals who may be becoming radicalised or who are planning terror in Australia. The Australian government, in consultation with its state and territory counterparts, is taking all necessary steps to keep Australians safe here and overseas. Our counter-terrorism arrangements are well entrenched and they need to remain robust, contemporary and relevant in the current threat environment. As the number of Australians with hands-on terrorist experience is now several times what it was in Afghanistan, the challenge now is that much greater.
I will conclude my contribution with some comments on our community engagement and the way forward in dealing with radicalisation. We all know that terrorists and violent extremists represent a small, fringe minority of Australian society. Community leaders have made clear their opposition to the involvement of Australians in Syria and Iraq conflicts and have expressed their abhorrence at the devastating actions of ISIL or Daesh. Let us not forget that many of the innocent people killed or affected by these conflicts are Muslims. The Australian government will continue to do all we can to support community leaders who play a critical role in dissuading young Australians from becoming radicalised and travelling to the conflict zone to fight. Ongoing engagement with communities on the new counter-terrorism measures is a high priority. The government is committed to working with our communities to combat the radicalisation of young Australians and violent extremism. We have consulted with experts and with representatives of the community on the best way to keep our Australian community safe. As part of the recent measures announced by the government we have committed $13.4 million to working with communities on a new program for countering violent extremism.
In a democracy, Australians are free to express their opinions through peaceful and constructive methods. All Australians are free to choose their religion and should be able to express and practise their religion and their beliefs without intimidation and without interference, as long as those practices are within the framework of Australian law. Individuals and organisations are encouraged to engage with our democratic processes and to make a positive contribution to public debate. As part of our $13.4 million commitment, we are developing a package of measures in consultation with communities to address the particular requirements of young Australians at risk. This may include youth diversion activities, health care, mentoring, employment and educational pathway support and counselling, or potentially a combination of these. There will also be referral and support processes for individuals at risk to help them disengage from their activities. We will also combat online radicalisation with education programs and by working with communities, industry and overseas partners. The intervention framework will provide resources and support services to help communities work with individuals who are radicalised or who are at risk of radicalisation to violent extremism.
Having been involved in community activities for over 30 years, including four years on the board of Father Chris Riley's Youth Off The Streets and two years as its chairman, I have observed firsthand the effectiveness of tailored intervention programs. Young people go off the rails for any number of reasons, and, when they do, they become disenfranchised; they turn to drugs, alcohol, gangs, crime or other activities. In this case, we are seeing the disenfranchisement manifest itself in radicalisation. Accordingly, our assistance to these young people needs to be targeted and needs to be developed and delivered in close collaboration with the communities affected. A key lesson from the previous program is that the most effective and financially beneficial way to progress our efforts in countering violent extremism is to work directly with communities to jointly develop and deliver resources and support services that more effectively target young Australians at risk of radicalisation. This is an important bill at a very critical time in Australia's history.