Extremism is the problem, not Islam - Sky AM Agenda 11 August

This morning I talked with Sky's Kieran Gilbert about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Iraq and the importance of distinguishing between extremism and any single religious or community group. Here's the video and transcript:





SUBJECT/S: Iraq; religious extremism; privacy implications of new surveillance powers.

KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. Thanks for your company. With me this morning is Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh and Liberal frontbencher Paul Fletcher. Paul, first to you: in terms of Australian support for the US led operation in Iraq, the Prime Minister says Australian support is likely and possible by the end of the week.

PAUL FLETCHER, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Yes Kieran, good morning. As the Prime Minister has said, indeed as President Barack Obama has said, this is a humanitarian disaster in Northern Iraq with thousands of people trapped on a mountainside surrounded by the extraordinarily barbaric ISIS forces. The Prime Minister has said that the government is looking at whether we can assist in humanitarian aid particularly dropping food, water and so on. We have a couple of C130s based in the United Arab Emirates and one of the questions is whether those might be made available. The Prime Minister has said there will be a decision on that within days and as the Prime Minister has also said, there would be not many Australians who would disagree that if there's the chance to go assist in this humanitarian disaster that we would want to do that. 

GILBERT: Andrew Leigh, what's Labor's position on this at this point, and the Obama air strikes? Of course, you were very much opposed to that Iraq operation of more than a decade ago. But this is very different with the Islamic state threatening religious minorities and the entire population of Northern Iraq.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Kieran, Labor did oppose the war on Iraq and we've seen ISIS formed in 2006, largely in response to that. Our position is to certainly support the actions the government is taking and indeed it is worth noting that this is one of the powerful areas in which Australia's humanitarian program can save lives. We were disappointed, for example, to see that Australian aid to Iraq was running at about $8 million last year but was cut to $0 in the May budget. I think Australia is the kind of country that can afford to help in these sorts of situations but also to continue to save lives around the globe.

GILBERT: But the government said they would provide humanitarian support so that the budget you talk about now is redundant in that sense isn't it? Because they will now be spending -  

LEIGH: They're now going to be spending something but there’s value also in continuing to invest in countries, providing that ongoing humanitarian aid. I think it's short-sighted to be cutting back on humanitarian aid at a time when the Australian economy can afford to provide up to 0.5% of our national income.

GILBERT: Paul Fletcher, you heard what Peter Leahy, the General, had to say in that the first part of the program; he warned in the Weekend Australian that we're facing a century-long conflict against radical Islam. You look at the image on the front page of The Australian this morning, certainly General Leahy's point does not look like it is misplaced when you see that sort of image of an infant, a young child, holding up the head of a decapitated soldier. It's horrific.

FLETCHER: I think every Australian would rightly be absolutely horrified by that on so many levels including the gross irresponsibility of the parent, putting a child in that situation, the absolute horror of what is going on with beheadings and all kinds of other medieval cruelty. Now, the Prime Minster has made the point that Australia is one of the world's most successful multicultural nations. We have a vibrant Islamic community, many, many people of the Muslim faith in all of our major cities all around Australia and it's very important to draw a sharp distinction between a religious faith on the one hand and the terrorist activities of a particular group on the other. The government is determined to protect Australia against the threat of terrorism and to play our part as responsible international citizens to combat the threat that ISIS presents. That is central to our thinking, it is very important that we maintain the social cohesion that we have in Australia. We've been a successful multicultural society and we'll continue to be a successful multicultural society. That means close engagement with all faith communities and that is a clear priority for this government.

GILBERT: In defence of General Leahy, his point as well this morning was not about Islam and the point of the weekend. It wasn't about a conflict with Islam, but with Radical Islam -

FLETCHER: General Leahy obviously is a man with deep experience as a former commander of the Australian army and he's making a point about the seriousness of the threat. We are a liberal democracy, Australians enjoy freedoms and privileges that are of enormous value and that are based upon a set of values and principles. But we would be naive to think that those values and principles are universally shared. And clearly, you've got a terrorist army, as the Prime Minster has said, now active in many areas of Iraq and Syria which, even from what we see on the television, clearly absolutely and fundamentally rejects the liberal, humanistic, democratic principles upon which our society is built.

GILBERT: Andrew Leigh, the whole point of a caliphate is to have a theocracy essentially, have an Islamic state as they call themselves. What is your reaction to this horrific image on the front page of The Australian this morning?

LEIGH: It's just horrendous isn't it, Kieran? My eldest son is seven years old and the notion of doing that to your child is just appalling, let alone what is being done to so many of these vulnerable communities in Iraq. I think Paul hits the nail on the head in being clear to celebrate the Australian Muslim community. To recognise that there are many peoples of different faiths in the world and the extremism comes in all sorts of guises. The Oklahoma bombing was carried out by a Christian and it's important that we distinguish clearly between extremism and any particular religion.

GILBERT: Is it also important for moderate Islamic leaders to be very vocal in their condemnation of what we're seeing here in Iraq and Syria?

LEIGH: Absolutely, I mean the estimates we have for ISIS is that there are 20,000 fighters of which 3000 are foreign fighters. But we don't help that by criticising religions. You think back to George W. Bush's description of the first Iraq war as a ‘crusade’ – he very quickly withdrew that because it generated so much offence to so many Muslims. So we need to celebrate Islam and have moderates everywhere uniting against extremism. 

GILBERT: In terms of this individual picture, it's sad to dwell on it but the reality is that this is on the front page of our national broadsheet. It is a young child who grew up in Sydney. Andrew Leigh, do we have to, as a nation, as Peter Leahy suggested, increasingly give up liberty for the sake of security?

LEIGH: It's always striking a balance that a liberal society focuses on, but I think we need to make sure that we're doing so by based on independent advice. Labor set up an Independent National Security Legislation Monitor in Bret Walker, and it's been disappointing to see the Coalition undermining that role. They've now said that they're going to hold on to the position but haven't renewed Bret Walker, whose recommendations have tried to hit precisely this balance. The government's conversations last week around metadata I think only serve to further confuse an issue where clarity is absolutely vital.

GILBERT: Well, Paul Fletcher, in terms of that question, I'll get to that metadata issue in a moment. Obviously you've got a lot of experience in telecommunication industry, but just on that issue of liberty versus security, your thoughts on that? 

FLETCHER: Well the key point to make is that what the government has proposed is some legislative changes. First of all those will need to go through the Liberal and National Party room and then they will go to the democratically-elected parliament. So, the key point is that the agencies, the security agencies and of course, the armed forces, provide advice to the government. They provide advice based upon their very considerable expertise. But it is the democratically-elected parliament of our nation that will make an assessment and will make a decision, weighing up all of the considerations including, on the one hand, the importance of the tools that the agencies are seeking, and on the other hand, all of the appropriate considerations in terms of individual freedom and liberty.

GILBERT: Now, on the handling of the metadata issue specifically: last week that was botched, to put it mildly. You know, really what the government is doing in many respects is not even seeking a greater power here but just to establish the status quo. To re-establish what’s already there in terms of requiring telcos to hold this information. The intelligence agencies have many of these powers already; how did the government make such a meal of this one?

FLETCHER: I'll leave the commentary to you Kieran but I just make the point that the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act has been in place for many years, and what that provides for is that metadata which is generated by telecommunications network in the ordinary course of its operation. So when a call occurs then you, a) capture the person's identity, the person making the call, phone number, location; and b) where the call is going to, time of call, duration of call. All that happens in the ordinary course of the operation of the network, similarly with an internet browsing session, an email and so on. All of this data is generated automatically. Today there are provisions under the Telecommunications Intercept and Access Act under which the security agencies or – just as importantly, the police – for crime-fighting purposes as well as for national security purposes can issue a stored communication request. Now there are criteria in the statue that have to be met before that request can be issued. And if that request is issued and the criteria met then the data which has been retained by the carriers and internet service providers for their own business purposes is made available. That's been happening for a long time.

GILBERT: It has been happening for a long time. I've only got ten seconds left but quickly your thoughts on that, Labor won't oppose something that's been there for a long period of time?

LEIGH: We need to see the details, Kieran. There are many people who have reasonable concerns about this. Paul Fletcher is now talking about browser histories when Malcolm Turnbull was talking about IP addresses. We need clarity and Australians need guarantees on their ability to secure their own data.

FLETCHER: Not true, browser histories are not included. Andrew, you don't do yourself any service by making that misleading statement.

GILBERT: We've got to go, gentlemen sorry to interrupt you both. A quick break, back in just a moment on AM Agenda.



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