Getting the balance right on national security - Fairfax Breaking Politics

On a day when the Prime Minister laid out his government's approach on national security, I joined Fairfax Breaking Politics to talk about the importance of keeping Australians safe while maintaining a balance between freedoms and protections. Here's the transcript:





SUBJECT/S: National security

HAMMER: Andrew Laming is the Liberal MP for Bowman in Queensland and Andrew Leigh is the Labor Member for Fraser here in the ACT. Gentlemen, good morning. Ok, national security is clearly the topic of the day. Andrew Laming to you first, the prominent lawyer Julian Burnside has more or less accused the Prime Minister of playing the terror card because of his political standing. He wants to bolster his standing so he's trying to impart fear into the community about terrorism. Now, there will be an element of society that is sceptical about the Prime Minister's motives on this. So how do you convince them that he's doing this for genuine reasons rather than pure political ones?

ANDREW LAMING, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: I don't believe I have to convince anyone. Australians in the main concede that we've faced a period of heightened and long term terror alert and they'd expect any government, both sides of politics, to respond accordingly. That's why he's saying bipartisan support is important, certainly around these increased efforts and increased resourcing. It's a very complex issue, there are no easy solutions and so the Prime Minister's address today really sets the stage for what I think will be a series of small but significant changes to keep Australia a more secure nation and one that is able to respond quickly, early and pre-emptively to these sort of threats.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, I want to ask you essentially the same question. There is scepticism in the community about Labor's stance on national security, that for political reasons Labor will simply stick like glue to whatever the government announces because that's not the area you want to fight the next election on. How do you convince people that Labor has their best interest at heart rather than your own political interests?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Chris, there's clearly a risk of an upsurge in terrorism – resulting in large part from returning foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. People who have been both radicalised but also learned dangerous new skills. That's why President Obama convened a high level international summit at the White House last week on the topic. The question for us is how we manage to adapt our laws to deal with the threat. I'm guided by something Justice Hope, whose 1977 Royal Commission laid the ground work for the modern ASIO, said. He said that individual liberty and public safety work together rather than in tension. We need to realise that there is a right to freedom of speech just as there is a right to get a coffee and walk about in safety. These are fundamental rights. One of the best weapons we have against extremism is our values, our status as a modern pluralist democracy.

HAMMER: Justice Hope may have said that, the Prime Minister said on the weekend said that he feels that the balance needs to tip from protecting the rights of the individual to protecting the rights of society. So he sees the tension between the two, what does Labor think? From what we know of what the Government is thinking, is there anything that you’d go, oh no, that's a bridge too far, that's too objectionable?

LEIGH: We'll have a look at specific proposals as they come through, Chris. Frankly I think you'd be worried if Labor's response was responding to thought bubbles on the fly. We take these issues very seriously, our front bench team is working through them constructively with the Government and will respond as particular issues arise. We do need to remember too – David Irvine made this comment in his outgoing speech as head of ASIO at the National Press Club – that from a Muslim population in Australia of about half a million, there's a couple of hundred ‘aberrant souls’. We need to keep that in perspective, we need to remember – as David Irvine said – that Australia's moderate Muslim community has been a key part of foiling a number of terrorist plots.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, can I ask you about the same question. The Prime Minister's statement has the balance shifting, maybe the balance more to protecting society than the rights of the individual. Now for a Liberal politician, that's rather tricky. There's a core Liberal value that the rights of the individual should be protected at all times.

LAMING: Well, most of the Prime Minister's comments weren't talking about functionality of the legal systems so much as the ability to pre-emptively identify threats. That's only partly legal. His comments were about citizenship, residency, and Centrelink, for instance, where we still have very much a formulaic and rules-based approach to that which has led to people – regardless of their criminal background or criminal intent –being automatically eligible. So what I've picked up from his speech was a relooking at this idea that the freedom that Australia offers is completely unilateral and unconditional. Short of breaking the law, we need to be identifying these groups earlier. As Andrew said, we need the support of all the minority populations in Australia to be recognising threats early and helping our intelligence services.

HAMMER: Ok, we've been talking somewhat in the abstract, but a lot of this conversation in the Prime Minister's speech has been caused by the Sydney Siege. He said of Man Haron Monis: ‘this monster should not have been in our country’. He was clearly known to authorities, they monitored him in the week before the siege, he had something like 18 tip-offs. But looking back, there doesn't appear to have been any red flag, he didn't signal in anyway his intentions. In the Prime Minister's talk he’s flagged shifting the benefit of the doubt or not giving the benefit of the doubt to people. But Andrew Laming, how could the authorities prevented that siege?

LAMING: That's the reason for the report, that's the reason for the dialogue and the reason for a joint task force. Ultimately, we want to be listening to those authorities and those within it, to be telling us how things need to change. Monis is an unusual circumstance, in that he was an incredibly public figure operating deliberately within the bound of acceptability in order to get his message out. I think in the end, this is not what we will typically be seeing as future threats. So our future threats are those that we're not completely aware of, people with very little planning can execute an attack. These are the great challenges, not the people like Monis, who are quite a significant public figure actively seeking media attention.

HAMMER: So these changes, these improvements, these reforms, aren't to address these sort of attacks that we saw from Monis? 

LAMING: Monis is an unusual circumstance that he was so well known over a long period of time and deliberately operating within the bounds of both legal and social acceptability, he was using the media for his own purposes. This was an unusual case, most cases won't be like that and I'd like to see a system that will respond to what is mostly going on which are small cells made up of usually disaffected, disengaged youth. People operating within their small social networks, unknown to most people, even those closest to them. This is a great challenge, and that's why you need to be promoting tip-offs and provision of intelligence to our authorities. And that's where I think the system will be changing. 

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, do you believe from what we know that Monis could have been stopped? That there was something wrong with the system or whatever prevented the authorities from actually stopping him?

LEIGH: I'd love to believe that this was the case, Chris. It would be terrific to imagine that there is another state of the world in which Tori Johnston and Katrina Dawson would still be with us today. I simply don't have enough information to know whether that's possible. It's vital that as we go into this, as Andrew has said, we ensure that the intelligence around tip-offs is as good as it can be, and also that we work through programs like Countering Violent Extremism. This was a program set up by Labor in government, initially axed by the Abbott Government but then – credit to them – reinstated. Programs like that were one of the topics that were discussed at President Obama's high level summit, because there's a recognition that you can catch people as they are in the early stages of radicalisation and bring them back onto a more sensible path. Indeed some of these programs have even looked at how a proper reading of the Qur'an can be used in order to counter what is frequently a very selective use of that religious text, ignoring all of the passages that talk about safe haven and non-violence, only excerpting the most absurd passages.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, the Prime Minister is talking about how we've too often given the benefit of the doubt to people, whether it's on entry to Australia, visas, citizenship, even welfare. But if you don't give the benefit of the doubt to people like Monis, I think you're starting to limit freedom of speech. I mean look at some of our shock jocks: Alan Jones famously said that Julia Gillard should be put in a sack and taken out to sea. Those sorts of comments could be interpreted as a threat against a Prime Minister. Is there a danger you'll either limit free speech or be seen to be doing it selectively, like one rule to someone in the Islamic community and another to people who aren't?

LAMING: Don't read too much into the comments on providing the benefit of the doubt, the opposite of that is not removing benefit of the doubt. It's simply taking a new look at what we regard as absolutely marginal behaviours and activities that up until now have probably slipped through that should be observed more carefully or treated differently. And again, this should be coming from our intelligence agencies and their advice on how to best deal with each of these situations as they arrive. So I don't read too much into this ‘benefit of the doubt’ argument, we’re not removing it completely, there's just a need right on the margins to be looking at a more pre-emptive, precautionary approach that involves, as you know, preventative detention orders, control orders. They're already in place, it's a matter of...

HAMMER: They're not really being used that often, would you like to see them used more?

LAMING: They're not necessarily the solution either, I mean they're only a tool with a limited approach in specific instances where authorities feel that they need to be. This is a broader conversation about identifying pre-emptive threats and working out the best way to deal with them. But there's no single change to laws that are going to fix that, we just need to empower our authorities to be able to act, to be able to get information more quickly and to be able to come up with solutions that aren't limited by current law.

HAMMER: So Andrew Leigh, let me ask you this: from what Andrew Laming is saying, the changes here appear to be more incremental. Why then the need to make this big statement to Parliament, to have all this media today? We're talking about this issue today, is that inflating the issue given the rather limited movement in resources and changes to laws?

LEIGH: Chris, I am open minded to see what the Prime Minister has to respond with, as I've said I do think that there are real changes in the global environment that we need to think about. You go back a generation and suicide terrorism was essentially unheard of. Now it's a real threat to every advanced country around the world. But we all have the right to the presumption of innocence, to move safely around the streets, to speak freely where that doesn't impair the rights of others. This is a part of that broad public conversation, we need to be alert to those threats, and that was why when Labor was in government, we increased the funding of ASIO, increased the staff numbers at ASIO and for the first time gave ASIO a purpose-built facility from which to operate.

HAMMER: Ok, before I let you go, Andrew Laming I want to ask you about the Liberal leadership. We had the spill that wasn't a spill, afterwards you were on our program saying OK, let's put that to rest, give the Prime Minister time. We've seen almost every day leaks against the Prime Minister, often from very senior sources, ministerial sources, cabinet sources, there were a couple on the weekend and there was this story about a unilateral invasion of Iraq. It doesn't matter if the story is true or not, there was a leak there. On Friday there was a leak about reaction within Cabinet about the Prime Minister's comments on Indonesia, is there an ongoing destabilisation of the Prime Minister underway?

LAMING: Support for Tony Abbott was unconditional and not time limited after the event of the previous sitting week. What everyone is looking for is demonstrated, competent decision-making given the issues of today which are national security. He's given the right and appropriate response, a speech we're looking forward to…

HAMMER: They're not from one dissatisfied backbencher somewhere or something and it's not just what's happening now, people are leaking about what happened a year ago.

LAMING: Which clearly means they haven't got much to leak about. In essence none of these stories are of particular interest to Australians who are worried about…

HAMMER: It's not what's being leaked, it's the fact that it is being leaked. I mean, Cabinets are not meant to leak, that's the whole basis of the Westminster system. So why wouldn't a journalist like me be thinking there is an ongoing campaign of destabilisation?

LAMING: As far as I can remember back, in every administration there's been stories about how the boss works and how the office works around them. This has been the Australian culture, I don't find it at all strange that it's occurred a couple of weeks either side of the events of the last sitting week. But right now, I think you’ll find backbenchers buckled down. We know the job we have to do, and that's where we're overwhelmingly focused. 

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, is Labor strategising a change in Liberal leaders?

LEIGH: It's the ideas that trouble us, not the personalities, Chris. I spoke last week about the issue of inequality and that's something which is of deep concern to those of us that sit on the Labor side of the House. But at a time where we've seen growing inequality over the last generation...

HAMMER: So you must be delighted that the Government's absolutely changed strategy on childcare?

LEIGH: Well, we'll wait to see what they've got to say on childcare but certainly the latest leak around pensions, I think would trouble Australians deeply. The Government had a choice between a progressive change to the pension and changing the indexation rate that hurt all pensioners, and they chose the latter. That's at odds with the egalitarian Australia that I know and love.

HAMMER: Ok Andrew Laming, Andrew Leigh thanks for your time today.



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.