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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1725

Mr KERR (3:06 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. What is the government doing to foster better cooperation in response to international terrorism?

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for his question. International cooperation to counter and stare down international terrorism is of course not just very important; it is absolutely essential, and the white paper published yesterday makes that clear. It makes it clear that the threat to Australia and the international community is ever-present, ongoing and, regrettably, will be a permanent feature of life for the period to come. It is also clear that the threat is evolving.

As a consequence of good international cooperation, Australia already has entered into 14 formal memorandums of understanding, MOUs, on counterterrorism. They are—not in alphabetical order—with Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Bangladesh. Members should not assume that the list will end there. As I said, regrettably this will be a feature for some time.

The white paper makes it clear that the threat is evolving. We have had some success through international cooperation against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have also had tremendous success against Jemaah Islamiyah, particularly in Indonesia. But we also know, as a result of security and threat assessments shared by like-minded countries, that the al-Qaeda threat is spreading potentially to Yemen and also to Somalia. As a consequence, we need to ensure that our international cooperation not only persists but also evolves to cover these threats, as we have seen in the case of Yemen and the recent London international conference, and as we have seen in the case of Somalia and the international cooperation for activity off the coast of Somalia that is putting international transport is at risk.

Importantly, international cooperation also goes to the sharing of intelligence, the use of data—particularly data relating to known terrorists or terror suspects, or people who are regarded as risks in this context—and also the sharing of technology. We have seen in recent times the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union move to enhancing the visa applications that they have, requiring biometric data to be included with visa applications. Yesterday in the white paper the government announced that we would move in the first stage to 10 overseas countries where we would, in cooperation with the British—utilising their facilities, their resources and their collection centres—introduce biometric requirements so far as visas are concerned; that is, fingerprints, facial scanning and facial screening. This is a sensible risk minimisation procedure to introduce. I do not think it will end there. Just as we have seen the United States and the United Kingdom introduce it, as we see the first phase of our introduction, it will not end there.

Ms Julie Bishop interjecting

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —I made the point yesterday that the government is not proposing—as the shadow minister for foreign affairs in her interjection asks me to do—to list the 10 countries where this will be introduced until such time as the processes have occurred. There are very obvious and sensible reasons, which go to immigration processes and national security, why that should be the case. I see that the shadow minister said in a press release that we should name them because ‘the longer this speculation continues, the greater the potential for offence among some of our key diplomatic and trading partners’. I made it clear yesterday: no-one should assume which countries might be on or off the list, and no-one should assume that there will be, either already occurring or in the future, diplomatic efforts to make sure that nation-states understand precisely what we are doing and the reasons for it.

As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has made clear, there are a range of factors as to why a particular country might be chosen in the first stage. One obviously goes to national security, another goes to minimisation of risk and the other obviously goes to where the collection centres that the British hold might be available for use. So people should not assume one way or the other or think that they know more than they do. There are risks associated with the approach adopted by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the opposition on this matter. There are risks associated in naming those countries before the processes are ready and available, and the government is not proposing to accept or take those risks.

I take at face value the remarks of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. She just happens to be wrong on this point and does not appreciate the fundamental risks involved. I was much more disappointed yesterday with reckless and irresponsible comments from the other side which sought to make the point that there was no risk here that needed to be confronted. The statements by Senator Birmingham could only be described as reckless and irresponsible. I am surprised that the Leader of the Opposition has not disavowed them. I have to say that I was very disappointed this morning when I saw the Leader of the Opposition essentially say that the white paper on the international threat from terrorism was a distraction and had been overstated. I am very disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition should say that. When he was asked, at his doorstop, what the basis was for saying that, he referred to a newspaper report. He referred to his daily newspaper clips.

There are very grave risks involved in national security areas in relying upon newspaper clippings rather than the professional and expert advice that we get from the intelligence community and our security officials. There are very grave risks in relying on newspaper reports. The Leader of the Opposition has been offered a briefing on this by officials, including the Director-General of ASIO. My very strong advice to the Leader of the Opposition is that he might want to take that up and rely upon objective, detailed expert advice rather than his newspaper clips.