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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15023

Mr DUTTON (2:14 PM) —My question is addressed to the Attorney-General. Would the Attorney-General inform the House of the action the government is taking to identify groups who pose a potential terrorist threat to Australia?

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) —I thank the member for Dickson for his question and commend him on his continuing interest in matters of national security. The government takes very seriously its responsibility to ensure the safety and security of the Australian community against terrorism. As part of its comprehensive approach to the new security environment, last year it developed a package of strong counter-terrorism legislation, the bulk of which was passed by the parliament in July last year. Included in that legislation were amendments to the Criminal Code allowing the listing of terrorist organisations, subject to strict conditions, including the condition that the terrorist organisation be identified as such by the United Nations Security Council. The requirement that Australia wait for the Security Council to agree with our own assessment of what constitutes a threat to Australians and Australian interests before we can act was an amendment insisted upon by the opposition. The government argued at that time that this potentially created problems where Australia identifies threats that do not interest members of the Security Council. It also pointed out that the UN lists are limited to organisations with links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Experience has proved us correct. While we acted quickly to list terrorist organisations under the current listing provisions—13 have been listed, including al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah—we have not been able to list other organisations which are of equal concern, because of that specific condition. A clear example of this is the Hezbollah external terrorist organisation. The government has been advised by ASIO that there is evidence that this organisation engages in terrorist activity. Indeed, it has been designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States and has been proscribed in the United Kingdom. But it has not been formally identified as a terrorist organisation by the Security Council. ASIO has advised that there is no link to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, which means that there is no means for seeking the listing of this organisation by the UN.

To address this concern, the government is actively considering amendments to the process of listing terrorist organisations to remove the necessity of relying on the United Nations Security Council. The Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition and state and territory premiers and chief ministers two months ago seeking their support for this process. The opposition leader made it clear yesterday that Labor would not support any amendment giving Australia the ability to list terrorist organisations independent of the UN Security Council. The opposition have put politics first by refusing to fix the problem they created in the first instance.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Brisbane!

Mr WILLIAMS —The opposition have indicated that they will support a specific amendment to list the terrorist wing of Hezbollah. The government is concerned that this ad hoc response will not fix the broader problem the opposition effectively created. Also of concern is the fact that, based on current advice, the opposition's proposal gives rise to significant constitutional uncertainty. It is clear that such uncertainty should be avoided, particularly in the area of national security.

To be effective, the listing mechanism must enable the government to list terrorist organisations quickly and effectively. The opposition's proposal will not allow this. If other terrorist organisations of security concern to Australia are not on the UN list, separate legislative amendments would be required before these organisations could be listed, and there is no guarantee that this could be achieved quickly or even at all. Taking an ad hoc approach to listing terrorist organisations means that we would not be able to act quickly.

The SPEAKER —If the member for Ballarat wishes me to issue a general warning, I will accommodate her. The Attorney-General has the call. He will be heard in silence.

Mr WILLIAMS —The House should not be fooled by the opposition's purely political suggestion that the government is seeking to put the Attorney-General as the sole arbiter of what constitutes a terrorist organisation in Australia. Those who seriously considered the listing legislation during last year's debate will be aware that under the government's proposal it is the parliament that has the final say—separately, both houses of parliament have the say. The regulations listing terrorist organisations are disallowable by the parliament. The decision to list must be made in accordance with strict legislative criteria and the decision is judicially reviewable. The government's proposal is a constitutionally sound system of identifying and listing terrorist organisations posing a threat to Australians and Australian interests, independent of the United Nations, with a final check in the form of the federal parliament and judicial review. The last thing we want is for terrorists to escape prosecution on the basis of constitutional uncertainty. The opposition should admit it got it wrong. This is no time to play games with the safety and security of the Australian community. I urge the opposition to work constructively with the government to fix the problem it created.