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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19714

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) (4:07 PM) —The alleged matter of public importance called upon by the Leader of the Opposition for debate is the government's repeated use of national security information for political purposes. I find it paradoxical that I am called upon to defend such an extraordinary allegation, that the government has repeatedly used national security information for political purposes. The allegation is quite extraordinary coming from an opposition who have repeatedly attacked me and others in government in the past for refusing to parade sensitive national security information in the public domain. This from an opposition who have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not mind jeopardising ongoing investigations if they can score a political point. This from an opposition who are so desperate to get that snappy media grab that they will run out in front of the cameras before even checking the facts of a matter, as the member for Batman has just done.

The Leader of the Opposition has gone on at some length about the alleged leaking of details of an ONA report. That matter has been dealt with comprehensively over the last three days by the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and Senator Macdonald. It is the subject of a Federal Police investigation and has been so since July, and I do not propose to waste parliament's time by talking further about it. I can only assume that the opposition have been galvanised into this extraordinary MPI by the words this morning of yet another leader-in-waiting—the putative leader, as the Treasurer described the New South Wales Premier. Mr Carr has wisely gauged federal Labor's desperate need for leadership and guidance on the critical issue of national security. In media interviews this morning, he tried to show those opposite the way out of the policy wilderness. He pointed out the need to persuade voters that federal Labor is committed to national security. Of course, the community knows better and we on this side of the House know better.

Mr Carr clearly understands that the Australian community can see through the opposition's political game playing and that the opposition have completely failed to convince the Australian community that they have any genuine commitment to national security and to keeping our nation safe and secure. Unfortunately for the opposition, cheap tactics like this MPI will do nothing to change that impression. But I am grateful to the opposition for providing me with an opportunity to talk about the significant steps the government has taken to protect Australians and Australian interests against terrorism and the significant effort it has put into strengthening Australia's national security in general. The government has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated its strong and genuine commitment to ensuring the safety and security of Australians and Australian interests.

After September 11 the government undertook extensive reviews of security arrangements. It has committed nearly $2 billion in additional funds to our law enforcement and security agencies. Never before have Australia's national security arrangements been better defined or better organised to deal with a possible terrorist incident, and the government has introduced a comprehensive set of counter-terrorism legislation to bolster Australia's ability to identify and prevent terrorist attacks. These strong new laws also strengthen our ability to gather evidence against and prosecute those who would harm our families and friends with such evil attacks. I might add that the opposition resisted giving our law enforcement intelligence agencies better tools to identify potential terrorist acts, but their kicking and screaming quickly stopped once the laws were through. Now they are calling for tougher action on terrorists yet the opposition leader announced on the passage of legislation in June this year that, while Labor eventually supported the passage of the ASIO bill, they would roll back ASIO's counter-terrorism powers if elected. This was a ridiculous suggestion and one they appear to have been careful not to repeat. This nonsense clearly demonstrates that policy consistency is something the opposition do not understand. By comparison the government has consistently believed in strong counter-terrorism tools with appropriate safeguards that ensure they are used responsibly.

Mr Crean —How long did it take you to list al-Qaeda?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The opposition leader was heard in silence and should give the Attorney-General the same consideration.

Mr WILLIAMS —The government has always believed that it is not appropriate to interfere in ongoing investigations. Certainly it does not support the opposition's choice to use matters of national security as a political football regardless of the impact of their activities on sensitive investigations. Indeed, the government has managed to walk a careful line in keeping the public informed and providing information where possible without divulging sensitive information which puts our security at risk. That is a difficult challenge and it is a heavy responsibility which the government takes seriously. The opposition, on the other hand, do not seem to understand responsibility when it comes to national security matters. For example, faced with the clear evidence that they have created a problem in legislation to list terrorist organisations, the opposition have refused to back measures to resolve it.

The government is continuing to reclaim Australia's ability to make our own decisions about terrorist organisations, which is a power the opposition rashly insisted on giving away to the United Nations Security Council last year. Australia is currently in the absurd position that we cannot act independently of the United Nations to list a terrorist organisation that our own intelligence agencies believe poses a threat to Australia and Australian interests. We know of no other country that has given away this power to act independently in its own defence, but that is the situation the opposition have forced Australia to be in. The requirement that the listing provisions be linked to the United Nations Security Council listing process was inserted at the insistence of the opposition. In the interests of getting on with the job of protecting national security, we tried things the opposition's way and it has proven to be unworkable. That is why we have introduced a bill to remove this handicap to our counter-terrorism capabilities.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Leader of the Opposition, there was not one interjection made while you were speaking. Please observe the same courtesy.

Mr WILLIAMS —The opposition argue that we are attempting to give the Attorney-General new powers to unilaterally list any organisation. This is a convenient political ploy but, as with most of the opposition's point-scoring efforts, their claims do not reflect reality. In fact, we are retaining the strict checks and balances that are already included in the listing legislation to ensure organisations are not listed inappropriately. There are strict legislative criteria that must be met for any listing. In addition, as the Prime Minister pointed out, these decisions are disallowable by either house of the parliament and they are also subject to judicial review. Under our bill there would be no difference to the scrutiny of the listing decision. The only difference would be the removal of the reliance on the United Nations Security Council.

The opposition's stance makes it clear that they do not trust the advice of our own intelligence agencies as to which organisations pose a terrorist threat to Australia. They do not trust the Australian parliament to ensure that appropriate organisations are listed. They do not even trust the Australian courts. The opposition do not trust Australians to decide which terrorist organisations should be listed under Australian legislation to protect the Australian people. But they do trust and rely upon the judgment of other countries—of the members of the United Nations Security Council—despite the fact that there is no onus on those countries to take Australia's interests into account and despite the fact that the Security Council is only interested in organisations associated with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. It is not in a position even to consider some organisations posing a threat to our region.

The opposition wants Australia to sit on its hands until the Security Council identifies a terrorist organisation. The opposition does not care that Australia's reliance on the UN Security Council listing was proven impractical and unworkable when we were unable to list Hezbollah without specific legislation to overcome the problem the opposition created. Given that the opposition acknowledged the problem relating to Hezbollah, I can only assume political forces were at play to prevent it from supporting a long-term solution to it.

Another issue on which the opposition has the opportunity to show some commitment to national security is the need for state and territory references of power to the Australian government in relation to money-laundering offences. In April last year a leaders summit on terrorism and multijurisdictional crime delivered an agreement between the Prime Minister and state and territory leaders on the need to strengthen money-laundering offences. This included an agreement to refer relevant powers to the Australian government if necessary.

In order to stamp out terrorist activity, it is vital that we cut off the flow of money supporting it. An effective national regime to combat money laundering requires comprehensive offences at the Commonwealth level. But, as a result of restrictions in the Australian Constitution, the Australian government lacks the power to implement comprehensive money-laundering offences. This gap in constitutional power is recognised by the states and territories. If it is not addressed, there is a risk of Commonwealth prosecutions failing on technical grounds.

States can assist to remove any doubt in this area by expressly referring power to the Commonwealth to enact comprehensive money-laundering offences. This would be consistent with their commitment at the leaders summit last year. Unfortunately, the state and territory Labor governments refuse to make good on their promise to cooperate with the Australian government. At a recent meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, I requested that the states refer the relevant powers to the government as agreed at the summit, but the states indicated they would not. This represents a disappointing setback to the national cause of preventing money laundering and the criminal activity that it underpins.

If the opposition was genuinely committed to national security, it would demonstrate its commitment to strong and effective laws against money laundering. If the opposition was genuinely committed to national security, it would reverse the usual trend where it gets advice from the states and it would put pressure on state Labor governments to live up to their agreement and refer these vital powers to the Australian government. Unfortunately, it appears that the opposition—or at least the Leader of the Opposition—lives in fear of the state counterparts. It appears the Leader of the Opposition has no influence on them at all. In fact, it appears federal Labor has start-ed to take advice from the states instead of providing some national leadership on security matters.

In calling for this MPI, the opposition has tried to suggest that the government uses national security for political purposes. The government has confidence in the Australian people and their ability to understand the need for discretion and care in relation to the release of information on national security. We think the Australian people have confidence that the government takes its responsibilities seriously in making judgments about what it can and cannot put on the public record and that the government is getting on with the job of protecting national security.

Today I announced the distribution of specialist equipment to the states and territories to strengthen Australia's ability to deal with chemical, biological and radiological incidents. This is a solid, practical measure to protect Australians and Australian interests against the effects of a possible terrorist attack, and it is a good example of the Australian government's commitment to bolstering our security and emergency management arrangements across the board. There is a great deal of activity across government and across jurisdictions aimed at ensuring that Australia is in the best possible position to deal with threats to our national security in whatever form it may take. Some of this activity is obvious and public, but we are confident the Australian community appreciates that a lot of security activity must happen out of the public eye if it is to be effective.

Unfortunately, the opposition position on what should and should not be made public is breathtakingly inconsistent. The opposition has repeatedly disregarded the sensitivities of security arrangements, of intelligence work and of criminal investigations in its constant calls for the government to reveal information that might jeopardise the activities of law enforcement and security agencies—with three examples this week. The opposition knows full well that the government cannot comment in detail on many security matters but still regularly demands that sensitive information be made public, regardless of what effect that might have on intelligence and law enforcement operations.

It is the opposition that eagerly runs out before the television cameras on sensitive matters in a bid to score cheap points. This propensity on the part of the opposition to try to score points, regardless of the security consequences, has been highlighted in recent days. Most worryingly, it has been evident in the opposition's determination to treat the AFP and ASIO investigations as a political football to be kicked around in the media. The opposition has demanded that the government provide details of ASIO and AFP operations and has pilloried the government when we have refused to go beyond the information we are advised we can provide by those responsible for those operations. This opposition will even put in question the professional integrity of those agencies, without knowing the facts. Indeed, it will accuse them of being asleep at the wheel merely because they are unwilling to talk about their activities publicly. This irresponsible conduct threatens our security and law enforcement arrangements.

The opposition argued in relation to a recent case that Australian authorities had not moved quickly in relation to allegations of Australian links to terrorist organisations. The fact that we have not provided a daily update on the progress of the investigation is not an indication that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies have not been conducting their investigations with appropriate rigour; rather, it is an indication the government regards allegations that Australians are supporting overseas terrorist networks very seriously and not as something to be bandied about in the public domain. As Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said on ABC radio yesterday morning, it does not assist anybody in the fight against terrorism if we have to, at every stage of what we are doing, expose everything in the public fora.

As someone who receives security briefings, the Leader of the Opposition should be aware of the sensitivity of ongoing investigations, and I would expect him to make that clear to his counterparts on the frontbench of the opposition. It is very disappointing that the opposition is prepared to jeopardise these investigations by seeking to use them as a political football. This knee-jerk, negative sniping highlights the willingness of the opposition to play games with security matters, and it shows the rank hypocrisy of the opposition that it does this under the guise of some new found concern for Australia's national sec-urity. (Time expired)