ABC AM, Canberra, interview with Chris Uhlmann

  • Transcript, E&OE

CHRIS UHLMANN:Another round of tough new counter-terror laws should pass the Senate today. The Foreign Fighters Billwill create new offences for advocating terrorism and for entering or remaining in a declared zone. They'll also make it easier to list a terrorist organisation and hand new powers to police and security agencies. But these laws, like the last set, are drawing flack for reducing freedom and limiting free speech. I'm joined by Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister. Good morning.

JULIE BISHOP:Good morning, Chris.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Julie Bishop, why is a democracy passing a law that threatens journalists with 10 years jail for reporting on the manner in which people get information about serving in a foreign conflict?

JULIE BISHOP:This law is not targeted at journalists, it's not about reporting on the operation of intelligence agencies, it's about intentionally disclosing information about a covert operation, for example, that could put Australian lives at risk. Journalists can of course continue to report on unfolding events.

The Foreign Fighters Bill is designed to cover the most pressing gaps in our current counter-terrorism laws to enable our security agencies to more effectively respond to the threat of foreign fighters so we can address this new and emerging threat of home-grown terrorism. It's becoming increasingly urgent as there is a clear and present threat to the safety of Australians and we're witnessing an increasing number of young, radicalised Australians supporting terrorist organisations.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Well the Bill does say 'the manner in which people get information about serving in a foreign conflict', talking here about a news report on that saying it would be 10 years jail. There's a Fairfax story this morning that reads, "Terrorism recruiters are increasingly looking to sway Australian youths". Would that be illegal under your laws?

JULIE BISHOP:Well, we are deeply concerned about young people's minds being poisoned with extremist ideology because they're leaving our shores, taking up arms in Iraq and Syria. This is a crime under Australian law and we've got to prevent it. So, not only are they adding to the suffering of the people of Iraq and Syria and committing awful crimes against those people, they are putting themselves in mortal danger. If they survive, they will seek to come back to Australia as battle hardened terrorists and history shows that young people in these circumstances can take part in terrorist activities.

Now we need to prevent that so this legislation is urgent. I expect it to be passed through the Parliament today. It has been considered by the very well-regarded Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security. That Committee made a number of recommendations, it was a bipartisan report, the Government accepted them and I'd expect that these matters will become law.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Certainly. But every media organisation in the country is concerned about the way that these laws are worded. Do you have no concerns about them at all?

JULIE BISHOP:The section involved applies to people who disclose information that relates to a special intelligence operation with reckless disregard for the safety of those involved. Now I believe that this provision is necessary, it's appropriate to protect sensitive information about the existence and conduct of covert intelligence operations. To disclose this information recklessly can put people's lives at risk and special intelligence operations involve the most sensitive intelligence matters, including, for example, an operation to infiltrate a terrorist organisation.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Sure, but you're yet to declare what a special intelligence operation is and, by definition, we'll never know about that. We'll never know what it is that you're trying to hide.

JULIE BISHOP:Chris, the law's not targeted at journalists and I believe that it is balanced, it's appropriate. The existing protections of whistle-blowers, for example, under the ASIO Act are preserved and not affected by this amendment. Similar provisions already exist in law, including under the Crimes Act which makes it an offence in relation to the disclosure of an AFP operation. That was a position that was asserted by the previous government in 2010.

CHRIS UHLMANN:A Senate Committee says provisions in this Bill are likely to infringe on the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence and it's chaired by one of your own, Senator Dean Smith, so are you concerned about that?

JULIE BISHOP:There are a number of reports, no doubt, on this legislation. I note that Senator Smith has handed down a report. Our focus is on the human rights of Australians who are threatened by home-grown terrorism.

I was in Baghdad recently and I discussed the human rights of those being attacked and slaughtered and murdered by ISIL. I met with representatives of the Yazidis whose communities have been massacred, the Christians, Mandeans, Shabaks who are all suffering at the hands of ISIL and like-minded terrorist organisations and that includes a number of Australians who are fighting for these organisations and so we have to do all we can to prevent young Australians from taking up arms to fight with these terrorist organisations.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Certainly, but a final thing on this, as a matter of principle, as a Liberal, surely you want as little government intrusion in people's lives in a democracy as can possibly be managed?

JULIE BISHOP:The primary responsibility of any government is to protect its people and our Government will do everything we can to protect our people. I think it's reasonable, I think it's appropriate and that's why I'm expecting bipartisan support for this legislation.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Now, you spoke about having been in Baghdad. You struck a deal there on getting our Special Forces in, but have they yet begun to work in Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP:I'm not going to reveal details of our operations. I have reached an agreement with the Iraqi Government and it's now in the hands of our Defence Force to make arrangements for our Special Forces to be present in Baghdad to advise and assist and help train the Iraqi defence forces so that they can protect the people of Iraq who are currently suffering so terribly at the hands of ISIL, but the actual details of it, Chris, are of course a matter for operations and one doesn't flag what we intend to do to the enemy.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Certainly, but just going back to your Bills today, the West Australian's reporting this morning that in fact another Bill that's going forward will give ASIS the possibility of being able to find and target Australians working for ISIS in Iraq. Is that the intention of your Bill, that you might target Australians using these laws?

JULIE BISHOP:It's not a question of targeting Australians, it's a question of being able to collect intelligence upon their activities. Currently, we have a number of Australians who are in Iraq and Syria. We believe at least 180 people are involved in one way or another in supporting terrorism and a considerable number are in Iraq and Syria and we need to know as much as we can about their activities because they are taking part in activities that are crimes in Australia. If they come back to this country we want to be able to detain them, investigate and prosecute if necessary if terrorism offences have been committed.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Will this legislation give Australian forces the power to kill these Australians on the battle field?

JULIE BISHOP:If you fight illegally in overseas conflicts you are already breaching Australian laws and you face up to 25 years in prison upon your return to Australia. We know there are young Australians who think they've made the right choice by becoming involved in overseas conflicts but we have to do all we can to bring them home so that they can face the law here, but also to prevent them going to other countries where they might be potential terrorists and history has shown that this occurs.

So, Chris, we are addressing and reviewing all our current legislation to see if there are any gaps so that we can ensure that we prevent people going overseas to take up with terrorist organisations, that if they do and then come back to Australia, they can be arrested and prosecuted.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Sierra Leone has condemned Australia's decision to suspend entry visas for people from Ebola affected countries in West Africa; they've called it counter-productive and discriminatory. Does that concern you?

JULIE BISHOP:As I said, the Australian Government's first priority is the safety and security of Australians and we're doing everything we can to keep our borders safe and we don't intend to allow Ebola to come to Australia, because if it came to this part of the world, it would be out of control if it got into the Pacific. So, we are well-prepared for any risk of an Ebola outbreak here. We are screening people arriving from affected regions, we're putting careful preparations in our hospitals. It's all part of a comprehensive approach to addressing the risk.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Finally, there are intimate details about the life of Nova Perris splashed all over News Limited papers today, but the point of public interest is whether she used public money for a personal affair. Do you think that she has questions to answer?

JULIE BISHOP:It's an allegation that I've seen in the paper, it's a matter for Senator Peris to deal with as she sees fit. At this stage, it's not for others to comment upon it and I don't intend to do so.

CHRIS UHLMANN:Julie Bishop, thank you.


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