Joint press conference
MINISTER BISHOP: Good afternoon. Thank you for being here for this important announcement. The Minister for Justice and I announce that the Coalition Government will introduce tough new laws which will prevent registered child sex offenders from travelling overseas. There will be new legislation which will make Australia a world leader in protecting vulnerable children in our region from child sex tourism. The new laws will prohibit registered child sex offenders from leaving Australia or holding Australian passports, and we will be introducing legislation during the current parliamentary sitting which will make it a criminal offence for a registered child sex offender to leave Australia without permission from a competent authority, and that will enable me as Foreign Minister with responsibility for passports to deny passports to registered child sex offenders. If a person is listed on the Australian National Child Offender Register with reporting obligations and a competent authority makes a passport denial request to me, to the Commonwealth, that will be actioned.
There has been increasing community concern about sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and community concern is justified. Last year alone, almost 800 registered child sex offenders travelled overseas from Australia. About half of whom were in breach of an obligation under state or territory laws to notify police of their intended travel, but half of them had been recorded by police as being of medium,high or very high risk of reoffending and a number of them – almost 40% – had been convicted of offences against children under the age of 13, and half of this number had travelled to South East Asia.
So pursuant to these new laws, on advice and notification from a competent authority – a state or territory law enforcement agency – I will be in a position to cancel, deny or refuse to issue a passport. If the offenders are overseas when their passports are cancelled, I will be able to issue them with a limited validity alternative travel document so that they can return to Australia. I will hand over to Michael Keenan to go into more detail about it, but this is a world first. Australia is leading the way when it comes to protecting vulnerable children overseas from the actions of paedophilia and we are ensuring that Australian registered child sex offenders are not able to take part in the growing child sex tourism trade.
MINISTER KEENAN: Well, thank you, Julie. And as the Foreign Minister said this is the strongest crackdown on child sex tourism ever. No country has ever taken such decisive and strong action to stop its citizens from going overseas, often to vulnerable countries, to abuse kids, so this is absolutely a world first. We know that we'll be denying passports to around 20,000 people who currently have reporting obligations under the ANCOR and about 2500 people will be added every year and we will continue to deny them passports whilst they have those reporting obligations.
Now as the Foreign Minister said, we know that of the 20,000 people on that register, two per day travel overseas and many of them do so in breach of their legal requirement to notify authorities when they do so. We also know that they are often travelling to vulnerable countries that are out of sight and out of reach of Australian law enforcement. Many of these countries have extreme poverty, they have different cultural practices than us, and sometimes they are travelling to countries where this sort of offending against children is not even in breach of local law. Now the Australian Federal Police have advised me that our current legal regime stopping Australians from doing this is completely inadequate, and that's why we've taken this action. We are determined to do what we can to stop Australians from engaging in child sex tourism. It is an absolutely abhorrent crime. The measures that we are taking, we're urging the Parliament to pass very quickly, will ensure that Australians will no longer be part of this very difficult global problem.
MINISTER BISHOP: If I could just make it clear, once a person is registered on the Australian National Child Offender Register with reporting obligations, that will be the period for the denial of a passport. Once they're off the register, no longer with reporting obligations, then they can apply for a passport. If they are on the register and have a legitimate reason to travel overseas, they can apply to the state or territory competent authority who can then provide advice to me as Foreign Minister and, if appropriate, we can permit a registered offender to travel overseas. There is also a category of child sex offender, those who are on the national register for life, they are registered for life, they have lifetime reporting requirements and in aligning our passport legislation with that, they would be denied a passport for life. There are about 3,200 lifetime registered child sex offenders in Australia. Any questions?
JOURNALIST: Do you foresee an issue getting this through the Senate? Have you spoke to the Labor Party?
MINISTER BISHOP: We have certainly been in discussion with Senator Hinch. We made the announcement last November that we would be looking to develop a plan that would require state and territory cooperation and we have kept Senator Hinch informed of our progress in this regard, but we made an announcement last year that we would be preparing legislation to address this issue of registered child sex offenders going overseas, often in violation of their reporting obligations to Australian authorities, to carry out child sex tourism or offences against underage children. So we look forward to receiving support across the Parliament to address what is a very serious issue, sexual exploitation of vulnerable children overseas, and we expect widespread support.
JOURNALIST: On another note, what's your reaction to the new recording of Pauline Hanson and the plane donation?
MINISTER BISHOP: Can we just finish with the questions about this before we go into something about Pauline Hanson and a plane donation?
JOURNALIST: Does this require any support from states and territories or is it solely in the Commonwealth's jurisdiction? And how soon do you anticipate having it running?
MINISTER BISHOP: I'll let Michael answer in relation to negotiations with a states and territories. The states and territories maintain their own child sex offender registers; that information is then provided to the Australian National Child Offence Register, and the reporting obligations likewise. When the information is recorded upon the Australian National Child Offence Register then that will be a passport denial request and the Australian Government, the Passport Office and I as Minister will take action to cancel a passport, deny a passport or seek the surrender of a passport.
MINISTER KEENAN: Yes, so look, it will require cooperation from the states and territories but we have been in discussion about it and we want this to be part of a national approach where we do all that we can to crack down on offenders against children, and the states and territories are very supportive of that. I raised this issue in general terms with my state police minister counterparts when we met in Melbourne two weeks ago.They generally were supportive, although I didn't go into the specifics of the proposal. I'll be talking to all of my fellow police ministers this afternoon and I would expect broad cooperation from the states and territories because they, like us, are very keen to make sure that Australians are not going overseas and offending against vulnerable children.
MINISTER BISHOP: Can I just add this: there is currently no legal authority to cancel or refuse to issue a passport solely on the basis that a person has been convicted of a child sex offence or is on the national or even the state or territory register for child sex offences. Child sex offenders can be denied a passport while they are on parole or as part of bail conditions but not once they have been convicted, served their time and are in the community but subject to reporting obligations. So what we are seeking to do is put in place a framework that gives the Commonwealth the power to deny those registered child sex offenders from having a passport to travel overseas. In the past there have been, since about 2011, there have been 63 requests to deny passports to child sex offenders but 57 of them were based on parole conditions, and that's already a mandatory power under the Passports Act. You can deny passports on the basis of bail or arrest warrants or bankruptcy or parole. We are extending the category to include registered child sex offenders. I might point out that of those requests, only five were based on an offender that might cause harm and in three cases those requests were overturned on appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
JOURNALIST: There's quite a few Australians who are overseas who have offended, who are sort of expats or whatever – in various South East Asian countries. Is the Government doing enough to stop them offending and will any of the increased AFP funding go towards those activities of, you know, tracking these people down?
MINISTER BISHOP: Well in relation to the first part, people who are overseas are subject to the laws of the country in which they are living or residing or visiting. What this legislation does is provide me with the power to cancel their passport, so if they seek to return to Australia we can issue time limited travel documents to bring them back to Australia, but they won't have a passport to return.
MINISTER KEENAN: Look, we have been working very closely with countries in the region. The Australian Federal Police, if they have information about a child sex offender travelling to their country we would provide that to local authorities. But unfortunately this has been a rather hit and miss approach, whereas this is a much more comprehensive approach to stop Australians from engaging in child sex tourism.
JOURNALIST: Will there be any push to force known paedophiles living overseas to return to face charges here down under, under this? Will that be enabled by it and will that be something you're seeking?
MINISTER KEENAN: Look, it's very difficult for us to establish the facts about people who are offending overseas, that is one of the problems that we do have because when you're overseas in these countries, you're essentially in places where Australian law enforcement doesn't have access to the evidence you would need to convict in an Australian court. But if you're living overseas now on an Australian passport and you do have reporting obligations under the ANCOR, your passport will be cancelled and that will force you to return home.
JOURNALIST: Has there been pressure from some of these South East Asian nations for Australia to get more control over Australian paedophiles?
MINISTER BISHOP: There's most certainly deep concern amongst countries in our region about the number of registered child sex offenders from Australia engaging in the child sex tourism industry.
JOURNALIST: And what kind of reasons will be seen as acceptable for exemptions allowing people to travel overseas?
MINISTER BISHOP: That will be a matter for the competent authority. They – the state and territory authorities – they have the facts, they have the details of the person's history, the prosecution, their reporting obligations, they will have the facts. So if a person has a legitimate reason for travelling overseas, yet they are registered child sex offenders, they can apply to a competent authority who can then make the case to the Commonwealth, to me as Foreign Minister, to issue the person travel documentation, and I would imagine it would be documentation of a limited validity for the period of their time overseas and to come back again, for genuine work or family reasons. But most certainly it would be on the advice of a competent authority that the person didn't pose a risk to vulnerable children overseas.
JOURNALIST: I know it's still early days in the investigation; have you had a response from any of the South East… the Asian countries about cancelling passports for those who are already there? I mean it obviously is an issue if they were to stay there and use their resources in jail etc.
MINISTER BISHOP: Well we're certainly working in close cooperation with countries in our region on the issue of child sex tourism, but as Michael Keenan pointed out, the legal frameworks in some of these countries are vulnerable. Their laws don't necessarily align with ours, and so we're doing what we can, at a humanitarian level, at a law enforcement level, to cooperate, to stamp out the sexual exploitation of underage, children.
JOURNALIST: Is this a uniquely Australian initiative or do other countries consider a similar regimen?
MINISTER BISHOP: As far as we're aware, this is a world first, where the circumstances in Australia are different in that we have state and territory child sex offender registers and a national child sex offender register. So we are aligning the denial of the passport with their reporting requirements in the period that they remain on that register. There are currently about 20,000 people on that register, 2500 new registrants are listed each year but a number come off when their reporting requirements are concluded. And so there are about 3200 who are lifetime registered child sex offenders and about 6200 people who are on between, say, five to eight years. So there will be a turnover of people going on to the register and coming off the register.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask about a different matter, about the Philippines?
MINISTER BISHOP: Just for a start, can we finish this?
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] authorities starting to encourage the changes to maybe start something similar? [inaudible]
MINISTER BISHOP: Well we've just made this announcement; it went through Cabinet a couple of weeks ago – it was discussed by Cabinet a couple of weeks ago, endorsed by Cabinet a week ago – and then we took it to the party room this morning. The legislation will obviously be introduced into the Parliament. We're hoping that it will pass quickly because we want to begin denying passports as soon as we can, and progressively over a period of time, to ensure that all of those who pose a risk to vulnerable children overseas are denied the opportunity to do so through the denial of a passport.
JOURNALIST: What do states and territories actually need to do?
MINISTER KEENAN: Look, it will be very straightforward. They already notify us about people who have offended to the threshold to go on the register, which means you've got a custodial sentence of 12 months or more. It will just now be a very straightforward parallel process where we'll be asking them to notify the Department of Foreign Affairs at the same time.
MINISTER BISHOP: Okay, is that all on the child sex offender matter?
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask, in the Philippines, obviously there's been an issue in Mindanao. One of the commanders in charge of the raid there has suggested that the Abu Sayyaf terrorist that they were hunting was appointed in a nearby ISIS. Has the Government been in touch with the Philippines on the matter and are they concerned about the ongoing issue there, that kind of thing?
MINISTER BISHOP: I have raised this in the House of Representatives on a number of occasions, about our concern that ISIS has declared that it wished to establish a caliphate in southern Philippines, and I have said on a number of occasions that we remain deeply concerned about the influence of the Abu Sayyaf group, and I've in fact said in the Parliament on the public record that he was a self-declared or appointed emir of ISIS, a terrorist organisation that is wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria and beyond. We have been working very closely with the Philippines in security, intelligence sharing, law enforcement, as we have been with Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact I visited Mindanao, I met with President Duterte in Mindanao, and we discussed at length the issue of the metastasising of ISIS and the appearance of ISIS influences in the southern Philippines.
Since 2014 when ISIS declared a caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria, there has been a concern that it would seek to reach out to other terrorist organisations in African countries, in southern Philippines, in Afghanistan, and team up with existing terrorist groups or, indeed, start their own group or terrorist cell in these networks. That's why the Australian Government is working so closely with law enforcement counter-terrorism authorities in our region and beyond. Michael, is there anything you want to add to that?
MINISTER KEENAN: Yes, I just wanted to add that in August, we'll be co-hosting with Indonesia the first regional counter-terrorism summit. That has been an initiative that has been pursued by the Attorney General and the Philippines will obviously be a very crucial member of that. I've also been down to the southern Philippines to assess the situation as well. We do work incredibly close with the Filipino authorities, both on law and order, policing front, and through our intelligence community as well, and we'll continue to find ways that we can enhance that cooperation with the Philippines, but also with others in the region because you'd appreciate that that area of the southern Philippines borders Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, and we have very strong relationships on the counter-terrorism front with all of those three countries.
MINISTER BISHOP: And I should add that we have extended our condolences to the Filipino people and the Government of the Philippines, and offered our support. The Islamist terrorists have indiscriminately killed innocent people and have engaged in terrorist attacks in southern Philippines, and we will continue to work as closely as we can with the Philippines Government to stamp out terrorism.
JOURNALIST: Ms Bishop, do you agree with John McCain's assessment that Vladimir Putin is a bigger threat than ISIS?
MINISTER BISHOP: I think you need to put it in the context of his comment and he indeed addressed our party room this morning and he was asked that question. As he pointed out, it's like comparing apples and oranges; they are both threats but different in scale, magnitude, and longevity. We believe that we will defeat ISIS, we are working very closely with the Iraqi Government to support the Iraqi Security Forces taking back Mosul which was part of the caliphate - so-called - declared by ISIS back in 2014. That's why we're taking part in airstrikes over Syria, to destroy this terrorist organisation at its base, and why we're working with countries throughout our region, why we're focusing on returning foreign terrorist fighters. So the ISIS threat is present, it is dangerous and we're addressing it. His comments in relation to Russia were about the long-term ambitions of President Putin to restore the Soviet Union, or some kind of Russian empire, and undermine the international rules based order that has existed for the last 70 years. So it's a very different kind of threat and he made that quite clear to us today.
JOURNALIST: Sorry I jumped the gun before but can I ask [inaudible] the latest Hanson leaked tape that has come out. Are you concerned about the discussion about the donation of the plane?
MINISTER BISHOP: We are always concerned if there has been any breach of entitlements by Members of Parliament, and members of One Nation must abide by the regulations, the laws that apply to election campaigns and to entitlements in the Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask a very quick follow up question on the Philippines? I know you've been talking for a couple of months about the dangers of a caliphate there and pointing to that. But can I just ask how concerned are you about the violent surge in the last little while? Are you thinking about increasing measures that Australia sort of assists the Philippines with, perhaps additional advisory support or something like that?
MINISTER BISHOP: We're deeply concerned about this because it's all part of the focus that we've had in recent years about returning foreign terrorist fighters, whether they are to Australia or Indonesia or Malaysia or the Philippines. And of course any upsurge in violence between Islamist extremists and terrorists in a country so close to Australia is, of course, a deep concern. We have a very high level of cooperation already with the Philippines in law enforcement with the AFP, in our intelligence sharing and in security matters more generally. And our engagement has been at the highest level; I've met with the President, with foreign ministers and I know Michael's met with his counterparts. So the Philippines is not the only partner nation where we have increased our engagement, also with Malaysia and with Indonesia.
JOURNALIST: John McCain also has obviously proposed his Asian Stability Initiative. In your discussions with him, were you able to get any more detail about what that would mean for Australia? Particularly in terms of troops in northern Australia or those sort of things. Were you able to get any more detail on what that would mean for Australia?
MINISTER BISHOP: Well I read his white paper, Restoring American Power, in detail; that's something that Senator McCain has presented to the US Administration, seeking a dramatic increase in US defence spending. The Asia-Pacific strategy acknowledges – and he said it this morning in the party room – acknowledges the role that Australia has played in ensuring peace, stability and security in our region. Indeed, Minister Keenan will be in the Solomon Islands shortly in relation to the RAMSI initiative of which Australia was a major part, which is all about a regional effort to bring peace and stability to the Pacific. So we didn't go into details but we spoke very generally about it and I point out that the annual Australia-US Ministerial Dialogue will be taking place shortly in Sydney when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense General Mattis will meet with Defence Minister Marise Payne and with me to discuss this and other matters, that is, regional security, how to continue to maintain peace, prosperity and an adherence to the international rules based order in our part of the world.
JOURNALIST: Was there anything else that you discussed in your meeting?
MINISTER BISHOP: Sorry?
JOURNALIST: Was there anything else that you discussed in your meeting with him? Or do you have any comments?
MINISTER BISHOP: Well I had a very long meeting with him yesterday. Senator McCain has met with a number of Coalition and Opposition members, he has had a meeting with the Prime Minister I understand, and he will be making an address, I believe, at the US Studies Centre in Sydney later today. So we welcome Senator McCain's visit to Australia. He is a much respected and admired six-term senator, a presidential candidate and he has been one of the strongest friends and allies within the US Congress, and we were delighted to welcome him here and hope that he will return very soon.