Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 Bills

I rise to make a short contribution in the five minutes I have available to the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014. As a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, I can assure Senator Wright and other senators in this place that there has, in fact, been robust and deep scrutiny of this bill. The committee listened to a wide range of witnesses and, importantly, also to the evidence provided by the security agencies, who work tirelessly on behalf of the people of Australia to ensure our security and also to ensure that we meet our security obligations to the broader global community.

To put it into context, on 24 September this year the United Nations Security Council met and passed a unanimous motion. The resolution requires all 193 UN member states to prosecute and penalise people who travel or attempt to travel abroad for terrorism training or to help finance such efforts; to deny entry to anyone they have reasonable grounds to believe could be supporting or participating in terror related activities; and to share airline passenger information records and other personal details with international databases to help track and prevent the movement of suspected foreign fighters. It is only the sixth time in 70 years that the Security Council has met with heads of nations. It met in those times to address the most urgent threats to peace and security. We see here that whilst there are urgent threats—and we are seeing those play out both on the global stage, particularly with the events in northern Iraq and Syria, and in Australia, as we have seen just recently in Melbourne, as well as in Canada and the United States—there are emerging and changing threats from people who support the ideology of Daesh or the Islamic state.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security scrutinised these bills and made 36 recommendations. As Senator Collins pointed out before, it was a bipartisan effort whereby members from both the government and the opposition looked at the bill and made suggestions as to how to improve it so that we could capture the operational effect that the agencies need to ensure the safety of Australians but at the same time increase the balance to make sure that essential freedoms are preserved and that there are checks, such as sunset clauses, so that these do not without due cause become a permanent feature of our legislation.

I would like to quickly address some of the key points that have raised concern. One is the issue of advocacy. One of the problems in the past has been that people who had been seeking to inculcate in young, impressionable minds the mindset that this is something that is not only permissible but required by their ideology had been very smart and very clever to walk a fine line to avoid the current law which would capture them. We are seeing that we have a generation of people who have been inculcated to a point where the process from that inculcation to action—to that radicalisation—is very short. And it is quite important that we have the ability to circumvent and to prevent those enabling conditions such that we do not have this body of young people—or, in some cases, older people—who have been radicalised to the point where they can decide to act and very quickly move forward.

We have seen a number of cases in which the so-called hate preachers have walked that fine line, they have inculcated into minds the willingness to act, and this legislation is a way of preventing that. Importantly, they commit an offence if they ‘intentionally counsel, promote, encourage or urge the doing of a terrorist act or the commission of a terrorism offence’ and the person is reckless as to whether another person will engage in a terrorist act or commit a terrorist offence. There are a number of things in there, particularly the ‘reckless’ element, that are important and that provide protections from a free-speech perspective. Importantly also, there is a safeguard in that there is an existing defence for acts that are done in good faith, such as political communication or publishing a report or commentary about a matter of public interest.

The sunset clauses, as we talked about, are important measures, and we have reduced the time frames on those to make sure they do not become a continuing feature of our law. But the arrest thresholds are an important part, as we have seen, with increasingly the change from large groups with complex plans seeking to have mass casualty events. We have had a very good record in Australia of our existing laws enabling our security forces to have things like Operation Pendennis, in which we defeated the threat against the MCG in Melbourne. Now we are seeing people operating as small groups or individuals very quickly, with no great planning required in terms of their equipment. It is important to change the threshold to enable our security officers to act in a timely manner so that they can apprehend people and prevent those occurrences. So the threshold is being changed to require that an officer of the law has reasonable grounds to suspect, rather than the threshold of reasonable grounds for belief. This is not arbitrary. Some factual basis for the submission must be shown. It is also important to recognise that this is not a new concept in Australia, with many states and territories already having an arrest threshold that is based on suspicion.

On the issue of biometric measures, we have seen a case in which somebody left Australia, with manual checking at an airport, and went and joined terrorist fighters overseas. We already use biometric measures for people coming into Australia. Many would be familiar with eGate. This legislation provides the ability to use that same technology outbound. It meets the obligations that we have signed up to through the United Nations. It means that we can use existing technology, existing privacy safeguards, on outgoing as well as incoming passengers to prevent the kind of occurrence we saw in Australia before.

I will make one final comment, on declared areas. This is not an offence of strict liability. The DPP still has discretion as to when to actually bring a case against an individual. So, if there is a range of background factors and other information that is in the brief and the DPP cannot for whatever reason use another law, this measure provides an opportunity to bring a case against an individual who has travelled to a declared area. But for a declared area—somewhere like Mosul—witnesses were questioning, during the public hearings on this, why somebody would not be free for example to go and do language training. As I put to those witnesses, in the case of an area like Mosul, where every reasonable person has either fled or has been executed through decapitation or crucifixion, what reasonable person would seek to travel there to do education training? It just does not make sense. And because this is not a strict liability offence, all the people who were talked about in terms of journalism and foreign aid workers would not automatically be captured when they came back, because whole regions are unlikely to be declared areas. In fact, specifically, countries are not going to be able to be declared areas. So this offence is not the dire restriction on freedom of movement that has been claimed. Because it is not strict liability, the DPP has a discretion to include it as part of a brief of evidence.

My time is about to expire, but I commend this bill to the house. It has had good scrutiny by the process that has been set up by this parliament, which has worked well for many years through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and I commend it to the Senate.