Member for Isaacs

Address to Safeguarding Australia summit - Mark Dreyfus QC MP

08 May 2017










Thank you for the invitation to speak tonight, and for that kind introduction.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Labor has for over a century demonstrated our understanding that it is the paramount responsibility of all parliamentarians, whether in Government or in Opposition, to keep our community safe and our nation secure.

In order to meet the threat of terrorism, a threat which has increased very significantly this century, Labor has consistently worked in both Government and in Opposition to ensure that our security agencies have the powers and resources they need to keep our community safe.

While we will not always agree with our political opponents on how Australians can best be protected, Labor has demonstrated that we will always engage constructively in the political debate about important matters of this kind. These are debates that all healthy democracies should have. We do not believe that national security should ever be used for partisan political purposes, and for this reason we do not seek to politicise any disagreements we have with the Government on national security matters.

So Ill say here at the outset that while I have some concerns about aspects of the approach taken by the Abbott and Turnbull Government to counter-terrorism rhetoric and policy, where I raise those concerns tonight it is in the spirit of constructive engagement on the best way to safeguard our community.

Counter-terrorism policy and practice has evolved rapidly over the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks. However, regrettably even that rapid evolution has at times lagged behind the changing shape of the terrorist threat. This means that at times our counter-terrorism efforts have been reactive, changing only to respond to a new kind or new source of attacks only after they have occurred.

However, I believe there are two critical factors that are now working in our favour. The first is that Australia and other Western Governments are now well aware of the protean nature of the threat we face, and we understand that proactive policy development is vital to anticipating and meeting that threat as it changes. Second, there is now an unprecedented level of cooperation between like-minded governments and our security and intelligence agencies, particularly among the Five Eyes community. This means that we can learn from the experience of our allies against terrorism all over the world, and I believe this cooperation has been of enormous benefit to Australia in assisting our agencies to be ready for new threats before they manifest here.

Tonight I would like to do two things. First, I will outline the critical importance of our intelligence services in meeting the changing terrorist threat, and some of the limits of the criminal law in this context.

Second, I will discuss an approach and suite of policies that are often described as countering violent extremism or CVE for short. To my mind an effective suite of policies for countering violent extremism is absolutely essential to respond to the terrorist threat as it now exists, and as we expect it to exist for some time to come. Because while terrorism is frequently characterised as a criminal matter, particularly in the tabloid media, it is far more than that, and it cannot be effectively responded to through a traditional criminal law enforcement framework alone.

Any society would in theory like to eradicate all crime, but the realistic expectation is that we aim to reduce crime, and particularly violent crimes against the person, as far as we are able to do. The police usually become involved only after a crime has been committed and criminal sanctions are designed primarily to deter and to punish criminal activities.

Terrorism is a crime which differs significantly from the crimes our laws and law enforcement agencies have evolved over centuries to deal with. We know that the deterrence of criminal sanctions will be of negligible value once a person has been radicalised to the extent they may be willing to murder their fellow citizens and often to die for their cause. Our criminal justice system is also based on the idea that prison has a rehabilitation role, and that prisoners released will rejoin society as productive members after paying their dues. The fact that prison may have a limited rehabilitative influence for many typical criminal offenders is a well studied phenomenon. It is harder still to imagine that incarceration will serve to rehabilitate many terrorists, at least without considerable effort being focussed on de-radicalisation programs inside the prison.

Further, common crimes are usually investigated and prosecuted after the event, and while charges for conspiracy to commit offences are sometimes laid, they are relatively rare. In contrast, the perception of harm caused to society by a terrorist attack is so serious, and the potential losses so grievous, that it would be very cold comfort for the community to know after a terrorist attack that a surviving attacker, if there is one, will spend the rest of their life in jail. So unlike the situation of common crimes, it is a paramount objective of our intelligence agencies and police to stop every terrorist attack before it takes place. This is a huge burden on those agencies, but in this context I am proud to say that despite the significant terrorist threat throughout 2007 to 2013, no terrorist attack occurred on Australian soil during those years when Labor was last in government.

1: The critical role of our intelligence agencies

In many respects our recent approach to counter-terrorism was defined by the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001. The enemy in that attack was a highly organised and relatively centralised non-state actor based in a specific territory in Afghanistan. It was also actively supported by a hostile government. While the methods Al Qaeda used in that attack were entirely novel, in many respects they appeared at least in the heat of the first assessments to resemble in some ways a traditional state enemy, supported by a more powerful patron in the form of the Taliban Government. Al Qaeda operated primarily from a single territory and it sent trained foreign agents into the United States on a meticulously planned mission of murder.

The response of the West was for the first few years after the 9/11 attacks predominantly informed by this sense of the enemy as a non-state military opponent, albeit one that used new and particularly reprehensible tactics. Again and again the rhetoric surrounding the 9/11 attacks were that they were an act of war. And as such, they would be met with a military response. Samuel Huntingtons clash of civilisations thesis seemed to be invoked on an almost daily basis.

The military action in Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban regime and destroy as much of Al Qaedas forces and infrastructure as possible was the most visible manifestation of that coercive military response to a foreign enemy.

But at the same time there was a massive increase in the funding and powers of Western intelligence agencies.

I would say that in many respects the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a further manifestation of this military response. The disastrous consequences of that military action is now the subject of a small but growing library of books, and I will not dwell on those matters now other to say that in most respects that war was almost entirely counter-productive in the battle of the West against terrorism. It is worth remembering that while Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, as a secular Baathist strongman he was the mortal enemy of Islamic extremists of all kinds, including Al Qaeda. And his largely depleted military had been entirely contained for a number of years by the surrounding US military forces, including at the time of the 2003 invasion.

So what did this military response to the terrorist threat achieve? The vaunted War on Terror? In addition to the catastrophic loss of military and civilian life and a cost now measured in trillions of dollars, the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq had the effect of transforming Iraq into a vast territory in which aspiring jihadists could train against Western forces. And worse than that, the ongoing occupation and abuses that occurred during it, such as at Abu Ghraib, became a rallying call for the motivation and recruitment of jihadists the world over. And not only was Iraq torn apart, but the invasion touched off instability in much of the Middle-East, creating the conditions in which terrorist groups flourish. Syria is of course the most horrific current example of what has flowed from the destabilisation of Middle-Eastern regimes, a dark counterpoint to the glorious flowering of democracy that the US neocons assured us would soon be unfolding in the Middle East as a consequence of the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The domestic analogue of the coercive approach to counter-terrorism in the early 2000s was visible in the expanding of intelligence agencies and increasing of police and intelligence gathering powers.

However, very soon after the 9/11 attacks there was a new spate of coordinated terrorist attacks, including the Bali bombings in 2002 in which 202 people were killed including 88 Australians, the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed 192 people, and the London transit bombings in 2005 that killed 52 people. Thousands more were injured in these and subsequent attacks. Here in Australia a major terrorist attack was thwarted in 2005 when Operation Pendennis uncovered a group of conspirators under the leadership of radical Melbourne cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika. In 2009 security and police agencies here also foiled a plot by radicalised Islamists to attack the Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney.

The common thread in these attacks was that the terrorists were not, like the 9/11 bombers, foreign nationals trained to carry out attacks organised and directed by a quasi-military group based in the Middle East. Rather, they were to some extent home grown radicals, in many cases with no direct training or experience in military actions overseas. In some cases the individuals involved in the Australian terrorist conspiracies had no strong prior affiliation to an established terrorist group.

Community trust in our security agencies is vital

With the shift in the terrorist threat from infiltrating foreign nationals to home grown radicals, the role of our police and security agencies also shifted. Security of our citizens is the responsibility of several agencies of the federal government, in particular ASIO, backed up by the Federal Police. Other agencies are also involved, including ASIS, and the Australian Signals Directorate. And of course, state and territory police may also play an important part, which I will return to shortly.

Ensuring that there is a high level of trust between the community and our intelligence agencies is vitally important in an era of home-grown terrorism. This is because some of the most valuable intelligence flows to our agencies directly from the community, provided on a voluntary basis. Surveillance is of course important, but in a vast country with more than 24 million people, specific intelligence from the community about individuals at risk or who are a threat is far more likely to yield results, and ideally at an earlier stage in the radicalisation process than traditional surveillance would usually detect.

One of the key concerns I have about last weeks admission by Commissioner Colvin of the AFP that officers obtained the telecommunications data of a journalist without the requisite warrant is that this breach of the law may undermine trust between the police and the community they serve. Commissioner Colvin is to be commended for coming forward, but the community, and particularly journalists, will need to be satisfied that measures will be put in place to prevent this from happening again.

Our data retention laws also help to illustrate the point I am making about the need for trust between our agencies and the community. Collecting the telecommunications data of the entire Australian community has been likened to collecting haystacks in case we one day need to search for a needle. That data is very useful as an investigation tool after crimes have been committed and suspects identified, but the sheer volume of data makes it very difficult to use that information proactively to detect potential offenders without what is often described as human intelligence to focus investigations.

In many ways it is state and territory police who are best practised in working closely with their populations, because community policing is a well-established practice in most jurisdictions.

Perhaps the most graphic example I have seen of effective community policing in a counter-terrorism context was during a visit to the New York Police Department in 2015. If anyone here has tried to explain the game of cricket to an American, you will be familiar with the glassy-eyed look that soon appears as they try to edge away from you back toward the bar. Yet the NYPD not only understands cricket, but its community policing arm can field an entire team. Why? Because they have found that playing cricket helps them to build relationships of trust with young cricket-playing New Yorkers from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds. The NYPD do this as a long-term investment in trust and cooperation with the community they work in, so that members of that community feel comfortable reporting issues of concern. And when the NYPD need that communitys help, they have a reservoir of trust and established relationships to call on. Such relationships of trust cannot be built suddenly, particularly in the wake of a terrorist attack, but require a long and committed investment of time and effort.

I raise the NYPDs example now as an illustration of an alternative to a purely coercive law and order approach to countering terrorism. Programs that build trust between our agencies and their communities to my mind fit within that frame.

I will now discuss a spectrum of policies and programs that are also predicated on a preventive approach, and that are often described under the heading of countering violent extremism.

2: Prevention is better than cure the role of Countering Violent Extremism programs

David Kilcullen is one of Australias most accomplished counter-terrorism experts. A former senior officer in the Australian Defence Forces, he went on to advise on counter-terrorism at the most senior levels of the UK and US governments and military, working as Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator of Counterterrorism at the US State Department, as well as special adviser to US General David Patraeus in Iraq. Writing about the challenge of confronting terrorism in 2015, Mr Kilcullen warned about the impossibility of making a democratic society entirely safe through the imposition of ever-increasing counter-terrorism powers. He wrote of that coercive approach:

a truly effective domestic defensive strategy would turn (indeed, has already gone a long way to transforming) our societies into police states.

A purely defensive stance, if it is to prevent terrorist attacks from within and without, would have to include some or all of the following: perimeter defences on all major public (and many private) buildings, restrictions on access to public spaces, intrusive powers of search, arrest and seizure, larger and more heavily armed police forces, with more permissive rules for use of lethal force, intensive investigations of individuals thoughts, words and actions, citizen surveillance

Mr Kilcullens list continues at some length, concluding with the need for a raft of limitations to freedom of expression and assembly. It would also, of course, impose limitations on international trade and require increased state spending essentially a terrorism tax.

Mr Kilcullen then warns that:

accepting these impositions as permanent, and developing them to the level at which they could actually in their own right, as the centrepiece of a counterterrorism strategy protect against the atomised, self-radicalised terrorist threat of tomorrow, would amount to destroying society in order to save it. (Quarterly Essay 58, Blood Year, 2015, pp. 75 76.)

It is warnings of this kind about the limits and indeed the dangers of a purely coercive response to terrorism that founded Labors concerns about the endless rounds of national security legislation that the Abbott Government started introducing after the implosion of its economic message in the aftermath of the 2014 Budget. Each new national security bill was announced with great fanfare in front of an ever-increasing number of Australian flags, as the public were told that each Bill had to be rushed through parliament as a matter of great urgency. Fortunately the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security played a vital role in ensuring that all of these bills were substantially amended, and the new powers were tempered or accompanied by appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms.

And it is with this understanding of the limits and dangers of a purely coercive response to terrorism, in conjunction with the imperative of stopping all terrorist events before they occur, that the importance of proactive policies to counter violent extremism becomes clear.

The medical adage that prevention is better than cure is entirely apt in the context of terrorism. In a 2015 paper on countering violent extremism in Australia by Shandon Harris-Hogan, Kate Barrelle and Andrew Zammit, the authors go somewhat further, describing a useful analogy between counter-terrorism programs and a long-established system of classification in public health policy.

Under the public health model, there are three levels of intervention, each of which will be calibrated with reference to established risk factors and desired health outcomes with respect to a particular illness or condition. Primary prevention seeks to decrease the number of new cases of an illness or condition, referred to as incidence. Secondary intervention seeks to lower the rate of established cases of the disease or condition, referred to as prevalence. And tertiary intervention seeks to reduce the level of disability associated with an existing illness of condition.

The applicability of this model to the challenge of terrorism is fairly clear. However, in contrast to the well-established public health model, we are still very much finding our way in terms of understanding the relevant risk factors and causal relationships that give rise to terrorism, and in developing the kinds of interventions that will be effective. From what I have seen we are still some way off a coherent three-tier structure for programs to counter violent extremism. However, I think we can distinguish between three broad levels of programs in CVE, based on the medical model.

Primary programs are those that are designed to prevent terrorism from occurring. These programs will usually be directed very widely, either at particular communities or at the Australian population at large.

Secondary programs are highly targeted interventions that are designed to deal with individuals who have been identified as at risk of becoming radicalised or of engaging in terrorist activity. These are classic de-radicalisation programs that have been developed around the world, and involve mentors, families, psychologists and others enlisted to help guide an at risk individual away from radicalisation.

Finally, tertiary programs are also interventions, but they seek to deal with those who have been radicalised and who perhaps have already been subject to law enforcement action. In some cases tertiary programs may be used as a last-stage attempt at diversion from terrorism, and in other cases the individuals may already be in prison for terrorist offences.

I will not discuss examples of each of the latter two categories tonight, but I will use the time remaining to briefly discuss the importance of primary programs, and the direction that I believe we should be heading in this area.

Primary CVE programs

In some respects, Australias multiculturalism, and the support for multicultural policies that our society and the majority of mainstream Australian politicians often express, is an example of a primary CVE program. Our robust multiculturalism certainly wasnt designed as a CVE program, but perhaps some of its effectiveness springs from the entirely positive nature of its genesis.

Australia began its first tentative experiments with CVE programs in 2005 after the London bombings, when COAG established the National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security. However, the first more formal federal CVE programs arose following the issue of the 2010 Counter-Terrorism White Paper, Securing Australia: Protecting Our Future. The then Labor Government set up a range of programs under the Countering Violent Extremism initiative, including in particular a program of grants for building community resilience.

These programs were entirely preventative in focus, and were aimed primarily at negating the conditions in which radicalisation occurs. For this reason they were conducted at arms length from government and from our security agencies, with the grants provided to community groups and others by the Attorney-Generals Department.

The Building Community Resilience Program delivered grants to community groups across Australia to fund a range of programs designed to encourage people to resist or disengage from intolerant and radical ideologies. This Program recognised that local communities are key in fighting radicalisation, and that often it is local communities who first become aware that individuals are at risk of falling into radicalism. These programs also recognised that it is often local communities who are best able, with proper support and resources, to bring those people back into the fold.

The Building Community Resilience Program funded initiatives such as the Bachar Houli Cup, which provided an AFL program for Islamic youth and encouraged engagement with mainstream community groups. I remember visiting the recipients of one of those grants, and could see how the program of sport provided a sense of belonging for the teenagers it engaged, and a positive outlet for their considerable energies. The program also provided a subtle form of supervision, with adult coaches who could also become mentors to teenagers looking for direction outside their families.

There is no doubt that countering violent extremism is sensitive, nuanced work. It is important that programs be innovative and adaptive, with administrators ready and able to improve programs in response to experience.

Unfortunately Labors CVE programs were still in their infancy when the Abbott Government came to power and cut all funding to the Building Community Resilience Program in its first Budget. It seemed at the time that no thought was put into this decision. However, I am relieved to say that the following year the Government finally accepted that it had made a serious mistake, and began to once again look at CVE as an important part of Australias counter-terrorism work.

Community awareness programs also fit within this category of primary, preventive CVE. One example is the program run by the Australian Multicultural Foundation to educate community leaders, teachers and parents about radicalisation and what to watch out for. Anecdotal reports suggest that those who have embraced and then renounced extremism are particularly credible advocates against radicalisation, which suggests that those individuals should be harnessed by governments for the contribution they can now make to public safety, rather than ostracised for their prior extremism.

When I was last in the United States I met with some of President Obamas counter-terrorism advisers. We were discussing the very concerning fact that Australia has a far higher proportion of jihadists seeking to join the conflicts in the Middle East than does the United States. And this is despite the fact that the US has so obviously taken a central role in those conflicts.

It was in this context that we were discussing the importance of programs to counter violent extremism, and I raised the need for an inclusive narrative to counter that the divisive narrative used by the terrorist recruiters to seduce individuals away from their communities. I will always remember the correction made by one of the senior advisers, who said to me No. We are not presenting a counter-narrative. Ours is the primary narrative. It is the terrorists who have the counter-narrative and it is our job to negate it.

The swamp from which radicalisation arises is not particularly strongly correlated with economic poverty. But there appears to be some correlation between radicalisation and those who feel what has been described as a poverty of dignity.

I said that I wouldnt give a political speech tonight, but I do want to draw attention now to a matter that has certainly not been one of bipartisanship between this Liberal Government and the Labor Opposition. And that is the repeated attacks by the Abbott/Turnbull Government on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

For over 20 years, since the Racial Discrimination Act was enacted by the Keating Government, section 18C has drawn the line against racial vilification and protected our citizens and our society from the poisonous effects of hate speech. Australia is a multicultural society, and section 18C was introduced to help to ensure that the dignity of all of our citizens was respected. At the same time its companion provision, section 18D, has operated to provide extensive protections for freedom of speech.

Yet during the previous term of this Liberal Government, then Prime Minster Tony Abbott launched a concerted attack on section 18C, claiming that its protections against racial hate speech were somehow a threat to intellectual freedom in Australia. Seeking to justify giving a green light to racist hate speech, Attorney-General George Brandis infamously declared to the Senate that people have a right to be bigots, you know.

While Mr Abbott backed down from that attack in the face of advice from his security agencies, it is unfortunate that Mr Turnbull renewed that attack.

Because in my view, racial bigotry can be a source of brutal marginalisation from the mainstream of society. Attacking a person on the basis of their race, an unchangeable characteristic deeply entwined with an individuals identity, can all too easily rob that person of their dignity.

I raise the issue of section 18C now as an example of why Governments must develop counter-terrorism policies in a holistic manner. We may increase the funding and powers of our police and intelligence agencies, but its a zero sum game if those agencies are then caught up responding to a new surge in radicalisation arising from greater divisions within the Australian community brought on by bigots emboldened by new laws to protect their racist discourse.

Of course, cause and effect, always difficult to assess in relation to social policies, are even harder to assess in the context of policies as broad as preventative CVE initiatives. However I think we can take the advice of our security agencies, and agencies in other countries, who have advised that community harmony is an essential element in helping to prevent the conditions from which terrorism arises, and to build the kind of community harmony that ensures a close relationship between law enforcement and the communities they protect.

We will never be able to devise polices to ensure that no individual is radicalised. But with an effective suite of programs for countering violent extremism, and a set of laws that ingrains respect for others as a cultural norm in our society, we have a much better chance of ensuring that individuals around those who are marginalised will see what is happening when one of their number are sliding into radicalisation, and respond by alerting those who need to know: parents, teachers, community leaders, and those within our government and security agencies who are able to respond.


In the 2010 Counter-Terrorism White Paper I referred to earlier, the former Labor Government set out the four key elements of Australias counter-terror strategy, which were analysis, protection, response and resilience.

That fourth element of resilience is predicated on countering violent extremism under a primarily preventative model. More pages in the statute books will not make ours a more resilient community. It is worth quoting the White Papers explanation of the concept of resilience:

Australias counter-terrorism efforts are supported by our open democratic society. There are inherent strengths in our society that make Australia resilient to the divisive worldview of al-Qaida and like-minded groups.

However, we know from experience that the terrorist narrative may resonate with a small number of Australians. It is incumbent upon all Australians to work together to reject ideologies that promote violence, no matter from where they arise or to what purpose they aspire. We must all support and protect the values and freedoms from which all Australians benefit.

Building this sort of resilience must, in the context of the ongoing terrorist threat, be an even higher priority now than it was in 2010 when that White Paper was written.

Our agencies must, of course, have the powers necessary to investigate, prosecute and convict those members of our community who become radicalised and who participate in terrorist acts or planning.

But Australia will be far safer still if we minimise the need to apply extraordinary legal powers to our own citizens. We will be safer if we can inoculate our young men and women against radicalism, extremism and violence in the first place. We will be safer if we can prevent disaffection and make sure all members of our community feel part of the open, democratic society we want our country to be.

Thank you.