SUBJECT/S: Government’s mismanagement of countering violent extremism programs; Donations
THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
WEDNESDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER 2016
SUBJECT/S: Government’s mismanagement of countering violent extremism programs; Donations
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good afternoon. Overnight we’ve seen fresh threats made against Australia by ISIS or Da’esh. These are of course extremely concerning reports. As in all matters of national security, Labor stands shoulder to shoulder with the government in defending our nation. I have faith in our security agencies who are among the best in the world, and in their ability to keep Australians safe. Labor of course has a bipartisan objective with the government of keeping Australians safe. That bipartisan objective which we share with the government has led us to supporting some five bills that have passed through the Parliament in the last couple of years. Very often with substantial improvements suggested by Labor in the committee process that has surrounded those bills. It’s of course the case that we will continue, that Labor will continue in standing shoulder to shoulder with the government on these national security issues. It’s vital that our security agencies have the powers that they need to do their job properly.
I’d like to speak a bit today however about some significant problems that have come to light in the government’s handling of preventative measures to deal with home-grown terrorism as part of its countering violent extremism program. There is a scathing Australian National Audit Office report into the $1.9 million Living Safe Together program. And that scathing report has found that there has been mismanagement and waste, a very substantial waste of taxpayer funds in the conduct of that program. According to the Audit Office’s report, nearly half of the $1.9 million that was in this program was given to organisations that did not meet the government’s own criteria for eligibility. It’s an astounding report, it’s an astounding conclusion for the office to have come to, and it’s another indictment of the incompetence of the Attorney-General and the Minister for Justice. I’m not sure which of these incompetent ministers is responsible for this particular program, the Minister for Justice Mr Keenan is also the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Counter-Terrorism, but one of them is, perhaps both of them are, and they both stand indicted for what has been revealed by this Audit Office report.
In general, the Abbott-Turnbull governments have not given the priority and importance that should have been given to countering violent extremism programs. I have now, as a colleague in the Parliament Anne Aly, the new member for Cowan who is a world expert on countering violent extremism programs, and I’ve talked at length with Dr Anne Aly before she joined the Parliament and since she has joined the Parliament. What’s clear is that these countering violent extremism programs, preventative programs, have the capacity to stop home-grown terrorism at the source and intervene in the very early stages of radicalisation to prevent people, particularly young people from making the transition to violence. Done correctly they are an extremely effective way of combating terrorism and of course are very low-cost compared to other means of combating terrorism, particularly large-scale security agency work, let alone the military efforts we sometimes have to make.
In Australia, countering violent extremism programs have been grossly underfunded compared to the billions that are spent each year otherwise on national security. This $1.9 million Living Safe Together program was supposed to be this government’s flagship countering violent extremism program, and it was unveiled with much fanfare by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Audit Office’s latest report is just the latest in a string of reports that suggest that this program has been mishandled from the beginning, with some communities missing out on grants altogether and delays in payment.
To discover that half of the total funding has been delivered to organisations, and may have been wasted on organisations that are not effective should be absolutely shocking to the current Prime Minister Mr Turnbull. I call on Senator Brandis and Mr Keenan as the responsible Ministers for this area to answer these questions: what action are they now taking to ensure that money dedicated to countering violent extremism in the effort against terrorism will never be wasted again? What guarantees can they give that such money as has been allocated is not going to be misused? What remedial action will now be taken? And generally they need to answer what is the government doing in this vital area of countering violent extremism? What has happened, for example, to the $13 million that was committed to the Australian Intervention Support Hub? What exactly does the government have in mind in this area? This Audit Office report that has been reported on the day has drawn attention to the government’s incompetence in this area. It is vital that the government now get down to some real work in what should be apparent to all is a very important tool available to the government but not yet properly used by the government in the fight against terrorism.
JOURNALIST: Based on empirical evidence, haven’t both the Abbott and Turnbull governments been highly successful in combating home grown terrorism?
DREYFUS: Well, we’ve had some incidents regrettably – shocking incidents – of, for example the lone actor attack on the police accountant at Parramatta. Of course we are all very pleased that there have not been more incidents. We can point also to the lone actor attack on members of the Victorian Police and Australian Federal Police in Endeavour Hills. Of course, every Australian can be pleased that we have not seen terror incidents of the scale that have now been seen to occur in other parts of the world. And to that extent we have been successful, which is why I said at the commencement of this press conference that we have faith in the first class police and intelligence agencies that serve our country.
JOURNALIST: What would you like to be done? Is there anything in particular, between your talks with Anne Aly, that you think is being missed? What do you think needs to be done?
DREYFUS: Well I think it is very clear from the experience that we can point to in countries like the United Kingdom, and Germany, that it is worth engaging in countering violent extremism programs. This government up until now, over its three years in office, has simply paid lip service to engaging in countering violent extremism and has not actually properly spent even the small amount of money that has been devoted to it. I think we can learn from the experience of the United Kingdom, we can learn from the experience of Germany, Anne Aly has worked in both countries. She has advised the governments of both countries. I’m looking forward to developing with her a better approach for Australia. But in the meantime I am calling on the government to guarantee that we won’t see this kind of wastage again. And to explain to Australia what actually the government is doing in this countering violent extremism area. It’s not enough for the government to go on as it has been, mentioning countering violent extremism but not actually engaging in serious programs in this area.
JOURNALIST: Has Bill Shorten’s credibility taken a hit by not taking a stronger stance on Sam Dastyari’s actions?
DREYFUS: Not at all. Bill Shorten has been very clear that he has reprimanded Senator Dastyari for the payment that he received. As the Leader of the Opposition said, he’s confident as am I that Senator Dastyari is not going to repeat the error that he made. What we’re seeing regrettably from the government is an attempt to massively throw mud at Senator Dastyari in an endeavour to divert attention from what is the real area here that needs to be looked at, which is Labor’s proposal for a ban on foreign donations. Now we’ve started to hear from a range of Liberal Parliamentarians that they too support a ban on foreign donations and I’m hoping that in coming days – not coming weeks, but coming days – we can get down to this real issue which is banning foreign donations altogether.
JOURNALIST: So has he told the party why he took the money?
DREYFUS: He’s given a press conference yesterday, Senator Dastyari gave a lengthy press conference yesterday, and took questions from the national press gallery on national television. I don’t think I could add to what he said in that lengthy press conference yesterday.
JOURNALIST: So you think he adequately justified and explained his actions yesterday?
DREYFUS: I think he stood there and took questions that the national press gallery were prepared to ask him. I’m not going to commentate on …
JOURNALIST: It’s not the national press gallery though, it took place in Sydney.
DREYFUS: I’m sorry if that doesn’t qualify as the national press gallery, national journalists then, including journalists who work in Sydney. A very large press pack was assembled to ask questions. I had thought that it had included national journalists. Last time I looked Leigh Sales was a national journalist. And I think that it qualifies as a national press conference. It certainly received national attention.
JOURNALIST: But do you think he adequately explained it yesterday?
DREYFUS: Well I think that he answered all of the questions that were put to him and it’s for others to provide commentary. It’s for you to provide commentary on whether you think they were adequate or not adequate. I think that what Senator Dastyari made clear yesterday was that he was prepared to come out and deal with the difficult questions that were put to him to apologise to Australia for what is an error of judgement and I share the confidence of the Leader of the Opposition that it was an error of judgement that he is not going to repeat.
JOURNALIST: John Howard earlier this afternoon was saying that he should probably go. Do you think his position is safe? Do you think he should be staying on the frontbench?
DREYFUS: I think John Howard needs to take a long hard look at the NSW Liberal Party and the extraordinary conduct that it has engaged in with hiding of donations from property developers, subverting the donations regime in NSW by diverting funds through foundations, these are all things that are now examined by ICAC. Before John Howard starts passing judgement on anybody it might be time for him to have a look at his own party, have a look at why the NSW electoral commission is even now withholding $4 million from the NSW Liberal Party in public funding - of public electoral funding – simply on the basis that the NSW Liberal Party has not been prepared to comply with the electoral disclosure laws. I’m interested not in particular individuals, I’m interested in the system. Labor’s interested in reforming altogether rules about donations here in Australia. Rules for our electoral system. Labor has been calling now for years for more transparency, for a much lower threshold for disclosure and at the last election we were calling for a complete ban on foreign donations. We want to hear a response from the Liberal Party on that rather than the mud-throwing which now, as your question suggests, John Howard is now lending his assistance to.
Thanks very much.