SUBJECT/S: Social cohesion; countering violent extremism; refugees 





PATRICIA KARVELAS: A political fight has opened up in the usually bipartisan area of national security. Justice Minister Michael Keenan has criticised the previous Labor governments counter terrorism policies saying they prioritised social cohesion programs instead of targeting radicalised individuals. Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism and she joins me now. Thanks for coming on RN Drive.


Now you reject the Minister’s criticism, why do you think that he is wrong on this?

ROWLAND: He’s wrong because it’s quite clear even from the government’s own representative, and here I’m talking about the Assistant Minister Senator Fierravanti-Wells who has been around talking to a lot of community leaders and community groups and I’ve been at a lot of sessions and been briefed by her on these, it’s quite clear that the government has spent only a miniscule amount of the $13 million or so that it set aside for these programs. Now if the Minister wants to take petty potshots at Labor, we’ve been out of government for two years. This area is his responsibility and he should be making sure that it works.

KARVELAS: Has Labor’s policy changed? Because you’re building community resilience program was all about social cohesion, it’s true that it was very much centred on this.

ROWLAND: It’s true but we have seen enormous changes, unfortunately not for the better within the last two years. We’ve seen the phenomenon of Daesh emerge. We have seen the threat of terrorism and the realities of terrorism around the world and these were not issues that were anticipated two years ago when Labor was in government. But it is quite clear that we need both a strong law enforcement and national security angle combined with an important social inclusion policy. And I do believe it’s quite unbecoming for a Minister of the Crown to be taking this sort of attitude to something that should be bipartisan.

KARVELAS: Michael Keenan points to the governments investments in this area. $13 million on early intervention, $21 million addressing terrorist propaganda and $630 million for counter terrorism back in August 2014. Are you saying that’s not enough and it’s not being spent or that it’s focusing on the wrong areas?

ROWLAND: I’m looking at the $13 million component. This government talks big about the money that it has set aside for these programs and they are certainly needed in these unfortunate times, but when you look at the fact that only a small proportion of that $13 million has been spent by this government, you’ve got to say, ‘well, why is that?’ One of the reasons is, again as the Assistant Minister has pointed out, is that it’s being administered by the Attorney-General’s department which does not take an approach that is conducive to social cohesion. I’ve even had examples, and I’ll give you an example: I’ve got a big Ahmadiyya Muslim population in my area. Their centre is based just outside of my electorate. Now anyone who knows the Ahmadiyya Muslim community knows that these are people that basically cannot return to Pakistan, which was the place of birth for many of them. Now for the Attorney-General’s department to come in and say ‘you need to be part of these countering violent extremism programs, look at what sort of grant money you can accept,’ these people have said directly to them, ‘look, I don’t think you understand our predicament, we are actually the people that have been the victims of this sort of behaviour. We left Pakistan because of this sort of behaviour, we are patriots, we’re Australians.’ And so I think that that lack of understanding is something that is really problematic. I think that we should be investing in policies that give people a pathway, particularly young people a pathway, and I completely take on the point that has been made by many that you need to give young people in particular opportunities, you need to give them the best education so they can get jobs, so they can contribute to our society. And that’s what we should be focusing on as well as the law enforcement aspects.

KARVELAS: On RN Drive, my guest is Michelle Rowland. She’s the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism. Michelle, what would Labor change in this area if it wins government? What would you do to restructure these programs?

ROWLAND: Well firstly we are very focused on making sure that we have policies in place that give people pathways. We talk about economic inclusion as well as social inclusion. So that means making sure that people have the best education as I’ve said, the best employment opportunities, but I think we need to start making sure that this money is actually getting spent properly. When you have a situation where only a small amount of $13 million has been set aside and yet we have the responsible minister criticising Labor from two years ago then that is not a sustainable position to take.

KARVELAS: A special Newspoll was taken following the Paris attacks. I’d like to take you through a few of the findings. 76 per cent of Australians believe it is very likely or inevitable that a large scale terrorist attack will be carried out in Australia. Is that a reflection on events overseas or a result of politics or policies here?

ROWLAND:  I think it’s probably a bit of both. I think Australians should know that we have the best intelligence agencies, we have the best personnel, we have people who are working behind the scenes with the task of making sure that Australians are kept safe. It is unfortunate that we are in a situation where you turn on your television, you see all the events that have happened, particularly over the past week or so and I’m not surprised that that instils a lot of fear and a lot of people getting very concerned about it. So in that sense it is difficult to be surprised by some of those findings, but at the same time I think we need to put this in perspective and remember that those who seek to harm us, they want to scare us. Those who seek to harm us want to make sure that we aren’t a unified country. And the way that we counter that is by recognising that we are the most successful multicultural nation in the world.

KARVELAS: 41 per cent of people said they want priority to be given to Christians from Syria. Do you believe the government’s explanation that Christians are foremost because they are the most persecuted? Is that logic that you’ve signed up to?

ROWLAND: We have had for many years a non-discriminatory humanitarian program and a non-discriminatory migration program in this country. And we will have a situation where we see people who are coming in in that 12,000 refugee intake, many of those people will be of Christian minority simply because of the fact they are the most in need. So I understand that and I would be very reticent and certainly very critical of anyone who suggests that we should change our non-discriminatory policy because -

Do you think the government is changing the non-discriminatory policy?

ROWLAND: I think some members of the government would like to change it.

KARVELAS: Are you talking about backbenchers here, I’m talking about the executive.

ROWLAND: I haven’t seen anything to suggest the executive is changing it, although I would be very concerned if the government came out and decided it would abandon a non-discriminatory policy. We need to remember that we take our advice from the UNHCR. They determine the people who are most in need and I think that it would be highly detrimental for Australia to turn its back on that long held bipartisan view.

KARVELAS: Michelle, many thanks for your time.

ROWLAND:  My pleasure.