SUBJECT/S: Social cohesion; countering violent extremism; citizenship changes, Syria





KIERAN GILBERT: With me now we have the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and also Small Business Minister Michelle Rowland. I want to start with this survey, the Newspoll survey, what do you make of it? Senator Birmingham saying he’s not entirely surprised by the outcome but what’s your take on it?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR SMALL BUSINESS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: I think Australians should have confidence that we have some of the best security agencies and personnel in the world. We have world class intelligence. We know we’ve been on a high level terror threat for, I think it’s about a year now, but let’s remember that those who would seek to harm us they want one thing and that is to make sure that we don’t have unity. And we should not give them that. I know it’s particularly pertinent coming from Sydney, we’re nearing the first anniversary of Martin Place but I think Australians should have confidence in their agencies and we should not give those who seek to harm us, we shouldn’t give them what they want.

GILBERT: And as you point out, the effectiveness of those agencies in foiling what would have otherwise been a number of quite coordinated attacks so they’ve been able to keep on top of those in recent years but also the other point I guess which is relevant here is that access to weapons, it’s not as easy to get Kalashnikovs and the like in Australia as it is in Europe.

ROWLAND: That is true and I think that there is undoubtedly a lot that we don’t see and we don’t end up finding out about. But our agencies are working overtime, doing their best to keep us all safe.

GILBERT: You’ve mentioned the cohesion issue. The Justice Minister this morning has been quoted in the Australian, he’s written a piece in the Australian critical of Labor for focusing too much on that side of things as opposed to dealing with those who have been radicalised. What do you say in response to that? Some of the programs were not as targeted as they should have been in terms of radicalised individuals.

ROWLAND: Well I’d say two things. Firstly he’s plain wrong. And secondly, his comments as a Minister of the Crown in this area are unbecoming. Labor has been out of office for over two years now and if this Minister wants to take petty potshots at a former Labor government, go ahead, but here’s the facts: even the Assistant Minister [for Multicultural Affairs] has said that these programs need to have a serious rethink. She has been around, and I’ve been briefed by her, and I’ve been at many events where she has attended as well. She has made it clear that there has only been a tiny proportion of the $13 million set aside for these countering violent extremism measures that have actually been accessed and that’s because they are bannered as a violent extremism measure rather than being something focused on social cohesion. You need to have both. You need to have the social cohesion measures as well as the law enforcement side. If he wants to take petty potshots, go ahead, but he’s not doing anyone any favours. He is clearly at odds with the evidence that is coming out from the Assistant Minister who is responsible in this area and I think his comments are a disgrace.

GILBERT: So you’re saying that the design isn’t as flawed as much as the lack of spending that actually exercising these programs that it hasn’t been undertaken?

ROWLAND: It’s a bit of both I think, Kieran. As you go around you speak to a lot of these communities, they are reluctant to get involved because of the way they believe the Department has approached them has been presenting this as a case of ‘all you people need to be deradicalised, you’ve got serious issues, you must do this.’ Whereas the countering violent extremism measures that are focused on social cohesion are about saying, ‘let’s work together’. And let’s remember, our former Chief of Intelligence and Security has said that our biggest weapon in the fight against these people who would seek to harm us is the Islamic community themselves.

GILBERT: What do you think about suggestion that, and this was something that was picked up in the Newspoll again, only a minority of people think that the Islamic community has done enough to integrate as part of the broader community. What do you say about that finding?

ROWLAND: It’s clear as I’ve been going around the last two years that there are many in the Islamic community who know they need to do more. What they don’t need are the sort of comments that are coming from the Minister in this regard. What they need is some support to make sure that, particularly young people who are at risk aren’t seeing, don’t actually view this as being a credible pathway. And that’s the issue, you need to be able to give young people a credible pathway that they belong, that they’ve got opportunity in this country, that they can make a contribution. That’s the best way of making sure that a new generation of Australians coming through who are able to contribute and are able to make a good go of it in our society.

GILBERT: Your fundamental gripe with the Justice Minister isn’t so much that he’s wrong, but he should be taking accountability for any flaws that are in the system.

ROWLAND:  It’s both. This guy is the Minister and he needs to understand that only a small proportion of this money set aside is actually being spent. Kieran, I’ve been sitting in the Parliament for two years where we’ve had this Minister get up and talk in the millions of dollars about all this money going towards all these programs. It’s his responsibility to make sure it’s working. If he’s not prepared to step up to that task then let the Assistant Minister in and make sure that we actually do have some programs on the ground that are working.

GILBERT: This weekend we’re going to have the debate resume about the dual nationals and having citizenship stripped of those found to be guilty of terrorism offences. Are you satisfied now with the way that this bill is designed that Labor will back it and it will secure passage through the Parliament this week?

ROWLAND: Kieran, Labor always said that we were prepared to support this legislation. We completely supported the principle of updating our citizenship law to take into account phenomena such as Daesh.  We had a series of recommendations in the Parliamentary Joint Committee, they were bipartisan recommendations. We are satisfied that those recommendations have been met and therefore we are satisfied that we can support this legislation.

GILBERT: And how many individuals are we expecting this to cover? Is it dozens or hundreds?

ROWLAND: I don’t have the exact figures on that. I don’t even know whether the Government has released those, but we know that at least under the revised Bill, what could have been a very broad sweeping set of changes that could cover people who had not even committed anything remotely like terrorist offences would have been covered, now it has been narrowed down to include specifically that cohort of people.

GILBERT: I don’t think many people will feel much sympathy for those individuals and basically say good riddance to them, but the question that might be asked from one particular angle on this is, are you worried that supporting this measure might lead to a sense in some of those communities you referred to, Islamic communities in Sydney and elsewhere, that feel that they’re being marginalised. That someone with a dual citizenship might be able to be kicked out.

ROWLAND: I take your point and our response to that is this: Labor pushed for this to go to hearings in a Committee. Evidence was taken on that and I believe that the Bill that we have before the Parliament now reflects those changes, and strikes a reasonable balance between what we need to do to keep Australians safe and recognising the importance of citizenship.

GILBERT: The National Security Committee meeting this morning, the Prime Minister returned from Kuala Lumpur just in the last couple of hours. The debate continues, both within the government and elsewhere as to what needs to be done in the fight against IS on the ground in Syria. Kevin Andrews today making the point in the AFR that we need to be considering special forces. He’s not alone, Tony Abbott also and the respected analyst Peter Jennings from the Australian strategic policy institute among those who have been advocating for this.

ROWLAND:  I think that it would be one of the most grave decisions that a government could take to send troops in here, but I think we also need to realise that we’re a long way off a political solution. It’s certainly not helpful to have the Defence Minister in exile coming out and giving his opinion I believe. But look, it’s a free country and he’s entitled to do that but I think that we need to recognise how grave such a decision would be and to continue working with our allies, taking advice from them and working with them on a solution.

GILBERT: What’s wrong with a former Prime Minister and former Defence Minister making their opinions known as they’ve done in the last week. Do you fundamentally believe that it’s a problem that undermines the government here because aren’t they simply engaging in what’s a much broader debate. In the United States we’re seeing a similar discourse.

ROWLAND: They’re entitled to their opinion but I think again what this demonstrates is the dysfunctional nature of this Government. We’ve got a Justice Minister coming out saying that virtually the opposite to what the Assistant Minister is saying. We’ve got a former Defence Minister coming out virtually saying the opposite to what his Prime Minister has been saying. Again, this points to the dysfunctional nature of this Government. A number of people who believe themselves to be the government in exile and it does not auger well for making sure that we have a cohesive national approach to this issue.

GILBERT: Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland. Thank you.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.