UK United Kingdom

Abbott says exhortations are coming from the Middle East to stir local terrorism attacks

Prime Minister Tony Abbott stands alongside Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Andrew Colvin and and ASIO Chief David Irvine to announce the raising of the terror threat. AAP/Julian Smith

It was an unusual build up to Friday’s raising of the terrorism threat level in Australia from medium to high, though the action itself isn’t particularly surprising.

After ASIO’s head David Irvine flagged it on television earlier this week, there was little doubt it would happen.

The decision was in ASIO’s hands - although, despite protestations to the contrary, it is believed there was some government influence. Irvine formalised it on his last working day before he hands over to his successor, Duncan Lewis.

The medium level - where Australia has been at for more than a decade, since a new ratings system was brought in – specifies an attack could occur; “high” says one is likely.

With some 60-70 people from Australia among the foreign fighters in the Middle East, and the comings and goings, a heightened threat level could be expected. Experience from the Afghanistan conflict indicates returnees pose risks. There has also recently been an increase in the British level.

Tony Abbott stressed the decision “does not mean that a terror attack is imminent. We have no specific intelligence of particular plots. What we do have is intelligence that there are people with the intent and the capability to mount attacks”.

The level had been raised “based on an accumulation of indicators”, he said. These were the number of Australians in the Middle East; the numbers who’d returned, having fought with terrorist groups; the numbers in Australia supporting these groups, “and the exhortations coming from the Middle East to the supporters of these terrorist groups here in Australia to prepare to launch attacks here in Australia”.

There has been a sixfold increase in counter-terrorism investigations by security agencies and police forces in the last year. Officialdom seems more concerned about isolated, so-called “lone wolf” type attacks than a larger plot, because the latter produces more “chatter” which is easier to pick up.

The government and security organisations have two imperatives.

They want people to be more alert although they don’t want them to be alarmed (to recycle the Howard government from years ago). They also are extremely anxious not to be seen to be targeting the Muslim community. “This is not about any particular community – this is about crime and potential crime,” Abbott said. “I just want to completely dispel any idea that this is about religion.”

The practical effect will include more police at places such as airports and government buildings, and at some public events, for example AFL finals. Security plans for the November G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane have already been made on the assumption of high risk, given the number of VIPs attending.

With the government soon to receive a formal American request for military capability for the Middle East, it continues to say Australian involvement there won’t increase the danger here, because we are already in the terrorists' sights.

But the general escalation of that conflict is likely to feed into the terrorists' narrative.

When it comes to terrorism, the world is indeed a global village. One highly potent new feature, even compared with a decade ago, is the pervasiveness of social media. Security sources speak of kids looking at graphic images on their phones while waiting for a bus to take them to school.

Those going to join the fight are young – mainly between 17 and 25. They include people who are well educated. In some cases these young people are partly attracted by the sense of adventure, and then become socialised into extreme radicalism once they get to the conflict zone.

The authorities have recently stepped up the number of recommendations for cancelling passports. There is an attempt to some influence people who have been prevented from leaving, although this obviously won’t be successful with hard core extremists.

From the authorities' point of view, caution suggests it is better to have the public aware of the possible danger.

For the government, the higher alert will be an additional argument as it pushes its security proposals (two of the tranches yet to be introduced) through the parliament. Its intention to force the retention of metadata and its plan to ban people visiting designated overseas places without being able to show good reason are controversial. While the opposition has expressed some concerns, all the pressures will be towards trying to reach agreement.

On the raising of the threat level Abbott and Bill Shorten are again at one, each expressing thanks for the other’s co-operation. Shorten also agrees with Abbott’s assessment that Australia’s involvement in the Middle East conflict doesn’t put people in added danger at home. “Australia would still be a target regardless of what we did in that region,” he said.

As the opposition leader declared: “The Prime Minister and I are partners when it comes to national security, which is exactly what Australians expect of us”.

Interrogation of Gillard produces nothing new

Former prime minister Julia Gillard departs after giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in Sydney. AAP/Paul Miller

During Julia Gillard’s evidence to the Royal Commission on union corruption, even Commissioner Dyson Heydon became impatient with the traversing of old ground.

Trying to curb questions that had already been asked during the morning he pointed out that Gillard had been in the witness box a very long time and it was a “very tiring place to be”.

Gillard has, figuratively speaking, been in this place for an extremely long time. The ground has been dug again and again. Nothing fresh was excavated on Wednesday. Did anyone think it would be?

When prime minister, she was cross questioned extensively about her role, as a Slater and Gordon lawyer, in the 1990s establishment of a union slush fund – which collected money from construction companies that was later fraudulently siphoned off - and about allegations that some of the money was used to pay for her house renovations. The fund was set up by Gillard’s boyfriend Bruce Wilson, an AWU official and his union associate Ralph Blewitt.

In 1995 she was grilled about these issues during an internal investigation at Slater and Gordon.

She has always categorically denied any wrong doing, and on oath on Wednesday she remained adamant.

Gillard was asked in 1992 by Wilson and Blewitt for legal advice in incorporating what became the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association. It wasn’t a substantial job, she told the commission – “three, four, five hours at most”.

The work was done without charge – she said this was common practice as part of encouraging unions to direct business to the firm. “I did more substantial jobs than this for free for trade unions.”

But she does regret in retrospect not setting up a formal file on the task.

Indeed: “Obviously if one got to do the whole thing again you would do things differently given what I know now that I did not know at the time.”

She insisted she had no reason to think at the time that the name of the fund was misleading.

Gillard reiterated at the hearing what she’s said many times before - that after advising on setting up the body, she had no ongoing role with it.

She totally rejected claims that Wilson had handed over cash to tradesmen for renovations to her Abbotsford house. Indeed she said she never saw Wilson with significant amounts of cash.

She’d paid for all the renovations herself – and “it was my practice to pay by cheque”.

When she was interviewed in 1995 during the Slater and Gordon investigation she was somewhat more tentative in being confident she’d footed the bills for everything. But she has since said that she later checked all her records, and is sure she did.

Gillard said she ended the relationship with Wilson after a discussion “where he was evasive and I formed the view that I had not been fully in the picture about the nature of his conduct”.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Jeremy Stoljar SC gave Gillard as tough a time as he could.

He tried to make a lot of the fact that she had relied on advice for the names of tradesmen for the renovations rather than getting quotes (Gillard said she had the funds and wanted to get on with it). She didn’t have “contracts” with the tradesmen. He sought to put significance on the difference between “invoices” and “receipts”.

Sometimes there was an edge to Gillard’s voice but she kept very cool, even with the questions that contained provocative allegations she had already rejected.

Her pursuers will no doubt continue to hound her. But they didn’t get any of the help they’d probably hoped for from her commission appearance.

Cabinet’s only woman wins the public ratings contest hands down

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has performed well according to a new poll. AAP/Nyein Chan Naing

This beauty contest is one with a difference – it’s a poll of the performance of the Abbott cabinet ministers a year into their jobs.

Done by McNair Ingenuity Research, it found Foreign Minister Julie Bishop top of the class, and Treasurer Joe Hockey wearing the dunce’s cap, with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison making progress since December, while Finance Minister Mathias Cormann became better known but less regarded.

More than 1000 voters rated the performance of each of the cabinet on a scale of excellent (100), good (75), average (50), poor (25), or terrible (0). If they didn’t know enough about a minister’s performance, people could exclude them. The research was done August 27-30 and results were compared with perceptions at the government’s 100-day point in December.

Bishop, who undertook high profile shuttle diplomacy after the downing of MH17, and received acclaim at home and abroad, scored 57.6. This was some 13 points higher than in December and by far the biggest improvement.

Her score was 72.2 among Coalition supporters, and 45.5 with Labor voters (among whom she made a big gain).

Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull - who always does well in preferred leader polls - came in second with 51.1, only just higher than his previous 50.6. He received a 60.6 rating from Coalition voters and 43.1 from Labor supporters.

Bishop best Turnbull for being well known – 90% to 84%.

Hockey’s fall, driven particularly by the budget, has been spectacular. Now on 32.2, in December he scored 46.9. Coalition voters gave him a rating of 48.3 while that from Labor supporters was 18.5.

Tony Abbott found himself in the also-ran group, with a rating of 39.1 compared with 41.5 in December.

There used to be speculation about how long David Johnston would last in Defence – he’s now considered safe - but those who rated him thought he was doing okay. He came in third on 48.5 (though only 59% knew him).

Others in the 40s were Barnaby Joyce (47.1), Andrew Robb (45), Morrison (44.7 – up from 38.5), Nigel Scullion (44.4), Ian Macfarlane (43.8) Peter Dutton (43.8), Bruce Billson (42.9), Warren Truss (42.6) and Cormann.

Cormann, who is everywhere in the media, has lifted his profile notably; in late 2013 he was one of the least known ministers, with only 48% knowing him well enough to give him a rating. This has gone to 59% - but his rating declined from 45.2 to 40.8.

The scores of Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, who is dealing with welfare reform, and Attorney-General George Brandis, who took a bath over the Racial Discrimination Act row, have also fallen.

Those with ratings in the 30s were Greg Hunt (39.5), Brandis (39 - down from 42.5), Andrews (37.5 - down from 42.9), Eric Abetz (36.6), and Christopher Pyne (36).

Billson (Small Business) and Scullion (Indigenous Affairs) are the least known of the cabinet.

The average rating of all members of cabinet changed little since December, falling from 44 to 43.