Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has asked Australian law enforcement agencies to test their responses to a mass casualty attack in the wake of the killings in Paris and elsewhere, while strongly rejecting calls for sending boots on the ground to Syria.
In a parliamentary statement on national security, Turnbull said Australia would “redouble our efforts in support of domestic and regional-counter-terrorism efforts”.
But no change in Australia’s military commitment had been sought or was being contemplated. “If one were, we would of course carefully consider it.”
Turnbull said that while we should grieve and be angry at the recent attacks “we must not let grief or anger cloud our judgement. Our response must be as clear-eyed and strategic as it is determined.
"This is not a time for gestures or machismo. Calm, clinical, professional, effective. That’s how we defeat this menace.”
The threat from Islamic State (IS) was a global problem that must be addressed at its source, in the Middle East, by ensuring our involvement in the coalition efforts in Syria and Iraq was resolute and effective.
In terms of Australia’s commitment “we will always proceed on the basis of the considered advice of our military professionals in the Australian Defence Force, just as we rely on the advice of our counter-terrorism experts domestically.
"Current advice to the government is that the unilateral deployment of Australian combat troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria is not feasible or practical.”
Turnbull said the consensus among the leaders he met at the G20, APEC and the East Asia summit “is that there is no support currently for a large US-led army to attempt to conquer and hold ISIL-controlled areas”.
The government of Iraq had not consented to any of Australia’s defence forces “being deployed outside the wire on ground combat operations”.
Both former prime minister Tony Abbott and former defence minister Kevin Andrews have urged the escalation of the war against IS, including the Australian commitment.
Turnbull repeated that ultimately a political solution was necessary for Syria. “Only this would allow attention to turn more fully to eliminating ISIL as a military force.”
Australians should be aware that a terrorist incident on our soil remained likely, Turnbull told the House. The terror alert last year was raised to high. Subsequently there had been three terror attacks. “The tempo of our domestic counter terrorism efforts has increased and our capabilities have been tested.”
ASIO and the Australian Federal Police had advised him there was no evidence that the recent attacks, include Paris, would materially affect the threat levels in Australia “but we are constantly on watch for any evolving or emerging threats”.
A new threat advisory system, which had been recommended by ASIO and been subject of extensive consultation, was now coming into operation.
“The National Threat Assessment Centre (or NTAC) that sits within ASIO will this week transition to the new National Terrorism Threat Advisory System.
"The new system will provide the public with more information on the nature of the threat we are facing. The adoption of a five-tiered threat system will also provide ASIO with greater flexibility in determining threat levels, reflecting the need to adapt to an evolving security environment,” Turnbull said.
He pointed out that Australia had certain protections against terrorism. It was the most successful multicultural society in the world, and as an island had some natural advantages over Europe – it was in control of its borders. It also had very strong gun laws.
Turnbull said the rise of IS and the conflict in Syria had increased the threat environment in southeast Asia and he had discussed this with regional leaders.
“We are working more closely than ever to share intelligence and counter messaging strategies. From an Australian perspective, we see a real risk that terrorist groups in the region might be inspired by attacks such as we have seen in Ankara, Beirut, Bamako and Paris and we are very mindful of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Australians visit Southeast Asia every year for business, study or holidays.”
Turnbull said that at the December 11 Council of Australian Governments meeting he would raise with premiers initiatives under consideration to address the problems of radicalisation in prisons.
In announcing he had asked agencies to test their response to a mass casualty attack he said that “such an attack leaves little, if any, room for negotiations”.
Turnbull also said that community leaders and groups “have great responsibility both in denouncing violent extremism and teaching unity in diversity, mutual respect instead of hatred”.
He praised the condemnation of IS and the promotion of authentic, modern and tolerant Islam by the leaders of big-majority Muslim nations, including Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia as “especially important”.
Bill Shorten, in his reply, said Labor would continue to seek bipartisanship on national security. “Like Mr Turnbull, Labor does not support unilaterally sending ground combat units into Syria.
"The history of success of western-led armies in this region, is poor to say the least. We understand the very real risk of a protracted ground war, involving Australian personnel in danger with limited potential for it to contribute to the long-term solution we should be seeing.”
But Shorten warned that while talk of pragmatism in the search for peace – a word Turnbull has used – was fine, it could not result in Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad remaining permanently in power.
“His ongoing presence would only serve as a spur to armed resistance and provide a rallying call for extremists.”