Government retreats on weakening race act; advances on toughening terror laws

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney General George Brandis announce new counter-terrorism measures and the dropping of proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. AAP/Lukas Coch

The government has dropped its planned weakening of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) as it announces a tough set of anti-terrorism measures that will cost $630 million over four years.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said changing the RDA – which had brought a storm of criticism from ethnic communities – was “off the table”, declaring: “I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time.”

Under the new anti-terrorism proposals, it will be an offence to travel to a designated area where terrorist organisations are conducting hostile activities unless the person has a “legitimate purpose”, such as humanitarian or family reasons.

Abbott said the terrorist threat in Australia had not changed. “Nevertheless it is as high as it’s ever been,” he told a news conference.

The government says its measures (in addition to legislation already before parliament) will strengthen the ability to arrest, monitor, investigate and prosecute returning foreign fighters, prevent extremists departing and broaden the criteria for terrorist organisations to include those that encourage terrorist acts.

It plans to improve the collection and admissibility of evidence abroad, lower standards of proof for elements of offences committed overseas and update Australia’s telecommunication interception law to have metadata retained for a substantial period.

Discussions on metadata retention will be undertaken with the companies and legislation will follow separately. “We are not asking for new information, but making sure the data currently available is available for up to two years,” an official said.

Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis said the counter-terrorism measures would give security agencies the resources and legislative powers needed to combat home-grown terrorism and Australians who participated in terrorist activities overseas.

The threat to Australia and Australians from extremists was growing, they said. “Australian citizens and dual nationals are currently fighting overseas in Iraq, Syria and other conflicts, committing unspeakable atrocities and honing terrorist skills. Many violent jihadists will attempt to return home.”

The measures include:

  • Broadening the listing criteria for terrorist organisations to ensure advocacy of terrorist acts is not limited to specific acts and that advocacy captures promotion and encouragement of terrorism.

  • Making arrest easier by lowering the threshold for arrest without warrant for terrorism offences.

  • Removing current sunset provisions relating to ASIO questioning and detention powers and the Australian Federal Police’s control orders and preventative detention orders.

  • Extending AFP stop, search and seizure powers in relation to terrorist offences beyond the end of next year.

  • Improving the AFP’s ability to seek control orders on returning foreign fighters.

  • Clarifying that it is an offence to participate in any way in terrorist training.

  • Enabling ASIO to request suspension of an Australian passport (or foreign passport for a dual national). Currently the foreign minister can cancel or refuse a passport but the government wants more flexibility to act quickly.

Abbott said the government did not want to put freedoms at risk. “But what we are determined to do is to ensure that where people have been involved in terrorist activities it is much more possible to secure convictions than it currently is, given the difficulty of getting evidence of exactly what might be happening overseas.”

When asked, Abbott did not say whether the government would seek savings to offset the $630 million hit to the budget. The money is for agencies involved in counter terrorism, including ASIO, the police, Customs and Border Protection, Australia’s foreign spying service ASIS and the Office of National Assessments. Finance had “invigilated” the bids to ensure there hadn’t been any “try on” by the agencies, Abbott said. “We’re under a lot of budget pressure at the moment, but the community won’t thank us if we skimp unreasonably in the area of national security.”

An assessment of the global terrorism outlook for the next five years, prepared by ONA with input from all relevant agencies, has concluded that the threat to the West and Australia from global Islamist terrorism will increase rather than decrease.

It saw the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as key drivers – a magnet for foreign fighters - transforming the global terrorism situation. It is regarded as a much easier conflict to enter and leave than was that in Afghanistan.

There is concern that young Jihadists from South-East Asia who become involved in the conflict will return home, notably to Indonesia, and revive the anti-West regional threat.

There are “more Jihadists active in more countries than ever before”, a senior intelligence official said.

Surveillance authorities are monitoring about 150 Australian-based individuals who are directly related to the Syrian conflict. Most are onshore, involved in raising funds and fighters and proselytising. The government has stopped some from leaving Australia. About 60 of these Australians are now in Syria or Iraq, and some 15 Australians have died in conflict.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that before the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, Australian intelligence agencies were aware of 30 Australian citizens in Afghanistan fighting against the interests of the West – 25 came back to Australia and two-thirds of those were thereafter involved in terrorist activities.

“Five times that number are now of interest to our intelligence and security agencies, either already fighting overseas or planning to become involved. So this is a far greater challenge for us in sheer numbers.”

The government has had a long-running battle on its hands over its plan to change the RDA to remove the provision making it an offence to offend or insult.

Explaining the decision to drop the effort, Abbott said: “It is, if you like, a leadership call that I have made after discussion with the Cabinet today.

"In the end, leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision. When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia,” Mr Abbott said.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Abbott had sought to use the security announcements “as cover to finally dump his deeply unpopular changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

"Indeed, as late as last night, the Attorney-General was defending the government’s changes to 18C,” Shorten said. “What is clear that between last night and today that the Attorney-General of Australia has been rolled by his Cabinet: George Brandis has been humiliated by his colleagues today.”

The move to change the RDA followed a court judgment against conservative columnist Andrew Bolt. Bolt said today: “Too many lobby groups hate free speech. And the reforms were badly sold. I suspect the country will be poorer for this.”

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, whom the government appointed with the special brief of promoting free speech, tweeted: “Disturbed to hear the government has backed down on 18C and will keep offensive speech illegal. Very disturbed.”

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