JULIE BISHOP        Good afternoon. Thank you for being here. 

I want to update you on the efforts of the Australian Government to counter the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and funds to Iraq and the terrorist organisation Da’esh. Tomorrow I will be going overseas to attend a meeting in Paris convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and the Prime Minister of Iraq Mr Abadi.

This meeting will comprise the Ministers of 22 countries that form part of the US-led coalition, which is part of a broader global coalition to defeat terrorism, particularly to defeat and deter the terrorist activities that are being undertaken in Iraq and Syria.

The threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters to Australia is real and present. We are also concerned about the threat of foreign fighters returning to our region. And this threat demands a stronger and closer level of cooperation amongst all countries affected by it. We understand about 90 countries around the world claim that a number of their citizens are taking part in the terrorism activities or supporting terrorism activities in their own countries. We believe there are about 100 Australians fighting in Iraq and Syria.

At this meeting we will focus on reaffirming our commitment to taking up the fight against terrorism in Iraq and Syria. We will discuss ways to stabilise the situation in Iraq after the setback over Ramadi and we will also talk about the issue of how to prevent foreign terrorist fighters from carrying out terrorist activities elsewhere or on their attempted return home.

This is a very important meeting and I will reaffirm Australia’s commitment to the Iraqi Government to help build the capacity of the Iraqi security forces so they can take back their own territory and protect their people from one of the most brutal and vicious terrorist organisation the world has ever seen.

On another note, I want to say that the Australian Government welcomes the draft decision relating to the Great Barrier Reef and that it has not been listed as ‘in danger’. This is a fair draft decision and we hope it is adopted by the World Heritage Committee in the middle of this year. Australia is very proud of our Great Barrier Reef and we are proud of the efforts that have been undertaken by State and Federal Governments to protect and preserve the Reef.

Over the next 10 years, over $2 billion will be invested in protecting the Great Barrier Reef so that it remains a magnificent Australian environmental icon that it has always been and will continue to be.

JOURNALIST          Minister was Cabinet ambushed by the Prime Minister to strip Australian citizenships of their citizenships even if they are not dual nationals?

JULIE BISHOP        This is a discussion that has been underway for at least 18 months, ever since the Abbott Government came into office. We have received briefings from our intelligence and law enforcement and security agencies about the threat of foreign terrorist fighters. We have seen an increasing number of Australians become involved in terrorism-related activities.

As Foreign Minister I have cancelled a significant number of passports of those who are suspected or are undertaking terrorist activities. So we have been having this discussion for quite some time. We now have a draft discussion paper available to the public and we expect there to be a national conversation about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and about a proposal to strip those who undertake terrorist activities, and would do harm to Australians, of their citizenship.

JOURNALIST          What is your personal view though, even if they are not dual nationals, what is your personal view of this issue? Do you believe this is something that should happen? Is there a risk that someone could be made stateless?

JULIE BISHOP        That is the kind of discussion that we want to have with the Australian people, with experts. There are obviously a significant number of legal consequences. It is a complex issue. Citizenship is a very serious right and a very serious responsibility that comes with it and so it is a discussion that we should have in Australia and most certainly it is a discussion that is being undertaken in other countries. So that is why we have put out a discussion paper. It comes down to a contest of ideas, we want the best public policy we can and so we want to hear from everyone on this issue.

JOURNALIST          I guess we have heard about the reports and it seems that a newspaper was briefed on what happened in the Cabinet meeting and there was certainly a split on how people felt about this. What is your personal view?

JULIE BISHOP        I wouldn’t be surprised in the least that there is a debate within Cabinet, that is the whole idea of having 19 elected Members of Parliament form a Cabinet and discuss public policy ideas. Of course there is discussion and debate. There are a number of lawyers in the Cabinet, lawyers always have a view on the legal aspects of things so you would expect a robust debate and that is why we have put out a discussion paper and we expect a robust national discussion on this issue. But our fundamental point is to keep Australians safe from terrorism. We will do all we can to protect the Australian people and keep them safe from acts of terrorism.

JOURNALIST          Will you tell us what your personal view is on this issue?

JULIE BISHOP        My personal view is that it is a complex issue, that we need to discuss what other countries are considering and that is taking away the citizenship of those who would seek to do Australians harm. Our Citizenship Act has been in place since 1948 and it is time we reviewed it in view of this emerging complex, dangerous phenomenon of Australian citizens taking up with terrorist organisations in the Middle East. So I believe it is time for us to have this national discussion about it.

JOURNALIST          Should the decision be left to the Immigration Minister, to the discretion of the Immigration Minister?

JULIE BISHOP        Well this is precisely the discussion that we are going to have. There is no point going over and over what happened in a Cabinet meeting because I don’t discuss what happens in Cabinet meetings,  and I believe that we have adopted precisely the right course and that is to put out a discussion paper for the Australian people to have their say, as well as experts, lawyers, all those who have a view.

JOURNALIST          Minister, an investigation of a US military facility’s mistaken shipments of live anthrax bacteria has turned up another live sample back in 2008. Firstly, do you find this alarming and are you concerned it took seven years for us to find out?

JULIE BISHOP        Well I am aware that there is an investigation underway. The allegation is that there was a shipment back in 2008, that is seven years ago. We are assured by the US military that there is no risk to public health, that there is no risk as a result of this but we are taking part in the investigation and I am pleased that it is underway.

JOURNALIST          Is there any chance that it could damage the relationship between the two countries?

JULIE BISHOP        Not at all. This is how we cooperate, the US has detected what I understand is a deep concern about something that happened seven years ago but they have assured us that there is no risk to public health and they have commenced an investigation and we will cooperate and we will take part in that investigation.

JOURNALIST          US Defence officials have travelled to all affected labs in the States. Will they be coming here?

JULIE BISHOP        I’m not able to give that kind of detail. Obviously there is an investigation underway and Australia will take part in it. If it is necessary for the US to travel here I’m sure we will accommodate it.

JOURNALIST          Ms Bishop if I can go back to foreign fighters [inaudible] with our South East Asian neighbours [inaudible]. Are you concerned that this might be seen as more lecturing?

JULIE BISHOP        Well I didn’t actually say that. If you read the article that seems to be the headline, but I said that we need closer and stronger cooperation. That is the view of the region and that is the view that we share, so I wasn’t calling on specific nations at all. I was suggesting that we need close cooperation on law enforcement, on intelligence, on border control, on defence issues and that is a view shared in the region. We already have 13 agreements with countries in our region on counter-terrorism and that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and others and we already work closely on these issues and have for some time. But this is an ever changing threat. We have worked closely with countries in our region ever since the Bali Bombings, ever since the return of those who had been training with Al Qaeda and Taliban resulted in terrorist attacks in our region. So it is a level of cooperation that we deeply appreciate and we and countries in our region know that it will have to be stronger and closer and that we will have to be ever-vigilant to protect our citizens against the threat of terrorism.

JOURNALIST          One thing that is agreed is that terrorism is a global threat. With regard to individuals that do participate in that sort of activity and revoking citizenship, aren’t we just, if we do go ahead with that, aren’t we simply passing the buck. Isn’t any country that takes [inaudible] passing the buck [inaudible]?

JULIE BISHOP        Well you are seeking to debate precisely the issues that our draft discussion paper seeks to address. This is precisely the kind of debate that we want the Australian people and experts and lawmakers and immigration officials to debate. We need to see this in a global context, in a regional context and also what is in our national interest and citizenship has not been updated to reflect what has been happening with this phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. And so this is a very timely debate and the Coalition Government is absolutely right to call for a debate on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, particularly if people are found to have undertaken terrorist activities or are supporting terrorism. These are serious criminal offences punishable by up to 25 years imprisonment.

JOURNALIST          But it did sound like in that Cabinet meeting, and how it has been reported, that that proposal to strip Australians of their citizenship even if they are not dual nationals did take some by surprise. Was there a formal submission on this presented to Cabinet?

JULIE BISHOP        I’m a member of the National Security Committee so I have been part of debates on this issue for quite some time. What we are seeking to do is ensure that people who take up with terrorist organisations which have a stated desire to harm Australians and to encourage attacks in Australia we are determined to keep people safe from this. And so we are looking at a range of options as other countries have done, as the United States, the United Kingdom and others have done. We are looking at our Citizenship Act to see if it reflects the reality of the terrorist threat which is now more complex, more dangerous, more global than we have ever seen before.

JOURNALIST          Minister on another issue, does Australia agree with the US Defence Secretary who said today that China’s actions in the South China Sea are out of step with both international rules and norms and that it must immediately halt its militarisation in the region?

JULIE BISHOP        Australia doesn’t take sides in maritime boundary disputes and we certainly haven’t taken sides in the South China Sea dispute. But if there are contested maritime boundaries then we believe they should be negotiated peacefully in accordance with international law and the international rules based order. Our interests in ensuring that negotiations are peaceful is that we want freedom of navigation as a fundamental principle and unimpeded travel. Much of our trade is through the seas to our north and so therefore it is in Australia’s national interest that there be peace and stability in our region and that includes in relation to contested maritime boundaries.

JOURNALIST          Do you think Australia would consider sending surveillance planes and war ships into the South China Sea as part of irregular patrols in the disputed region? Is that something we would ever do?

JULIE BISHOP        Would we ever do it? Well I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, 50,100 years down the track!

JOURNALIST          Is that something we are considering?

JULIE BISHOP        No we are not considering that. Australia abides by international laws when it comes to aviation, when it comes to shipping and we ensure that our voice is heard and that we call on other countries to likewise abide by the international rules based order.

JOURNALIST          Just on the citizenship laws, do you feel there is a breakdown in trust between yourself and the Prime Minister?

JULIE BISHOP        Absolutely not! What an extraordinary question. The Prime Minister and I work exceedingly closely together on all matters to do with counterterrorism, with foreign terrorist fighters. I’m a member of the National Security Committee. We work very closely on these issues and there have been a significant number of advances made by this Government because of the teamwork of those on the National Security Committee and those with portfolios that touch on terrorism related issues – the Attorney-General, the Immigration Minister, the Communications Minister. We all have a role to play and I think that the Abbott Government has shown great resolve and determination to keep our people safe from terrorism. That has included coordination with State Governments, between law enforcement agencies, with our intelligence agencies and with countries in our region and globally.

JOURNALIST          You mentioned the cooperation between Australia and South East Asian countries. If that cooperation isn’t increased do you think Australian lives could be put at risk?

JULIE BISHOP        I have no doubt that there will be stronger and closer cooperation. We are in fact hosting a regional summit in Sydney on the 11th and 12th of June and a number of representatives of countries in our region our attending. There is a high level of cooperation already. We do have bilateral and regional counterterrorism cooperation agreements in place already. My point is that given that the terrorist threat is increasing because the number of people going to Iraq and Syria is increasing we need closer and stronger cooperation. I’m not suggesting there is any lack of support for that view at all. Indeed we are very grateful to countries in our region for the work that they are undertaking to counter terrorism in their country and regionally.

JOURNALIST          … today in the newspaper about sons of jihadists, particularly from Indonesia that have gone to join the fight in either Iraq or Syria, that is really close to our soil, is that the sort of thing you will be talking about?

JULIE BISHOP        Well Australia believes that there are about 100 Australians who are fighting in Syria and Iraq at present, about 140 Australians that we know of supporting Da’esh, this terrorist organisation, back in Australia. The estimates are that there are about 200 Indonesians who are foreign terrorist fighters, so it is a significant issue and we are working closely with Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand with other countries in our region as well as regionally. And that was my point about why we are attending this coalition meeting in Paris this week, to reaffirm our commitment to work with coalition partners to defeat this terrorist organisation in whatever way we can and that includes ensuring that Australian Defence personnel are building the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces so they can take on Da’esh in that country, take back territory and protect the Iraqi people. And I say again, it is a criminal offence in Australia for any Australian citizen to seek to support, or advocate for, or fight with a terrorist organisation like Da’esh and it is punishable by penalties of up to 25 years imprisonment and Australians who think they are going over there for some noble cause are being seriously misled. This is a violent, barbarous organisation that is creating mayhem in the Middle East and Australians should not be part of it.

JOURNALIST          Minister did you leak details from these Cabinet meetings?

JULIE BISHOP        No. And any member of the press can confirm that for you. I did not speak to anyone about the Cabinet meeting on Monday.

JOURNALIST          What do you think should happen to those Ministers responsible for these extraordinary leaks?

JULIE BISHOP        Well only the media know who apparently leaked it so perhaps the media can tell us who it was and then we can start from there.

JOURNALIST          Do you get concerned about leaks like this when it comes to Cabinet or do you think it is just part of the political process?

JULIE BISHOP        Well I don’t think it is the first occasion in the history of Australian politics that there has been an apparent leak from a Cabinet meeting but the main point is this – we have a discussion paper, we have put it out for the Australian people to comment upon, the issue of citizenship is a very serious one – the rights and responsibilities of citizens is a matter that all Australians should take on board but in the context of countering terrorism we will look at whatever options are available to us, legal options that are available to us to ensure that we keep our people safe from terrorism.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555