JOURNALIST: I want to talk about reports in the West Australian and in News Corp newspapers this morning that a whole bunch of characters, people who have left Australia and taken up arms in Syria and Iraq on the side of ISIS are now returning to this country. Now, that’s a problem that the government has foreseen, they’ve been aware of this for a while. They’ve been anticipating it, how are they managing it though? Let’s find out with the Acting Prime Minister of Australia, Julie Bishop. Good morning. This issue of foreign fighters returning, we’ve spoken about it in the past, you’ve warned that this is a looming issue, it does appear though that there are people, potentially dangerous people, walking the streets in Australia.
JULIE BISHOP: Gareth, as the Coalition has more success in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there has always been a concern that the foreign terrorist fighters who have taken part in the conflict there, they seek to return home, that means to our region and also to Australia. We believe that some 40 foreign terrorist fighters have returned to Australia, some are being held in detention, others are being monitored, and that’s why we’re working so closely with other partners in the region to detect and monitor those who survive the conflict in Syria and Iraq and seek to return home.
JOURNALIST: So some are in detention, can you say how many?
JULIE BISHOP: I won’t go into the details Gareth, but we are aware of the 40 that have returned over time. They are all being monitored, some are being held in detention. I obviously have to keep certain information confidential on the basis of security and the concerns we have there, but I have been speaking for some time about the challenge of ensuring that we monitor and track all of those who have fought for a terrorist organisation in the Middle East and are seeking to return home.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident that the Government has a handle on all of the people who are in that category who might be back in Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: The Government is working very hard with our security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to ensure that they have the resources and the legislative backing to carry out the work they need to do to keep us safe. I’m assured that our people have tracked the 40 who have returned, are being held in detention, or being monitored more generally. But it’s an ongoing process, we have to ensure that others that seek to come to Australia to carry out attacks here, we work with our equivalent partners in Indonesia and Malaysia and elsewhere to ensure that anyone who has been working with, or supporting, or fighting for a terrorist organisations is monitored and tracked.
JOURNALIST: Is there a process of sort of intervention with people to ask them about what their attitudes are towards the cause that they were fighting for? Whether it’s something that they seek to continue, or cause they continue to pursue in Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: ….ask questions of those who have been overseas, gathering evidence is very difficult as you could imagine. We don’t have an Embassy in Syria for example. The situation in Iraq has been very complex, but where we are able to detain people we of course seek to interview them.
JOURNALIST: When we have discussed this issue in the past on the programme, many listeners have made the point or I guess asked the question, why is it that we have to let those people back into the country? Is there any way that they can have their passports revoked? The government has talked about those sorts of things, what’s the situation?
JULIE BISHOP: We have revoked passports in the past. I have the authority to take away a person’s passport based on the advice of our intelligence agencies and so that does occur. I have removed passports from people who are seeking to go overseas and we believe join with, or fight with a terrorist organisation. So we are actively involved in tracking their movements and doing what we can to keep Australians safe.
JOURNALIST: Okay, what’s the situation in the Philippines with Marawi where we know that ISIS siege took place for many months. It’s sort of right in our backyard, it’s flown a little bit under the radar, is there a concern that the Philippines could emerge as a regional base for ISIS by terrorists?
JULIE BISHOP: We have been concerned for some time that as the coalition to defeat ISIS had more success in Syria and Iraq, that ISIS would seek to set up a headquarters, a caliphate elsewhere and there was a concern that in the Philippines, in Marawi, ISIS or terrorists supporting ISIS would seek to take advantage of the volatility in the region and join up with existing criminal networks and militants and others fighting in the southern Philippines. In fact, there was a self styled Emir, a head of ISIS by the name of Hapilon Isnilon and he self-styled himself as the head of ISIS but he was then killed in Marawi, as were other terrorists, but the Philippines government is making significant progress in defeating these fighters in Marawi. In fact, in recent times the Australian Government has provided even more support to help train the Philippines army to deal with this kind of countering surge in in urban warfare that’s being undertaken by these ISIS inspired fighters.
JOURNALIST: With your Foreign Minister’s hat on, in the early hours of this morning there has been another incident overseas, in New York, it appears as though it is a terrorist motivated attack, that’s what the authorities in New York have said. It’s a van that appears to have driven into pedestrians. The latest we have is that eight people have been killed, 12 injured. Do you have any information about that attack as we go to air?
JULIE BISHOP: I have spoken to our Consul General in New York and our authorities here are in touch with authorities in the United States. It appears to have the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, but we are still waiting for confirmation from the authorities in the US. It is Halloween in the United States, according to our Consul General here are children everywhere in the streets, there was going to be a parade down Sixth Avenue, so there are many people in Manhattan at present. The State Department has advised us that at this stage, they do not believe any Australians are affected, but the situation is still unfolding and some reports are still to be verified. We have accounted for all our consular staff in New York, and we have confirmed that they are safe, but the details of this are unfolding.
JOURNALIST: Okay, closer to home and to sort of domestic political issues, there was I think some belief that perhaps the worst of the citizenship crisis may have passed, albeit that the former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was facing a by-election. Now it emerges that Stephen Parry, the President of the Senate, a Liberal Senator, has serious reason to question whether he in fact is caught up in this whole mess. Should Stephen Parry have come forward some months ago? He clearly had suspicions that he may be a British citizen.
JULIE BISHOP: I have spoken to Stephen Parry and he believed that he was an Australian citizen, as was his father. But when he read the High Court decision last Friday he sought advice to clarify his position and he’s still awaiting that advice.
JOURNALIST: Okay, but he obviously had….what are you suggesting that Stephen Parry first became aware he might have had a problem after the High Court challenge? Because it sounded to me as though he was fully aware that he might have h ad a problem, but wanted to wait and see what the High Court did.
JULIE BISHOP: Well there have been numerous changes to our citizenship laws since the Constitution was adopted in 1901. It’s a very complex area, particularly on dual citizenship. Section 44, the relevant section of the Constitution has now been clarified and members and senators current and prospective must comply with it. But the important thing is the government retains 75 of the 149 seats in the House of Representatives. We have sufficient crossbench support to ensure that we have supply, we can guarantee supply, that is the funds that support the functioning of government and the crossbench continue to give us the confidence that we need of the House. So the work of the Parliament goes on. Barnaby Joyce is seeking to return to Parliament though a by-election and we are very hopeful that he will receive strong support from the people of New England and then the composition of the House of Representatives will be back as it was after the last election.
As for Senators, those found to be ineligible will be replaced through an established process that doesn’t require another vote, appointed through casual vacancies, or through recounts of votes at the last election.
Senator Parry understood that he was an Australian citizen, when he read the High Court decision he sought advice and he’s now still awaiting that advice.
JOURNALIST: Okay and he said he will resign if it comes back that he is a British citizen. You say the work of the Parliament goes on, but the public regard this, surely, as very unsatisfactory. It’s got to be time, doesn’t it, for the major parties to just bite the bullet and order some sort of audit here of all MPs so we don’t continue to get this drip feed of surprises.
JULIE BISHOP: Well obviously the Government didn’t plan to be in this situation and would prefer not to be, but we do retain the 75 seats in the House of Representatives and the work of the Parliament will go on. The High Court has now given reasons clarifying Section 44 and everyone has a responsibility to ensure that they are eligible……
JOURNALIST: Okay, but why not call an audit?
JULIE BISHOP: Because each person is now able to read the details of Section 44 and each person can take the personal responsibility to ensure that they are eligible to be a member of Parliament, or a Senator.
JOURNALIST: Is the honour system effective enough, because again the revelations keep dripping out?
JULIE BISHOP: Well I’m not aware of any other person, they haven’t raised it with me. It is a matter of personal responsibility to ensure that you are eligible to stand in the Parliament. Now I’m not aware of any Labor, or Green, or other Liberal National members who might be in this position, but they have a responsibility to ensure that they are eligible to sit in the Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop, you are Acting Prime Minister this week, I presume you are enjoying that role. I know you’ve been asked about this already this week whether you have aspirations for the top job and you said you’re happy with the job that you’re doing as Foreign Minister. Do you rule out any tilt at becoming Prime Minister?
JULIE BISHOP: Gareth, I love the job that I’m doing. I’m Foreign Minister, Deputy Leader of the Party, I stood to be elected as Deputy Leader within our Party room on numerous occasions, and I’ve been honoured with the support of my colleagues as Deputy Leader and that will continue. I’m happy in this role.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop, thanks for your time this morning.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure, thanks Gareth.
- Ends -
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555