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Howard Rushes Amendment To Counter Terrorism Legislation

Indefinite Article Wins The Day

‘The’ becomes ‘a’ in an urgent amendment the Federal Government is rushing through Parliament today. The rush to substitute the indefinite article for the definite article has been justified by claims of a ‘potential terrorist threat.’

Addressing a press conference late this morning, the Prime Minister, John Howard said: “The reason for this amendment is that the Government has received specific intelligence and police information this week which gives cause for serious concern about a potential terrorist threat.”

Howard said: “All the detail of this information has been provided by me and the Attorney General to the Leader of the Opposition and to the Shadow Minister for Homeland Security. The Government is satisfied on the advice provided to it that the immediate passage of this amendment would strengthen the capacity of the law enforcement agencies to effectively respond to this threat. We are acting of course, against the background of the assessment of intelligence agencies reported in the annual ASIO report.”

The Labor Opposition has announced that it will support the amendment.

The legislation was presented to the House of Representatives following a noisy Question Time dominated by the Industrial Relations legislation which was also presented to the Parliament for the first time this morning.

  • Listen to the Full House of Representatives Debate On The Terrorism Amendment Legislation (45m)

This is the transcript of the joint press conference held at Parliament House, Canberra, by the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen the Attorney General and I have called this news conference to announce that after Question Time today the Attorney General will introduce into the House an urgent amendment to the existing Counter Terrorism Legislation. We will seek passage of that amendment through all stages this evening. The President of the Senate will recall the Senate to meet tomorrow afternoon at 2pm and it’s the Government’s wish that this amendment be passed into law as soon as possible.

The amendment, the detail of which I’ll circulate in a moment with my statement, the amendment is currently part of the Counter Terrorism Legislation that has been in negotiation with the States. It is thus far been a quite uncontroversial amendment. It’s an amendment that effectively substitutes the definite article describing a terrorist act with the indefinite article. In other words, a ’the’ be replaced by an ‘a’. Let me say that the reason for this amendment is that the Government has received specific intelligence and police information this week which gives cause for serious concern about a potential terrorist threat. All the detail of this information has been provided by me and the Attorney General to the Leader of the Opposition and to the Shadow Minister for Homeland Security. The Government is satisfied on the advice provided to it that the immediate passage of this amendment would strengthen the capacity of the law enforcement agencies to effectively respond to this threat. We are acting of course, against the background of the assessment of intelligence agencies reported in the annual ASIO report.

Late yesterday afternoon I had a telephone hook-up with all of the Premiers. I explained as best I could, given the operational constraints, some of the detail which had been provided to the Government, and they immediately agreed to the passage of this amendment. And they were very supportive and I have indicated to them that the Government would, depending upon continuing operational advice, decide today whether to go ahead with this amendment, and we have so decided to go ahead. And we will introduce it after Question Time.

This amendment is being taken out of the main bill. The main bill will be processed in the normal fashion. It will not be subject to this great urgency. As it happens, agreement is very close indeed and could well be concluded by today. And it may be that the bill, the main bill could be introduced very shortly. But that is separate and apart. The urgency attaches only to this particular amendment. You will understand that there are sensitive operational matters and I cannot and will not go into any further detail. I have provided, let me repeat all of the intelligence I have received this week on this issue, I have provided to the Leader of the Opposition and to the Shadow Minister for Homeland Security. They are in possession of as much information on this as I am. And in those circumstances, that is a matter for them as to how the Opposition responds. I do not seek in any way to speak for the Opposition. They are quite capable of doing that themselves. They are the sole reasons that I can give and will give and I hope that you and the Australian public will understand the reasons why we are doing what we’re doing.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister will that trigger, once this amendment is enacted, is that likely to trigger a definite action. Are you expecting an action by police…(inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

The amendment will not alter the independent action of law enforcement authorities. I’m not, look, I am not going to speculate on what – could I finish? I am not going to speculate on what the law enforcement authorities will do on an operational matter. I do not talk about operational matters. We have seen material. It is a cause of concern. We have been given advice that if this amendment is enacted as soon as possible, the capacity of the authorities to respond will be strengthened. And I am satisfied on what I have been told and the Government and the National Security Committee Ministers in Cabinet are satisfied that that is the case. But I do not intend, and cannot, and will not go into any of the operational details.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) these gravest or most significant threat that Australia

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I am simply not going to get in. That is commentary which I am not going to engage in.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) threat on Australian soil given that you are…….

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to say anything more than I have said.

JOURNALIST:

When did you become aware of this threat?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well obviously Australian laws apply to Australian territory.

JOURNALIST:

But this is a threat Prime Minister that you’ve only just become aware of, this week or?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have said that this intelligence was received this week.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) domestic or overseas?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

Was the intelligence domestic or overseas?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don’t go into that, the source of intelligence you never go into.

JOURNALIST:

When did you speak to the Opposition Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I spoke to the Leader of the Opposition first, I’ve spoken to him twice, I’ve had two meetings with the Leader of the Opposition, I spoke to him last night – I spoke to him last night, I think it was probably about 7.30pm last night and he had Mr Bevis with him and I had the Attorney General with me and I spoke to both of them this morning, Mr Bevis and Mr Beazley.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister what…

PRIME MINISTER:

I have endeavoured to extend all the courtesies that are appropriate in a situation such as this to the Leader of the Opposition. I have provided him and I have shown him the security assessment that had been shown, given to me. Beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

Was he understanding of the situation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don’t think it’s fair of me to presume to speak for the Leader of the Opposition, I don’t intend to say anything about our discussion, that’s a matter for him, I would only ever say something about our discussion if I thought in some way it were being misrepresented.

JOURNALIST:

What is the provision to which the indefinite and definite articles are swapped. What does the sentence say?

PRIME MINISTER:

The constitution of a terrorist offence.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister apart from intelligence that you’ve received have you had meetings with ASIO, defence officials, police…

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not going to talk about who I’ve met. I am sorry.

JOURNALIST:

Is there any contingency in place?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I can’t, and I don’t want to overstate the situation but I don’t want to understate it, I can’t say any more without straying into matters that are truly operational.

JOURNALIST:

Does this necessitate an increase in the terror threat level in Australia Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

If we received advice to that effect which we have not received, we would respond appropriatly to that advice.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do you expect action to follow from this change?

PRIME MINISTER:

The question of whether action is taken is a matter for the agencies not the Government. The police act independently and the agencies act independently. It is not a question of the Government directing the police as to the conduct of their duties, it is the responsibility of the Government and the Parliament to respond when credible advice is given that a legislative change could strengthen the capacity of the authorities to deal with a situation. Now that is the basis on which we are acting with urgency.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister how worried should Australians be at this intelligence and you’re moving of this urgent amendment?

PRIME MINISTER:

I ask my fellow Australians to understand that we are doing everything we can in a difficult situation to protect the public, I don’t want to over alarm people equally I have said for a long time that the possibility of an attack in this country is there, that was repeated in the ASIO report, it is a view that I saw the leader of the Opposition quite correctly express on television last night. This is not a political issue, this is something where I hope the parliament can act in a united fashion in the public interest.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, is it reasonable for the Australian public to expect that some of our anti-terror laws, some of our response resources are now on stand by?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I am not going to start answering questions, I am sorry, with respect Geoff I mean no rudeness or discourtesy to you, I am simply not going to stray into that .I know you want a word here and there that sort of provides this or that but it’s a bit too serious for playing word games.

JOURNALIST:

Did these amendments require the consultation of the State and Territory leaders or was that just a courtesy in this instance?

PRIME MINISTER:

No it did, because it in part is an amendment based on a power that is the subject of a reference and one of the conditions of the reference was that you needed four states or territories in order to amend. But I would nonetheless have, even if there were some doubt about that I think in these matters you should extend the courtesies where there has been a general involvement of the states.

JOURNALIST:

Is the threat specific in nature Prime Minister (inaudible) or is it generally against Australia and Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not saying any more – I am not saying any more…

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) or should they be watching out for any particular (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

(inaudible) public matter I know in the time honoured and wonderful Australian fashion we will go about their lives and continue to enjoy themselves as I encourage them to do.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard the NSW Premier has said that you’ve reached an agreement on…

PRIME MINISTER:

You are talking about the rest, yes. Yes I think we have in principal, there are a few details to be worked out, I’m actually quite optimistic now that we have reached agreement on all of the outstanding issues. I don’t want to commit myself to a time or rather commit the Attorney General to a time as far as the actual introduction of the bill is concerned but we, as well as discussing this matter I have just talked about we went a lot way in relation to the bill but let me emphasise, the amendment is being taken out of the bill because the whole bill itself will obviously be subject to a much lengthier debate and so forth than this individual amendment.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Ruddock, have you reached final agreement with the backbench committee as well?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:

The backbench has had very considerable input and we’ll see when we go to the Party meeting. I think most of the issues have been resolved, but I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive.

JOURNALIST:

…in this wording.

PRIME MINISTER:

Can you just let him finish. Can you just sort of let Phillip finish.

JOURNALIST:

… ‘the’ with a ‘a’, without…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m putting out a statement.

JOURNALIST:

Yeah, but without going into the detail, does that relate to the nature of a threat or the nature of a network or organisation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you just have a look at the context of it and you’ll understand.

JOURNALIST:

Will it allow people to force it to take action before an act…

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I’m not getting into that Dennis. That is an operational assessment. I have received, the Government has been advised, that on the basis of this information that this amendment will strengthen the capacity of the authorities to respond. And given the context and my understanding and the Government’s understanding of the background, that seems proper, sound and correct advice and therefore the Government is following it. But I’m not guaranteeing that this or that is going to happen. That is a matter for continuing operational assessment.

JOURNALIST:

Notwithstanding the operational sensitivities, do you understand Australians could be frustrated, even angry, that you’re drawing to our attention an alert, specific intelligence of a threat, but not giving any geographical…

PRIME MINISTER:

David, I understand that but you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. If you go into a lot of detail and you wreck the operation the Australian public will not forgive you. Okay? Now in those situations I have no alternative but to say to my fellow Australians we have received information, we have been told by the authorities that their capacity to deal with it will be strengthened by this change to the law. I have discussed it with the alternative prime minister, I’ve given him access to the same material that’s come my way and I’m asking the Australian public and the Australian Parliament to accept that we are acting in a bona fide way to do the right thing by the country. Now I can’t go into any more detail because if I do I might weaken the capacity of authorities to respond. Now you know and people who follow intelligence matters know that this is the enteral dilemma.

People ask for more information, that’s understandable, that’s your job and I respect that, but the more information that is provided the more difficulty there is in maintaining the effectiveness of the operation and I would be very uncomfortable to say the least if I said something that compromised the operations of our agencies which are doing their level best, at both a federal and a state level, to deal with these matters and I want to place on record my thanks to the Premiers for their cooperation in relation to this issue. I couldn’t have asked for more cooperation in relation to this particular matter than I have received from the Premiers. I think we can have two more questions, as we’re going round and round in circles and we’re just getting new combinations of the same question and the same answer. And can we have somebody who I haven’t had before? Can we have Mr Hartcher and then Mr Brissenden and then we’ll go and have some lunch.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the fact that you’re only seeking the urgent passage of this one particular amendment to strength operational capability implies that the rest of the bill is not required and will not have the effect of strengthening operational capability. Is that correct?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t care to comment on that. That’s, you can make whatever judgement you like. I mean I have given you the reason why we’re asking for urgent passage of this legislation, I’ve explained to you and I have through you to the Australian people why I can’t go into any more detail. I’ve explained the detail of it in full to the Leader of the Opposition. I have given some of the detail, as much as I can, on a telephone hook up to the Premiers of the States. I can’t go further, I’m not going to become a commentator on what this or that implies, I’m not getting into that. You make those judgements.That’s a matter for you. I won’t and I can’t.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, until now not all of the States and Territories have agreed to sign up to the wider legislation, the whole field. Did they all agree to this amendment and is that agreement likely to influence the outcome of the…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I won’t try and answer the second question. That is a matter for them and a matter for your commentary and assessment. But the answer to the first question is yes they did. All of them quickly after I had explained the situation agreed that it was the appropriate thing to do.

Thank you.

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