Press Conference with Mr Michael Phelan APM, Acting Commissioner, Australian Federal Police

06 Jun 2017
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister
Melbourne shooting, London terrorism, Foreign political donations, Espionage, The Finkel Report, Schools, NDIS
Defence and National Security


Good morning. I’m joined this morning by the Acting Federal Police Commissioner Mike Phelan.

The events in Brighton in Melbourne last night, coming so soon after the attack in London, have shocked all Australians.

This terrorist attack by a known criminal, a man who was only recently released on parole, is a shocking, cowardly crime. It is a terrorist attack and it underlines the need for us to be constantly vigilant, never to be deterred, always defiant, in the face of Islamist terrorism.

Now, I want to say how much all Australians admire and thank the Victoria Police for their decisive and courageous intervention. They responded swiftly and they, as they always do, as our police and security services and the ADF do, they put their lives on the line to keep us safe.

Three police officers were injured and we wish them a speedy recovery, as the Victorian Police Commissioner has confirmed the injuries are not life threatening.

They killed the offender swiftly and therefore brought the incident to an end.

He killed a receptionist in the block of serviced apartments and we offer our condolences to the victim's family in the wake of that shocking murder.

Now, there is a major investigation going on at the moment. There is a lot about this incident that is not known. But we do know it was a terrorist attack and he has claimed, the offender claimed that quite specifically.

Now, I have had briefings from my security chiefs - Counter Terrorism Coordinator, from Acting Police Commissioner Phelan, the director-general of ASIO, and with senior colleagues.

What is clear here is that we face a growing threat from Islamist terrorism in Australia in our region and around the world. We will continue to defy it and we will continue to defeat it. We have the best law-enforcement agencies in the world, the best security services in the world and our ADF, the best in the world, all of them working together to keep us safe.

But there are some very, very grave questions.

And I have raised these today with the Victorian Premier, whom I called last night and I called again this morning.

How was this man on parole?

He had a long record of violence. A very long record of violence. He had been charged with a terrorist offence some years ago and had been acquitted. He was known to have connections, at least in the past, with violent extremism. But he was a known violent offender. How was he on parole?

Now at the COAG meeting with Premiers and Chief Ministers later this week, we will be, as I have arranged, we will be getting a report from my Counter Terrorism Coordinator and we will be discussing a number of issues relating to our response to terrorism including the protection of places of mass gathering, which has been a key priority work that is going on at the moment.

But this issue of parole has to be addressed.

There have been too many cases of people on parole committing violent offences of this kind.

Now, I have raised these important issues, counter terrorism issues with premiers before.

My government has taken the lead in keeping Australians safe.

Shortly after I became Prime Minister, I went to COAG and I asked Premiers to provide support, which they did, to put in place a post-sentence detention regime so that people who have been convicted of serious terrorist offences, or terrorism offences and are found not to be, not to have rehabilitated and are found to be a continuing threat can be detained in prison after the expiry of their sentence. That is a very important measure.

We now need to address this issue of parole. That will be a high priority at the COAG meeting.

We have also, as you know, given the ADF the ability to kill terrorists in the field in the Middle East, whether they are in a combatant role or not. Prior to that legislation being passed they were limited in the circumstances they could target terrorists in the field.

And of course, in addition to other legal changes we have provided record funding to the Australian Federal Police so that it has the means, the resources, to investigate and deal with the new threats, criminal threats, that we face, right across the board.

So, I will ask the Acting Commissioner to speak about, to say a few words about the operational matters and then take your questions.

I would say, also, in respect of the London attack, there are two Australians - one of whom’s names has been in the press today, about whom we have real concerns. We are working diligently in London with the police and other authorities there and of course, staying in very close contact with their families as we seek to confirm the circumstances relating to those two Australians.


Thank you Prime Minister.

As most of you will have heard this morning, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Graham Ashton outlined details of the operation so I won't go into a lot of that detail but I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

But the first thing I’d like to say is the thoughts of the Australian Federal Police, and indeed, all police around the country, go out to the families and the family of the innocent person that was killed in this very tragic event.

And also from the whole policing family across this country, our thoughts go out to the families as well as the three individual officers who were shot during yesterday’s incident.

It just goes to show how dangerous law enforcement activities are in this day and age, in this country.

I’d also like to reiterate that the events that happened yesterday do demonstrate that the threat from terrorism is real in this country.

We have seen a number of attacks now since the threat level was raised to high and now changed to probable in September 2014. 12 successful disruptions and now five CT incidents. So the threat is real.

And it is important for all of us in the community and as part of law enforcement that we have as much information as we can to be able to disrupt activities.

The national security hot line plays a very important role in that. So anybody out there in the community that has any information, no matter how minuscule you think it is, or unimportant, let us join the dots and let us put things together. That number of course is 1800 123 400.

And I’m happy to answer any operational questions.


Mr Turnbull, the Victorian parole system, so to speak, failed Jill Meagher – the young lady who was murdered by a parolee. Are your concerns with the Victorian parole system just confined to terrorism or more broadly?


You mentioned Jill Meagher's case, but there have been other cases as well.

It is clear that this is a real issue where people with known records of violence and, including people with known terrorist connections or at least connections with extremists have been released on parole.

So, yes, this is an issue that I will be raising and discussing with the Premiers on Friday.


Prime Minister, a number of the - obviously in the case of Monis and this case and the case of the London terrorist attack, people were known to police, those perpetrators were known to police beforehand. It is a point you have just been making. Are police now going back and reviewing the list of those people who have been determined by previous assessment to represent a known threat?


Well, from our point, I will ask the Acting Commissioner to add to this, but from the point of view of the federal government, and our agencies, we are constantly reviewing the threat environment and working very closely, naturally, with state police in all of those matters.

As you saw, with Commissioner Ashton, the Federal Police is represented there. It is a dual powered operation – a joint counter-terrorism operation, but perhaps, Commissioner, you can add to that?


Thank you Prime Minister.

In our country, there is a threat, okay. It is a - all of the targets, or those that are under consideration is done on a priority basis. The JCTTs around the country, so the front line in terms of criminal investigation and plot disruption, currently has in excess of 70 ongoing operations throughout the country.

In addition to that, there are - and the Director General of Security has put on public record the 200 people that they are looking at. In addition to that, on another outer ring so to speak, are those that have come to attention for one part or other, either association and so on, in each of the state jurisdictions that is monitored by their equivalent of their intelligence units and in the case of Victoria, that is in the hundreds.

So this is where people fit on that list. We are constantly putting people under review, depending on the amount intelligence that comes through, the actual investigations that are ongoing, so if someone comes up as part of that, a peripheral target, phone numbers come up, those sort of things, then people get reassessed. This is how the process works. It is not a stagnant process that does not move. People move in and out of the outer rings based upon the threat at any given time.


PM are you saying the only way you’d get certainty with these people with known terrorist links is to either detain them indefinitely or maybe deport them? Because once they are on parole, there is just unknown unknowns.


The critical thing with this case, and recognising this is early days and the investigation is going on, what we do know about the offender in this particular case is that he had a long record of violence - violent offending. He had been an accused in a terrorism prosecution, although he had been acquitted. He was in prison for offences of violence and was released on parole and he had, we understand, offended while in prison.

The question to be asked is this, following on a number of other cases, is why was he on parole?

The same question was asked about Man Monis, you will recall.

So these are important issues and Australians need to be assured that people who are a threat to their safety are not being released on parole when clearly, this person - it is - well, we will - more investigations and explanations will be given, but it is plainly - it is very hard, I think, to understand why he was released on parole given the nature of his record and the nature of his offence.


Prime Minister was this man an Australian citizen?




How concerned are you about copycat incidents and is any consideration being given to raising the alert level?


Two points. Are we concerned about copycats? Yes, absolutely.

That is one of the reasons why, as soon as after the Nice truck attack, I asked our counter-terrorism coordinator to swiftly work with premiers, and I spoke to a number of the premiers at the time to review all of our arrangements for protecting places of mass gathering.

I mean, the terrorists and other criminals use different attack vectors.

Now, we have been successful in keeping terrorists out of aeroplanes, but since - you know, the cockpit of aeroplanes - since 9/11, but anyone can get access to a motor vehicle or a truck.

So we have seen that, as a very common attack, frequent attack vector. We have seen it in London just recently. And of course, in Melbourne, while it was not a - in the Bourke Street attack - while that was not a terrorist related incident, again, you saw the damage that a vehicle can do.

So protecting places of mass gathering is obviously vitally important. That is the work that has been going on at the moment and actions and initiatives have already been taken.

But all of these attacks, particularly given the way they are reported, you know, across the world, all run the risk of promoting other copycat incidents.

And that is why with every development in the sick pathology of terrorism, wherever it occurs we have to learn from it. We must be always more agile than those who seek to do us harm. We have outstanding police, outstanding intelligence and security services and, of course, in the field the Australian Defence Force is taking the fight up to and destroying ISIL with our allies and partners in the field.

I might ask the Commissioner - do you want to add to that point?


We are always concerned about copycats and to that end, even during the evening I was in constant contact with the Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police but also in contact with police commissioner colleagues around the country and making sure that all the intelligence that was coming and information coming from this investigation is being passed around to all the state jurisdictions so everybody is on the same page, there are no knowledge gaps between any of the state police force, federal police, ASIO, and indeed the operational agency where it is happening on the ground at the moment.


Are there lessons to be learnt from the way in which police in London responded so swiftly to that attack? They responded within eight minutes. Is there any confidence in Australia that our forces can respond so quickly? Are there things that they are doing in London that we should be considering doing in Australia?


The first thing, the difference of course between the London police and ourselves, the law enforcement agencies throughout this country is that we are all armed.

So in an event similar to London where people are armed with edged weapons, then the first responders are most likely uniformed patrols from the state police and they are equipped to be able to deal with situations like that.

There is active armed offender training going on throughout the whole country for all law enforcement agencies where the aim is to contain and neutralise the threat. If that means using deadly force, then deadly force is utilised in particular occasions.

So that’s where it makes it different.

In terms of our specialist response, that high-end tactical response, the Victoria Police were there very swiftly last night, as indeed they are in most jurisdictions. It is normally cordoned and contained first if they need to, if it’s not an active shooter. If there is an active shooter, the protocols are that they go in and try and neutralise the threat. If it is cordoned by uniformed patrols, then the special operations groups or their equivalents come in and deal with the situation accordingly.

But each situation must be dealt with on its own merits. There is not one particular situation that fits every case.


Prime Minister, how concerning were the revelations on Four Corners last night? Does Sam Dastyrari have questions to answer? And should foreign political donations be banned?


The answer is yes he does and clearly he should. I committed earlier in the year at the Press Club in fact, to ban foreign political donations. That work is ongoing and legislation will be prepared to do that.


Just very briefly, was there any consideration this morning in briefings to lift the terror threat?


The threat level is under constant review and it has not been changed. The advice we have from the Victoria Police - and that’s confirmed by the Acting Commissioner, he can add to this - is that this act, this terrorist attack, the understanding is at this time that it’s not part of a coordinated attack. There were not others involved. I think that is the advice we have.


That’s right. At the moment the threat level is at probable, which is exactly that - an event is probable, that it will occur.

To raise it to the next level means that we have very specific intelligence that a specific event will occur. We do not have that intelligence. At the moment there is no suggestion that this matter will expand further.

Having said that, we want to be careful. There are still search warrants going on at the person's residence. The crime scene is still being secured. We have all the electronic data in the possession of the person of interest. At the moment we’ve got to go through all that.

So a lot of the questions you have been asking around the actual investigation – what was the motivation, all those things et cetera - will hopefully come out once we examine all of that material.


Can I just reinforce what the Acting Commissioner has said - this is always a very dynamic environment. So our agencies, our intelligence agencies, security agencies, our police are working in real time. And so when we, as the Commissioner just said, when we present an assessment, that is as it is known at the moment. And facts, circumstances, as new facts emerge then the assessment may change.


Prime Minister could you give us your assessment of how big a threat do you believe espionage and foreign interference is in Australia and what does your government intend to do about it?


Yes, the answer is any threats to our sovereignty are very serious.

Early last month, in early May, I asked the Attorney-General to review our espionage laws, to review our laws relating to the activities of foreign governments in Australia and he is going to present a report on that as to what changes we may need to make.

But we take it very, very seriously.

The sovereignty of Australia, the sovereignty of our democratic processes, free from foreign interference is a matter of the highest concern.

It goes across a whole range of areas including, of course, the cyber domain. You would have seen last week, I had gathered together, with Dan Tehan the Minister assisting me on cyber security, the heads of the major telcos and a number of the big social media platforms, including Facebook, to discuss how we ensure that we are proofed from cyber threats, including from cyber interference of the kind that was seen in the US election and indeed, as newly-elected French President Macron said occurred during the French election.

These are matters - again, we are not reacting. This is part of my very proactive approach to these matters of security. We set out a cybersecurity strategy over a year ago. Again, it is a very high priority of my government.

We do not wait for threats to emerge, we anticipate them and make sure that we are putting in place the measures to keep Australians safe and also to keep our democracy secure and to maintain its integrity.


Prime Minister, on direct threats to Australian citizens from a foreign government – the takeover of Chinese language media, the activity of student groups - did you raise this with the Chinese?


We’ve certainly, I’ve always stated, and I said it in my speech in Singapore in fact, that just as modern China was based on an assertion of national sovereignty, so China should always respect the sovereignty of other nations including, of course, our own.


Prime Minister you’ve declared this an act of terrorism even though there doesn’t appear to have a coordinated or group aspect to it. Can we just get a concise, clear definition of what exactly constitutes an act of terrorism and how it differs from an individual act of violence? 


Well, an act of terrorism, in a nutshell, is politically motivated violence. But in this case the offender stated that he was doing this on behalf of ISIL and Al-Qaeda.


Yes that’s right - he made those clear in a phone call to Channel Seven.


It’s been a long time since you’ve had anything approaching bipartisanship on climate change. Are you enthused by Bill Shorten's comments that he may be prepared to look at whatever you cough up on the back of Finkel? 


Well let’s wait and see. I’m glad you are ending the press conference on an optimistic note but I won't speculate about that.

But you know, in terms of bipartisanship, there are a number of other measures where I know Mr Shorten's shadow cabinet would like him to be more bipartisan. 

He should be supporting our schools policy, which is genuine needs-based school funding as designed by and endorsed by David Gonski.

And he should be supporting our commitment to fully fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme by increasing the Medicare levy by 0.5 per cent - precisely the measure, precisely the approach of course he urged on the Coalition a few years ago.

So if Mr Shorten wishes to engage in some bipartisanship, he could do so in those areas and he would, so we believe, do so with the support of three quarters of his shadow cabinet.

Thank you very much.