Press Conference - Parliament House, ACT

02 Dec 2019
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you for coming together. Foreign interference has been an evolving threat for some years now. It's a threat that our Government has been addressing with stronger laws, stronger powers, greater resources. Over the last few months, on the advice of our agencies, we have worked to establish a countering foreign interference task force which brings together the key agencies to focus our efforts even more greatly on this evolving threat. That ensures that we will be developing new specialist capabilities both from an investigatory capacity as well as being able to pursue investigations and bring them to either disrupt activity or, indeed, follow through and prosecute. This Taskforce to counter foreign interference is about identifying it, disrupting and prosecuting. And that builds on, I think, the outstanding work of our agencies over many years. As I move around at various international fora, one of the key issues that other leaders raise with me is they inquire into how Australia has been able to move so successfully in both identifying, calling out and taking action to counter foreign interference. It's an issue that is presenting in many other jurisdictions, and Australia is seen as a world leader in this area. That is recognised from my perspective purely by the volume of inquiries that are made to me about these issues as we move around, particularly with our close partners. 

Foreign interference comes from many, many different sources and it's important that we have the capacity to deal with it. It's an evolving threat and it's also been a building and evolving response. Since we came to Government, we have put in an additional $3.1 billion into ASIO and AFP to deal with the many threats that Australia faces, including this one. And I want to commend the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, on his leadership of that agenda and ensuring that we're always staying ahead of this and leading the way on this working closely across all of our agencies to ensure that we get the result that Australians expect of us in keeping them safe, keeping Australia safe and most importantly protecting our democracy and our society. Peter.

THE HON. PETER DUTTON MP, MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thanks very much, PM. This is an $87.8 million investment into our agencies. We know that for decades, foreign interference has been an issue in our country, like it is in any other democracy, and we want to make sure that we protect our institutions. There's a lot of work that we have done with the higher education sector, for instance. There's work we have been doing behind the scenes for a long period of time. So this investment will go into, obviously, ASIO, the AFP, as well as AUSTRAC, ASD, the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation and ONI as well. It is a significant investment and as the Prime Minister rightly points out, it's on the back of significant investment we have made over a period of time, not just financially, but in terms of the laws that the agencies can work with to try and deal with the issue of foreign interference. I want to commend the work of Mike Burgess and before him Duncan Lewis as well as the work of the Australian Federal Police now under Reece Kershaw, before that with Andrew Colvin. All of the front-line officers work on a daily basis, whether it’s in the area of counter-terrorism, in the area of countering foreign interference or many other threats that the Prime Minister alluded to a moment ago that they deal with day and night. This will bolster their capacity to deal with the issue of foreign interference and we have always listened to our agencies about changes to the law that may be required, about further investments that may be needed, and that's exactly what we're doing here today.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what will be done that wasn't being done before? What will the money be spent on? We’re talking more headcount across these agencies or we talking more powerful computer systems? What exactly is the money going to?

PRIME MINISTER: Obviously, there are some elements of this that we can't go into precise detail about for obvious reasons. We're not about to give a heads-up to those who would seek to interfere in Australia's arrangements. But I alluded to in my remarks the development of specialist capabilities. We have the ability to develop a response force here that can really set the standard globally in understanding how foreign interference takes place, understanding how to disrupt it most successfully and to counter it, and ultimately to be able to put yourself in a position where you can take matters to prosecution. Now, in some cases, it would involve the Minister acting in his capacity to be expelling those who shouldn't be in this country if they have acted in this way. As you know, we have already taken some decisions along those lines. So this is an evolution of our capability that has been building. This threat has been evolving and we have been staying ahead of it by building that capability now over many years and most recently, this initiative which improves the collaboration, ensures that the tools they have are world-class and they can work together to identify, disrupt and prosecute.

JOURNALIST: When the most recent example of alleged foreign interference is fully investigated, that is interference in the Liberal Party preselection process in Chisholm, which has been alluded to publicly by ASIO, do you intend to release the result of that investigation or have ASIO release it?

THE HON. PETER DUTTON MP, MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Well, Michelle, obviously the Director-General, Mr Burgess, put out a statement in relation to these matters. I would expect he would have a subsequent statement to make but that's an issue for him, but as you'd expect, they're not issues we would go into. What can be made publicly available will be, but on the advice I have received, I don't have any concern in relation to issues domestically. I think there is in relation to this particular matter, I think the Director-General will have something further to say in due course and I'll let that investigation run its course.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it was announced today that Nick Xenophon is working for Huawei as a strategic consultant. Should someone who is a former Senator be on the foreign interest register?

PRIME MINISTER: He needs to comply with the law like everybody else.

JOURNALIST: He says that Huawei has been treated maliciously, unfairly, copped slurs. What do you say to that characterisation of the treatment of Huawei, particularly in the context of the 5G network ban?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, as the Treasurer who made the decision regarding 5G matters, that was a decision we took in Australia's national interest and we stand by it and it was not directed at any one operator. It was a decision that applied across any number of those who would have sought to make applications that would have fallen foul of the standards that we set. So, look, I wish Nick all the best in his new employment and it sounds like he's prosecuting his case. It's a free country.

JOURNALIST: What concerns do you have about Yang Hengjun and what more can be done diplomatically in this area?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let's be clear - these are matters that are under investigation and these are things that the Director-General of ASIO has already issued a statement on. But I concur with the Minister's response which is to say based on the advice I have, I have no concerns about any of his domestic activities.

JOURNALIST: I think the question actually is about the fellow who is locked up in China.

PRIME MINISTER: I'm sorry. I thought we were talking about the other issue, the names are very similar.

JOURNALIST: Given your frustration with the prosecutions here, do you think that his treatment - he's been shackled for interrogation - that your pursuit of more prosecutions in Australia could see more tit-for-tat?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Australia always has to stand up for our citizens and we have to be true to who we are as a people. And I, as is the Foreign Minister, are very concerned following the most recent consular access that we have had about the treatment and we have raised these issues consistently now for some time and we would like to see the issues about access to lawyers, about getting a clear enunciation of what the matter is that have been brought against the Australian citizen at the centre of this case, and, thirdly, that his access to family and treatment that would meet, you know, world standards is being provided to him. Now, the most recent consular access was a matter of great concern to me and the Foreign Minister and we will continue to make those representations on behalf of an Australian citizen.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on Ensuring Integrity, do you share the view of your colleagues that Senator Hanson has somehow been cowed by the unions, especially in the shadow of the state election in Queensland next year?

PRIME MINISTER: The Attorney-General has made those comments last week. Look, I just deal with each Bill on its merits and I deal with the Senators as we deal with each case. A number of observations have been made about the events of last week. It was disappointing, it was disappointing that having been given those assurances that that was gone back on ultimately when the vote was taken. Those are the events of last week. I think they're all very transparent about what occurred there and the disappointments we had about how that was handled by One Nation. But we move on to the next issue. We'll be taking the Ensuring Integrity Bill forward again. It will come back into the House of Representatives this week after it goes back through Party Room this week, and we will take it forward because we believe in it. We believe that union thugs should not go on to building sites and threaten people or in any area of the workplace and be able to do that on and on and on and on and not face any expulsion from the industry for doing that. They should be. I put laws in place to do that to bankers. It should be in place to do that to union thugs too.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree with the Americans that your policy of stripping citizenship is counter-productive and that they should be brought back here and prosecuted?

PRIME MINISTER: I believe Australia's policy should be set in Australia's national interest and no-one else.

JOURNALIST: Are you prepared to accept the New Zealand offer in order to try to secure Jacqui Lambie's support for the repeal of the medivac law?

PRIME MINISTER: Our policies on those matters haven't changed.

JOURNALIST: Mr Dutton, you're a former police officer, would you have appreciated or taken a call from the Prime Minister into a matter that you're investigating?

THE HON. PETER DUTTON MP, MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Well, you're talking about the dark ages when I was last a police officer. I had a lot of hair, weighed a lot less and it was a long time ago. I said at the time last week I thought the Prime Minister's call was entirely appropriate. The Prime Minister has obligations under the Ministerial Code of Conduct and the alternative view would have been that he didn't avail himself of the information and, therefore, he couldn't fulfil his obligation under the Ministerial Code of Conduct and you would have been critical of that. So I think his actions were entirely appropriate to make the enquiries. The Prime Minister pointed out at the time that Mr Fuller and the New South Wales police have responsibility for the investigation, nobody sought to impede that. Entirely an issue for them. But should the Prime Minister have made the call to get all of the facts to see whether or not he needed to act under Ministerial Code of Conduct? Absolutely. He did the right thing and I think that's been well-detailed.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Government has noted that the ageing population is putting new demands on the pension and the aged care system. Your department, Prime Minister and Cabinet, employs just one person over the age of 65. Should the Government and your department be doing more to employ older Australians?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes. Thank you.