The Prime Minister has targeted the Islamic community for failing to sufficiently denounce terrorism and unveiled a series of measures to tighten immigration and hate speech laws in today’s national security statement.

Speaking at the Australian Federal Police headquarters rather than in Parliament, and without facing questions, Tony Abbott unveiled a Review of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Machinery and legislative changes following on from the review of the December Martin Place siege in Sydney, released yesterday. Abbott flagged:

  • changes to immigration laws to enable the revocation of dual citizenship;
  • travel bans, bans on access to consular services overseas and bans on access to welfare payments for any Australia “involved” in terrorism;
  • further strengthening of “terrorism advocacy” prohibitions, which were strengthened last year and, in an apparent complete backflip from the government’s former effort to amend s. 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, “stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting hatred”; and
  • a new “National Counter Terrorism Coordinator”, with so far unclear responsibilities or location — the machinery review proposes either the head of ASIO, or a senior official in Prime Minister and Cabinet — who would “set the strategic direction for the Commonwealth’s CT efforts”.

However, in an extraordinary attack, Abbott singled out the Muslim community for being complicit in “terrorist propaganda”:

“I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it. I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’. In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking.”

The statement appears to be a calculated effort by Abbott to tap into xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the community. And it appears at odds with Abbott’s own remarks earlier in the speech, where he thanked the Muslim community:

“The government is working with local communities to counter violent extremism. I acknowledge the readiness of parents, siblings and community leaders to let the police know about people they think are falling under the death cult’s spell. Our law enforcement agencies could not operate without their help.”

In addition to the recommendation of a counter-terrorism coordinator, the machinery report recommends a new national counter-terrorism strategy, improved efforts to counter violent extremism (which now has its own acronym), including “public-private partnerships to better reach at-risk or radicalised individuals” and ending the efficiency dividend on security agencies. The report also notes the role of Muslim communities in current counter-terrorism efforts:

“Intelligence agencies have engaged with individuals at all levels within communities to diminish support for violent extremist ideology. This engagement has also provided an avenue for community concerns regarding terrorist activity to be raised.”

The report also tries to blame NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for helping terrorism by encouraging widespread use of encryption. “Relationships between intelligence and business have been strained, making it harder to access key data without legal compulsion,” the report laments.

Left unaddressed is what happens if the Prime Minister publicly vilifies the Muslim community and its leaders for political advantage, potentially undermining community engagement with counter-terrorism agencies and the identification of individuals in danger of radicalisation.

Peter Fray

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