Question: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019
Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:16): My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham. Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary of the far-right terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, when an Australian man killed 51 innocent Muslims. On 9 December 2020, following the publication of the New Zealand royal commission report, I asked you, Minister, whether the Prime Minister had read the report and how the government intended to respond to it. You gave me a commitment that the government would examine the report thoroughly—all 44 of its recommendations—engage with the New Zealand government on how it is implementing the recommendations and consider any and all implications for the operation of our own counterterrorism policies and practices. More than three months have past. Has the Prime Minister read the report? Have the government spoken with their New Zealand counterparts about it? And when will the Australian government respond to the report?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Finance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:17): The very important work that Senator Faruqi identifies in terms of the response to right-wing extremism and to extremism in all its forms where it poses a threat to the safety or social cohesion of Australia is an ongoing piece of work that our government has taken seriously for many years and continues to take very seriously, including in relation to learning the lessons from the tragic Christchurch massacre and learning from the elements of the New Zealand report and investigations that are relevant to Australia. Our government agencies, in relation to their responses and the advice that they will provide as to what further or additional steps need to be taken in Australia, will absolutely draw upon that work, as we draw upon all expert evidence in relation to such important matters.
Just in the last budget, our government provided a further $571 million over the next five years to our security agencies to keep Australians safe. These are the security agencies that Senator Faruqi rightly quotes in terms of having identified areas of rise in right-wing extremism that we need to confront, as well as having identified other areas of extremism that we need to confront. Of these agencies, ASIO in particular has the highest level of funding in its 70-year history. In this year's budget, our government has invested, and continues to invest, some $300 million to enhance the AFP's capacity to respond to emerging threats. There's no place in our community for any group or individual who seeks to promote disharmony.
The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Birmingham, we have Senator Faruqi on a point of order.
Senator FARUQI: My point of order is to relevance. I asked specifically about the New Zealand royal commission report. Has the Prime Minister read it and when will the government respond?
The PRESIDENT: That was definitely the final part of your question, Senator Faruqi. It was a long question, and I've allowed you to remind the minister of that. The minister has 14 seconds remaining.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: The New Zealand report was not a report to the Australian government, but it is valued input in terms of an additional source of information that will inform the continued investment and policymaking our government makes in relation to these important issues.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a supplementary question?
Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:20): Minister, government MPs have repeatedly sought to draw false equivalence between right-wing and left-wing extremism. In its recent submission to the PJCIS inquiry into extremism, ASIO stated that the threat from extreme right-wing groups has increased, with groups being more organised and sophisticated than before. Conversely, on left-wing extremism ASIO stated that it is not currently prominent in Australia. Will government MPs stop drawing false equivalence between extreme right-wing and left-wing groups? (Time expired)
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Finance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:20): The laws, policy, funding and operation of our security agencies are ideologically agnostic. Whether extremism is right-wing extremism, whether it is religiously motivated extremism or whatever the cause of such extremism, we focus very clearly on dealing with those threats—dealing with the potential criminality and dealing with the risks to Australia. Prevention and initiatives that are supported across the country in terms of tackling areas of extremist ideology—
Senator Keneally interjecting—
Senator BIRMINGHAM: I'll take Senator Keneally's interjection. The ideology matters in relation to dealing with the threats and seeking to minimise them, but there's not a singular ideology which poses a threat to Australia. If you sit down and ask our security agencies they will tell you that, Senator Keneally. The threats of religious extremism and the threats of right-wing extremism remain very real, very significant and have— (Time expired)
The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a final supplementary question?
Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:21): Minister, will the government condemn far-right extremism without equivocation—yes or no?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Finance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22): As I have done before in this chamber, I condemn right-wing extremism, without any qualification. I condemn religious extremism, without any qualification. I condemn all forms of extremism that pose threat or violence, or which undermine safety, without any form of qualification.
I acknowledge absolutely the work of ASIO, as I have done in this chamber before. And it is as a result of the record funding, investment and legislative approaches that this government has put in place that agencies like ASIO have been in a position to identify those threats and to work to respond to those threats. And we will continue to support them, without any qualification and without any bias towards the threats that oppose Australia, to make sure that they are empowered to continue to do so.
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister representing the Prime Minister (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Faruqi today regarding the Christchurch massacre.
Two years ago yesterday an Australian man walked into two mosques in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, and killed 51 innocent Muslims. This was an attack that the New Zealand royal commission ended up confirming was driven by an extreme right-wing Islamophobic ideology. I remember exactly where I was that day, just as I'm pretty sure every Muslim in this part of the world remembers exactly where they were. It was shattering. Our hearts broke as we came to understand the enormity of the hate filled massacre. In June 2019, just a few months after the mosque attacks, I travelled to Christchurch to visit the Al Noor Mosque and meet with communities and families.
Two years on, how far have we come to ensure this will never happen again? Not nearly far enough. In fact, we have arguably gone further down the wrong path. Open racism and Islamophobia continue to be tolerated and even encouraged in politics and media. Neo-Nazis and far-right white nationalists organise online, their toxic hatred seeping into mainstream public discussions. Muslims continue to experience racism wherever we go. I have pushed hard against this, as have many advocates, but Australia's lack of progress remains deeply concerning to me. I worry that, without substantial political change, the next Christchurch attack will not be a matter of if, but when. I have been disturbed to read the initial submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into extremism. All key government agencies, including ASIO, the AFP and Home Affairs, have indicated in their initial submissions to the inquiry that the threat of far-right extremism is growing. However, substantial policy change and political action are nowhere to be seen.
The unanimity of federal authorities on the growing threat of far-right extremism stands in sharp contrast to the dismissive rhetoric of government MPs. We heard in the response to my questions earlier much of the same rhetoric, refusing to target far-right extremism squarely. When I put to the minister a very simple yes-or-no question about whether the government would condemn far-right extremism without equivocation I did not receive a yes-or-no response. Senator Birmingham responded by saying that he would condemn far-right and religious extremism and all forms of extremism without qualification. The minister would not condemn far-right extremism in isolation.
This is the extremism which drove the massacre in Christchurch and it needs to be condemned. As I said earlier in my question to the minister, ASIO stated in its submission to the PJCIS inquiry that the threat from extreme right-wing groups has increased, with groups being more organised and sophisticated than before. Conversely, on left-wing extremism, ASIO stated that it is not currently prominent in Australia. But there is no acknowledgement of this clear contrast from the government. In fact, MPs continue to promote false equivalence. The Liberals have completely failed here, not just in their rhetoric but also in their actions. Laws on extremist hatred must be strengthened and enforced. There are still no dedicated programs for tackling far-right extremism in the community and no commitment to an antiracism strategy or campaign.
When MPs have their heads in the sand, or even tacitly endorse far-right ideas, it totally undermines the government's response to this threat. The government has been dragged kicking and screaming into the PJCIS inquiry, and it even deflected a clear-eyed focus on far-right extremism and white supremacy. Now, since they have received submissions from our security agencies, they continue to deflect and deny. They have no choice but to look at the evidence and respond accordingly. Thousands of Muslims in Australia and other targeted communities of colour are counting on them—are begging them—to take this seriously.
This week we remember the 51 lives lost in Christchurch, the many injured and the families whose worlds were changed forever in March 2019. We work to ensure that their passing was not in vain.
Question agreed to.