Senator James Paterson – Estimates questions to the AFP regarding anti-Semitic activities, protests and associating with a terrorist entity

photo of Senator James Paterson
October 23, 2023

I’ll move on to the Middle East issues following Hamas’s attacks on Israel. Obviously, this is an issue about which there are strong feelings in the community. Have you seen any threats to high office holders in the context of that?

Senator PATERSON: I don’t want to personalise it too much as being about us as parliamentarians. Every Australian faces security and safety threats. But for our institution of democracy it is not a good thing. We’ve seen, in other jurisdictions around the world, legislators being targeted, and the result is that they are often walled off and separated from their communities. They’re less accessible to their communities, and that’s not really where we want to be going.

I’ll move on to the Middle East issues following Hamas’s attacks on Israel. Obviously, this is an issue about which there are strong feelings in the community. Have you seen any threats to high office holders in the context of that?

Mr Kershaw : We have been getting, I guess, different viewpoints from different parts of the community. I might get Assistant Commissioner Krissy Barrett, who’s in charge of our operation to handle that particular issue back here, to respond.

Ms Barrett : As the commissioner mentioned in his opening statement, we have commenced Operation Larimar, which is a dedicated, standalone operation. It has multiple lines of effort because the AFP has, obviously, multiple lines of response in relation to the conflict. One of those lines of effort relates directly to engaging impacted communities and community leaders around the country, and that is through our community liaison teams. They are very experienced teams. It’s a very mature construct that has served us very well in the counterterrorism space. Our CLTs are engaging with multiple sectors of the community, and I think generically we can say that there are concerns from both sides of the conflict, as you would expect. There are concerns for their families in the region, but also some members of the community are feeling threats to their safety in Australia. The purpose of the CLT is to work with them.

Mr McCartney : Just to follow on from the assistant commissioner, I would say that obviously we’re concerned, as I think the Director-General of ASIO noted, about potential impact on the domestic security environment. Whilst we’ve identified a particular upswing in hatred and antisemitic activity, we haven’t identified any criminal offending at this stage. And we’ve identified no specific threat against members of the community or against politicians—just to get back to your question, Senator.

Senator PATERSON: Thank you. I was going to ask about that. Obviously, for example, New South Wales police is investigating some possible breaches of state law in relation to incitement to violence, the use of flares and other things like that, but I gather you’re saying that, from the public rallies we’ve seen and some of the disturbing images and audio that have come out of those, you can’t identify any Commonwealth offences.

Mr McCartney : I think it’s fair to say that some of the language we’ve seen is disappointing. In terms of hate crime, the Commonwealth doesn’t have legislation in relation to hate crime. The states and territories do. There are a range of offences that the Commonwealth has. I think it’s fair to say the threshold is quite high in terms of specific threats, but we work very closely with the state and territory police. Through the assistant commissioner, we’re in daily communication with our state and territory police partners in relation to these issues.

Senator PATERSON: Are there no potential offences under provisions that make it a crime to use a carriage service to menace and harass?

Mr McCartney : There are probably three. There’s urging violence against groups. That’s section 80.2 of the criminal code. There’s urging violence against members of groups. The third one, as you’ve noted, is using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence. In terms of threshold, that’s probably—’the easier offence’ is probably the wrong way of describing it, but the threshold is slightly lower. Again, in terms of the activity we’ve seen, we’ve seen that activity at protests. We haven’t seen that be conveyed through communication services, but obviously it’s an issue we continue watch.

Senator PATERSON: I’m not sure about the scope of that legislation. Does it cover social media instant messaging?

Mr McCartney : It does and it can.

Senator PATERSON: I’m aware of at least one public figure—not a parliamentarian or a politician but someone in the media—who’s received hundreds of death threats via social media as a result of commentary they made about the conflict. That would seem to me, potentially, to meet that threshold.

Mr McCartney : We’ve received some of that information too, and we’re working through that.

Senator PATERSON: Thank you. I’m grateful for that. The other issue I’m interested in is the potential for an offence in relation to associating with a terrorist organisation. We’ve seen terrorist paraphernalia—including a photo of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a listed terrorist organisation—displayed prominently at rallies. We’ve seen two Sydney mosques hold vigils or commemorations for deceased Hezbollah fighters. Those things may not, in and of themselves, meet the legal threshold for associating with a terrorist organisation, which is obviously a higher bar, but does that prompt you to conduct further inquiries into individuals associated with these movements?

Mr McCartney : As I stated, the communication and coordination with the states and territories through the assistant commissioner is on a very regular basis, and we will continue to assess. As you’ve aptly described, the threshold for those terrorism offences, particularly under the Commonwealth criminal code, is fairly high, but, again, we’ll continue to monitor those sorts of issues.

Senator PATERSON: Are there any ongoing investigations into these matters?

Mr McCartney : It’s fair to say we’re assessing quite a bit of information. As I said, we haven’t identified a specific direct threat, but, again, we continue to work through those issues with ASIO and with our state and territory police partners.

Senator PATERSON: Alright. Chair, I imagine you want to share the call.

CHAIR: I am seeking to share the call; thank you, Senator Paterson.

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