Press Conference – Sydney

Prime Minister, Minister for Home Affairs


Subject(s): National Anti-Gang Taskforce; National Border Targeting Centre; Western Sydney; Afghanistan; Immigration


PM: I did want to start by offering my condolences on the death of Peter Harvey. I had the opportunity to make contact with his family last night, to personally express my condolences.

Peter was simply a great journalist, a voice of authority for the Australian people about the events of the day; a much-loved family man who is going to be missed by his wife Anne, his daughter Claire and his son Adam.

Australians will miss that very distinctive voice telling them the news of the day from Canberra. This is a real tragedy and I know that there will be a lot of grief and loss around. I certainly can feel the force of that myself. So my most sincere condolences go to the Harvey family on what is an incredibly difficult day for them.

I’m here in Sydney and I’m joined by the Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, by the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Tony Negus and by the head of our Customs agency, Mike Pezzullo.

We are here to announce new measures to tackle serious and organised crime, new measures to get the guns and gangs off our streets, new measures to tackle the manifestations of serious crime that we see in the Australian community.

Serious crime trades in guns, it trades in drugs, it profits from misery. Serious crime has its outworkings on our streets as hardened criminals take shots at each other, causing safety issues for community members around the nation.

Even though we have seen general reductions in gun crime, we have certainly seen increases in shootings in public places. Most particularly when we look at the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, we see that over the past 15 years, shootings in public places have soared.

The number of drive-by shootings in this state, in New South Wales rose from 73 in 2010 to 88 in 2011, with around seven incidents per month last year. More than 130 shootings took place in this city.

The threat is not just isolated to here in Sydney. Victoria regarded a 10 per cent rise in the use of firearms in robberies in 2012. There were 14 shootings in South Australia in the first five weeks of this year.

Indeed, in Victoria today there is news of a shooting in Melbourne’s west – a shooting in an industrial estate in Melton involving a bikie gang member who actually lives in my electorate and who has been involved in shootings before, including shootings in a shopping centre which were witnessed by passers-by and obviously put the community at risk.

Consequently, we want to take new measures and a new approach. These gangs are very sophisticated. It means that not only are they trading in guns and in drugs and causing shootings on the streets, it means that they are moving a lot of money around. It also means that their activities span beyond the borders of any one state and indeed they have links overseas.

Consequently, whilst police forces around the country are working hard to counter the gangs and the guns, we believe new measures are appropriate and that the national level of Government needs to assist and get involved.

Consequently, I today announce that we will create a National Anti-Gang Taskforce. This will have strike teams in Sydney, Melbourne and in Brisbane and liaison officers in other parts of the country.

The work of these strike teams will be to directly target and investigate gang members in Australia. It will be to work with State police, to reinforce and assist their efforts and particularly to provide better intelligence.

The taskforce will reach out to other key federal agencies because money is being moved around, important information can be got from agencies like the Australian Tax Office, Centrelink and from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

We will work with comparable agencies overseas to make sure we are getting the best of intelligence on these gangs. We have modelled this new approach on the FBI’s Violent Gang Safe Street Taskforce and that resulted in over 55 arrests in the United States since 2001.

Put at its most simple, these are new measures to try and make sure we are combatting the gangs and guns on our streets. These are new measures to flush out gangs where they are and to stop their activities.

In order to do so, we also want to take a new measure to target our borders and I will turn now to the Minister for Home Affairs for a description of that.

MINISTER CLARE: Thank you very much Prime Minister. Last week, we saw the biggest seizure of the drug ice in Australia’s history, worth almost half a billion dollars and that was the work of a joint taskforce made up of the Federal Police, state police, Customs, the New South Wales Crime Commission and the Australian Crime Commission.

Our law enforcement agencies, state and federal working together and that’s what this is about. That’s what this taskforce is about. It’s about state and federal law enforcement agencies working together to target criminals, arrest them and seize their assets.

In January the Prime Minister asked me for recommendations on action that the Federal Government can take to target organised crime and violent gangs and I’ve sought the advice of the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mr Negus, and this is his recommendation, to establish this taskforce, a national anti-gang taskforce.

It will involve an intelligence centre in Canberra and strike teams in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, liaison officers in Darwin, Perth and Adelaide. Its job is to target, investigate and arrest gang members and seize their assets, to provide state police across the country with more gang intelligence; intelligence on what’s happening from coast to coast, from Sydney to Perth, from Darwin to Adelaide.

To also provide state police with better access to federal agencies like the Tax Office and Centrelink because what police are telling me is they want that information, they want better access to the information that the Tax Office and Centrelink can provide them.

Bu this taskforce will also investigate the actions of Australian gangs overseas and work with the FBI, the DEA, the ATF and Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies to investigate their activities overseas.

As the Prime Minister has said, this is based on a proven model. The FBI’s Violent Gang Taskforce has been very successful. It’s also based on a model that works here in Australia right now.

Taskforce Polaris which is focused on border crime here in Sydney has been very successful and it adopts the same model – Federal Police and state police and Customs and our Crime Commissions working together to target criminals. We have adopted the same approach when we have focused on counterterrorism.

Our police do a great but they’ve got a big challenge and I’ve spoken to a lot of police over the course of the last few weeks. Their advice to me is that the Federal Government can help by providing greater powers to seize the assets of criminals but also provide better access to federal agencies like the Tax Office and Centrelink to help them do their job and that is what this taskforce is about.

We have gangs in western Sydney and right across the country fighting over drugs, fighting over turf but ultimately it’s about money. Money creates power in the criminal underworld and the more we do to help police to seize the cash, seize the houses, seize the cars of these criminals, the more we can shift balance of power on the street and that is why this is a very important part of the work this taskforce will do. That’s why we have brought the Tax Office into this work, that’s why we’re bringing Centrelink in as well.

That’s the first announcement. The second announcement that we’re making today is the establishment of a National Border Targeting Centre. And again, this is been established based on the advice of the experts, talking to Commissioner Negus as well as Mr Pezzullo.

Their advice is criminal intelligence is the key to seizing drugs and other contraband at the border. The more intelligence we have got, the more we seize and that’s borne out by the facts.

Eighty five per cent of the drugs we seize at the border is based on criminal intelligence that our law enforcement agencies get before the drugs even arrive in Australia and with that intelligence it helps to target the right parcels and the right packages.

The more intel we’ve got, the more we seize that’s why I’ve taken the advice of Mr Negus and Mr Pezzullo to establish a National Border Targeting Centre and that will fuse together for the first time all of the criminal intelligence that’s collected by Customs, the Federal Police, as well as ASIC, the Department of the Transport Security and other federal agencies; fuse all of that data together to target high risk passengers and high risk cargo. It’s a model that’s been developed in the United States and the UK and it’s a model that works.

So both with the Gang Taskforce and the Border Targeting Centre the method is the same. Law enforcement agencies state and federal, working together, target the right packages but also target the right crooks, arrest them and seize their assets.

I might ask Mr Negus to say a few words.

TONY NEGUS: Thank you Minister and thank you Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and the Minister have articulate what the taskforce will look like and how it will work.

I want to say from the outset that as the Minister stated, we recognise the hard work that state and territory police do every day in dealing with violent crime on our streets and they do a very good job.

This is about looking at another dimension and looking at a national picture in the national interest of how we can help fight the violent crime we are now seeing in various cities around the country.

The other thing that’s important is the AFP’s international reach and we have seen push of some of these motorcycle gangs and other criminal gangs into South East Asia and into Europe. So the AFP’s international network will also be looking to have that expertise translated back into the Australian context and provided to state and territory police to allow them to do their job every day.

These taskforces will be made up of mainly Federal Police but with the assistance of state and territory police to support them in their day-to-day business, their day-to-day outcomes.

As the Minister and Prime Minister mentioned, this is loosely based on an FBI model in which 170 separate taskforces between state, federal and local police exist across 39 states of the United States. It’s been seen as very much a force-multiplier in what are sometimes complex jurisdictional areas across countries like the United States and Australia with multiple jurisdictions at play.

We are very excited. I briefed all of the Commissioners last night on this plan. They would like to see some more information of course and we will do that over the coming months. We’ll be looking at an implementation date of 1 July but all are generally supportive of doing a more, getting more information and having more resources at the disposal of the police on the streets, whether they be federal or state.

As the Minister has also said, we have shown in recent times with joint counterterrorism work, with the joint drug work we do that this is the way of the future; multiple jurisdictions working together, bringing the resources and skillsets that exist across each of those respective agencies in into one team.

When I was sworn in as Commissioner three and a half years ago I said the AFP will do very little by itself while I’m Commissioner because I think my own personal view is this is the best way to fight crime across the country.

To do it together and bringing in experts from the Tax Office, from Centrelink, from the Australian Crime Commission and of Customs to work with state and territory police is the most effective way of getting very good results and very probable results of arrests and seizures being made.

With that I pass to Mr Pezzullo to talk about the taskforce.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Thank you Commissioner, Prime Minister, Minister. I would like to briefly remark on the establishment of the Border Targeting Centre. It’s going to be a very important capability.

The border protection task that we face is becoming more and more challenging with every passing year. Volumes are increasing, both of traders and travellers. People expect to cross the border quickly and expeditiously and wherever possible we want to support them in that.

However, the criminal groups are becoming far more sophisticated. They are getting very clever at their concealments and they are getting very clever at masking the background to either travel or trade.

What this centre will do will allow us to pull together all of our data we have, all of our intelligence systems, all of our analysts together into the one hub where we can better target the high risk travellers and traders, the people who are moving goods illicitly, contraband and the like and working with our partners, the Federal Police but other authorities, both at the federal, state, territory and indeed international levels.

It will allow us to target scarce resources on to the high risk transactions, travellers or traders and allow others to pass through who are conducting their business in a lawful and legitimate manner. Thank you very much.

PM: We will take questions on these announcements before moving to questions of the day.

JOURNALIST: Presumably there will need to be a lot more resources to fight this. Is there more money or new money?

PM: We are making available $64 million for the taskforce. That’s $64 million for the National Anti-gang Taskforce. That will fund the officers that Commissioner Negus refers to, who will be working in the strike teams, who also will be liaising in the intelligence centre and it will fund the effort across government because we are bringing together not only police, but also people from the Tax Office, from Centrelink, to focus on this work.

To track the criminals, you have got to be able to track the money and we want to be able to increase our ability to do that. So, yes, there are new resources available for this important task.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Opposition said today, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said today a lot of what is being announced this morning, he is saying a lot of is Opposition policy that was announced at the 2010 Federal election. What do you make of what he has to say?

PM: I will turn to Minister Clare for some comments but the proposals we are announcing today have been worked up on the best of professional advice from the Federal Police Commissioner and from our other agencies to tackle the problems that we are seeing now.

I do want to echo the comments that have been made. Local police, state police do a good job and it’s a hard job and I take my hat off to anybody who devotes their life to being a police officer. They do a great job in difficult circumstances.

But as we are seeing more and more sophistication by the gangs, then we have got to respond with more and more sophistication too. Some of these gangs are in motorcycle leathers; some of these gangs are people who wear suits. We are talking about sophisticated and organised crime, people who can easily move themselves, move guns, move records across borders within our country, people who would have international links and would strive to be able to move incriminating evidence overseas as well.

That’s why across these initiatives we’ve got the National Anti-gang Taskforce and a new initiative to strengthen our already stronger efforts at tracking guns and other contraband at the border. I’ll turn to Minister Clare for some comments.

JOURNALIST: Is this about buying votes in western Sydney?

PM: We’ll just take the question over here.

MINISTER CLARE: This is a recommendation from the Australian Federal Police and it’s a taskforce that will be led by the Australian Federal Police. The model that Mr Abbott is talking about was one that involved the Australian Crime Commission leading that work. This is a different model.

The key difference is the involvement of the Australian Tax Office and the involvement in Centrelink and that’s based on the discussions that I’ve had on the ground from Blacktown to Bankstown, talking to police, saying, what do you need, how can the Federal Government, the federal law enforcement agencies help with the work that you do?

The key message I keep getting is the more we can do to help seize the assets of criminals the better, and working with the Tax Office and Centrelink, that will help them with their investigations and that’s why they are a key part of this anti-gang taskforce.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the New South Wales Government, if you could just ask, says you’ve been ripping money out of Customs and that’s meant that the drugs and the weapons have been coming in and that’s the source of the problem. Can you respond to that please?

MINISTER CLARE: A short and simple answer. We are seizing double the amount of drugs now than we were five years ago. The reason for that is because instead of just relying on x-ray, we are now using intelligence to target the right packages and the right parcels.

Ask any police officer, state or federal or anyone in Customs and they will tell you the key to stopping drugs getting into the country, the key to seizing drugs on the street is criminal intelligence.

Information from the general public, information from police on the ground in Australia or information from law enforcement agencies overseas is the key to seizing drugs and that’s why we are announcing today a boost in our intelligence capability by fusing all of that information together into a National Broader Targeting Centre.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you referenced the shooting in Melbourne. Can you just explain what practical impact this announcement will have on cases like that, that isn’t occurring already?

PM: That man involved in that shooting is a member of the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang. Now, I am not going to pretend I’m the Federal Police Commissioner and I can give you chapter and verse about the history of that motorcycle gang, I can’t. But clearly a gang involved in violence, we have seen a shooting that’s reported in the newspaper today in Melbourne.

The general approach here, of course state police around the country are doing what they can to deal with such gangs, trying to police, trying to deal with outbreaks of violence, trying to work out what such gangs may or may not be doing with drugs, with firearms, with money.

The issue here is that they can move from Melbourne’s west to Sydney’s west, from Melbourne’s west into Adelaide – move resources, move drugs, move guns, move gang members – and so the importance of the National Anti-gang Taskforce is it will bring national resources to work seamlessly with state police forces so that they can share intelligence about the activities of these gangs, the movements that they engage in interstate, the movements of money that they cause where the wealth is and that will strengthen law enforcement.

So you have got the sharing of intelligence and then you have got more people doing the work because we will have these strike teams in a state like Melbourne, able to work very closely with state police to strengthen their ability to do the job.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is this about buying votes in western Sydney?

PM: I’ve just outlined how this is a national problem. This is a problem certainly on the streets of Sydney’s west and we’ve seen many reports of shootings in western Sydney. But it’s also a problem in other parts of the nation.

It’s a problem in South Australia which is very strongly reported there. I know that myself from time spent recently in South Australia, including time spent with my family over Christmas; a real concern in South Australia.

It’s a real concern too in Melbourne and the fact that there has been another shooting reported in today’s newspapers verifies that concern. This is about a national plan and bringing new national resources to make a difference.

JOURNALIST: In terms of the timing, isn’t this just about buying votes in western Sydney?

PM: Well, the timing is because we have been working on this in the manner I outlined earlier this year. I asked Minister Clare earlier this year to provide a report to Cabinet on what more we could do to address gang violence and gun crime.

He provided that report based on the best of advice from our agencies. Cabinet deliberated and as a result we are announcing the measures today.

JOURNALIST: There has been a lot of he said, she said, about what the actual numbers of Customs officers and AFP officers is, whether it’s gone up or down in recent years. We have the two gentlemen who can answer that question right now. In recent years have your numbers gone up or down and by roughly how much? Same question to Mr Negus.

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: You just need to look at portfolio budget statements and annual reports over about a five year period, our full-time strength has gone from 5,700 officers to just over 5,100 officers and over that time our detections and seizures have gone up.

The reason why that has occurred is that we’re getting much smarter, not just in our screening technologies and detection technologies, which are very important, but we are applying intelligence and we’ve been doing so for three years. This initiative being announced today will take it to the next level.

JOURNALIST: So from five years to 5,700 from 5,100?

MICHAEL PEZZULLO: Our average staffing level on an annualised basis, yes.

PM: And doing more with it as Mr Pezzullo was just outlining.

TONY NEGUS: To the second part of the question, likewise for the Australian Federal Police, in the last five years I think our budget has gone up around $300 million over that period of time.

We’ve also had internally a move to push more people that are employed by the AFP into frontline of policing and we actually have 700 more sworn police today than we did five years ago.

I have to say that many of those have transitioned from being protective service officers at airports into being sworn police at airports which is a different model of trade. But suffice to say there is substantially more police now than there were five years ago and as I said $300 million more in the budget.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, western Sydney is obviously the focus this week. You talked about guns and gangs being a priority or a real concern in different places around Australia and you mentioned it being a real concern for people in western Sydney.

Do you think that that is the priority for people in western or are they more concerned about things like infrastructure?

PM: I think safety is important to everybody, whether you live in western Sydney, whether you live in Melbourne, in Brisbane, in Adelaide, in Darwin, in Perth. Wherever you live in our great nation, people want to be safe and they want to know that their loved ones are going to be safe.

When things happen like a shooting in a suburban street or in a suburban shopping centre then of course it causes concern and it causes people to worry and it makes them worry whether next time they should take the walk down the street or the trip to the shopping centre.

These are ordinary human reactions and people have felt these ordinary human reactions right around the country, including in Sydney’s west but other parts of the nation as well.

I’m sure that there are many people who live in Melton today who are sharing stories about the last time they went to the industrial park where the shooting that is reported today happened, what they were doing there and how they will feel about going next time they go to that industrial park.

When people are feeling that kind of pressure around the country and the official advice to us is we can do more than we are doing now through working nationally, with state police forces then it’s the right thing to do. And that’s why I’m announcing these measures today with the Minister and with the Police Commissioner and obviously with our leader in Customs too.

We are seeing more sophistication by criminals. It has got to be met by more sophistication by us and that is the genesis of the measures that I’m a announcing today.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there’s been an incident in Afghanistan, have you got any details on that?

PM: My understanding is the Chief of the Defence Force will make a statement about that later today so I would prefer you to that statement and he will be able to deal with those issues for you.

JOURNALIST: Picking up on that last question, Prime Minister, it’s something that gangs and street crime is an issue in western Sydney. The broader question was what do you think it is that’s important to those people you’re visiting for the next five days?

PM: We will take questions on this and then if you have got broader questions for me on western Sydney or any other matter then I will take them.

Are there more direct questions on the initiatives that we are announcing today?

JOURNALIST: The question was what do you think the issues are that are exercising the minds of the people you are visiting over the next five days and what can you do about it, what will you do about it?

PM: I’ve been to western Sydney many times before, as I’ve been to many other parts of the country and what I’ve done when I’ve travelled in western Sydney before and what I do in other parts of the country is try and immerse myself and understand from local communities what’s on their mind.

It’s not surprising that I’d be spending more time in western Sydney. We are talking about a region of 1.6 million people. We are talking about a very diverse region and a growing region. We are talking about a region too that is a very substantial contributor to the national economy.

Just like last year, I spent some dedicated time in south-east and central Queensland. This week I will be spending dedicated time in western Sydney. Sometimes it’s only possible to go for a day or half a day. I have organised myself to make some more time available.

I anticipate that like when I’ve been in western Sydney in the past, people will raise with me issues including safety on the streets. They will raise with me cost of living questions. They will raise with me issues about jobs and the future of our economy. They will talk to me about infrastructure and traffic. They will talk to me about the National Broadband Network. They will talk about schools and opportunities for their kids. They will talk schools about local healthcare services and how they are experiencing those services.

I think that will be the range of issues that’s raised. There may well be many more besides. Whenever I travel around the country, whilst you tend to get those kind of issues raised with you, you’ll always meet that one person who has got a very passionate attachment to a particular cause or particular issue and they want to purse that with you.

JOURNALIST: Is Ed Husic going to be available tonight and if not, why not and what does that say about him given he’s the local member?

PM: My understanding is Mr Husic is also attending a major ethnic community event and he is simply trying to manage the logistics of coming and going to a couple of places in a short period of time.

JOURNALIST: Do you think he should be there though?

PM: I think he’s got a commitment to an ethnic community event, indeed I think he may be representing me at that event so we would have asked him to do it and in those circumstances he’s trying to manage through the best he can.

JOURNALIST: PM, can you give us an idea of what you’re going to be doing over this coming week, are you going to be holding forums, are you going into shopping centres, train stations, are you going to be meeting residents of western Sydney in that capacity or is it just going to be the meetings and rallies like tonight?

PM: Well you’ve I think been with me when I’ve been out on the road before talking to people. We will be doing all of the things that we do to stay in touch with the community and to hear what’s on their mind.

We’ve been very strongly working with the community in western Sydney. I’ve been there a number of times. When you look back over the years of the government, what mattered after the global financial crisis was making sure people were still in work. What mattered in many of those schools was making sure dad had a job constructing new facilities at the school and the kids got the opportunity of a better education.

What’s mattered in Sydney’s west when I’ve been there in the past has been health care services and I had the great delight of being able to open some new facilities in Sydney’s west. People have talked to me about these issues in the past, they’ll talk to me about them during the course of the next few days I’m sure.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] Can you confirm that Australian soldiers were responsible for the deaths-

PM: I’m not going to deal with the details of the incident in question. The CDF will be making a statement later today.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, western Sydney is such a big area. You’ve talked about a couple of days. Do you plan on coming back in the next few months?

PM: Absolutely, I’m a very regular traveller to western Sydney and I’ll continue that.

JOURNALIST: Have you got plans for this afternoon between now and the speech, Prime Minister? What are you going to be up to?

PM: I’ve got a bit of work to get done so I’ll get about doing it.

JOURNALIST: Can I just clarify the answer to Michael’s question. Will there be opportunity for just average people to come up and talk to you?

PM: I’m always happy to have a chat and Mark you’ve been out with me enough to know that happens wherever I go and whatever street I walk down and whatever community facility I’m in. It happens all the time.

JOURNALIST: So shopping centres-

PM: We’ll go about our work day-by-day as we do our work but every day I’m out in any part of Australia people come up and say hello and have a chat.

JOURNALIST: Western Sydney I obviously a big area, it’s obviously a big concern to you given it’s one of the first areas for you to visit-

PM: I don’t agree with your question at all.

JOURNALIST: But you’re obviously concerned about losing a number of seats there. How many seats do you think you’ll lose?

PM: You’ve misunderstood and misframed what’s happening this week. I travel very consistently around Australia. I do it to meet the local communities. I do to announce things that the Government has decided to do which make a difference to local communities. I do it because I want to go to schools and see kids and chat to them. I do it because I want to go to hospitals and talk to doctors and learn from them and so it is a routine part of what I do.

I’ve done it in many places over the course of the days of this year already. Friday I was in Hobart for example making a major announcement about 750 new jobs – very good news for an economy the size of Hobart’s.

I’ve been to western Sydney before. Sometimes I’ve gone for the day. Sometimes I’ve gone out for one meeting. Sometimes I’ve gone for longer. This week I’ll be in a position to go for longer. Last year for example I was in a position to spend some dedicated time in south east Queensland and central Queensland.

That’s what I’ll be doing over the next week. I’ll have other obligations and things I’ll need to do and I will certainly be attending to them.

JOURNALIST: Can we therefore say, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the next week will be a week of governing rather than a week of campaigning?

PM: If you want to come and sit with me, not looking at what I’m working on but looking at me as I sign and deal with incoming paperwork you’ll be very welcome.

JOURNALIST: Okay! With a photographer?

PM: It’s a real pity you weren’t there yesterday because you could have brought, I would have said probably two thermoses of coffee and as I sat there doing paperwork for seven or eight hours yesterday you could have happily sat the other side of the desk.

Something tells me given the restless intellects of our friends from the media, fifteen minutes in you would have been looking for something else to do.

JOURNALIST: Scott Morrison has spoken again on the asylum seeker issue this morning and he said that it’s a fact that the asylum seekers when they’re on bridging visas at that point haven’t actually been thoroughly vetted by ASIO.

Isn’t it fair for the Opposition to have concerns about asylum seekers and that more checks or protocol should be in place given that they haven’t had their full checks at that stage?

PM: Mr Morrison would well know that people who get visas are people who’ve been the subject of health and identity and security checks.

I would also say the thing that I noticed from Mr Morrison today was once again advocacy in the newspapers that 457 visas should be a mainstay of the immigration program.

That’s code for the Opposition’s plan to have large numbers of temporary foreign workers in our nation. That’s code for their plan to put opportunities for those workers first and opportunities for Australian workers last.

Thanks very much.