ABC Ballarat Statewide Drive

Interview

DCI067/2017

01 August 2017

Subjects: Additional airport safety requirements; political donations.

Nicole Chvastek: Well, there have been long queues at airports around the country, with a security crackdown following the discovery of an alleged plot to blow up an aircraft. Senior police sources have told the ABC four men who were arrested during counter-terror raids in Sydney were planning to conceal a bomb in a kitchen meat grinder. Federal police are working to keep the men for seven days without charge under special terrorism powers. One of those who has seen first-hand some of the crowds at the airports is Darren Chester, who is the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure and the Nationals MP for Gippsland.

Darren Chester, good afternoon.

Darren Chester: Good afternoon, Nicole.

Nicole Chvastek: You're at Tullamarine Airport.

Darren Chester: That's right, Nicole, and I must say we're very appreciative of the work done by our major airports and the travelling public today, the understanding they've shown to get this upgraded security activity in a manageable form, and we've seen people moving smoothly through the airports. There has been some longer queues than are perhaps normal, and that's why we're encouraging people to plan to be at their domestic flight two hours before their due departure and three hours for international flights while we manage these upgraded security arrangements.

Nicole Chvastek: What extra security provisions will we see in place?

Darren Chester: Well, some of the things that already occur in airports will be highly visible. People will notice more Australian Federal Police presence, for example; they'll probably notice an increased number of checks in terms of screening of baggage, explosive trace detection, all the things they're familiar with, but there'll be more activity around that. I don't want to get into the exact details of what's planned because it's not really in the interests of our security arrangements, but it's likely to take a bit longer as we respond to a very direct security threat which emerged over the past 72 hours.

Nicole Chvastek: Can you tell me about that security threat?

Darren Chester: Well, it's an ongoing operation. There's a considerable amount of material which has been seized by police, as you referred to that in your introductory comments. It's the start of what will be, I imagine, quite a long investigation. But what is known to the public is that four people have been arrested in Sydney on Saturday as a result of a major counter-terrorism operation, and the intention was to disrupt a terrorist plot to bring down an airplane. That's known to the public and I can confirm that.

But in terms of further developments, it's ongoing in terms of the investigation and the operation by our counter-terrorism forces, and just the demonstration that the Government does take our safety very seriously. And we should be very thankful for the work that the men and women who are involved in our security forces and intelligence forces, the work they're doing to try and keep us safe. It's just a reminder to us all that there are people out there who would seek to do us harm, and our teams are working night and day to try and keep us safe. And that's what is the number one focus of the Government and myself, in my role when it comes to aviation safety: making sure that about 130-odd million people who travel each year through the Australian airports, either for domestic or international flights, that their safety is absolutely paramount.

Nicole Chvastek: What else can you tell us about their alleged plans?

Darren Chester: I wouldn't be in a position to comment on the plans. My role as Minister is focused entirely on the Office of Transport Security and the work we're doing to upgrade security arrangements at airports. In terms of the investigation of the alleged terrorist plot, that's a responsibility for other agencies. And, to be honest, Nicole, even if I did know more I wouldn't be sharing it publicly. It's a very sensitive time in the investigation and it's up to the various security agencies to do their job and make sure they maximise their chance of successfully thwarting any other activities that may be underway.

Nicole Chvastek: What can you tell me about the four men who have been arrested?

Darren Chester: Very little. I can only tell you what you've seen on the news, that four people have been arrested, and I understand they're assisting police with their investigations in relation to a major counter-terrorism operation. I know little more than what I've seen in the newspapers myself. Regarding their intent or anything else like that, I don't know much more than that. My focus at the moment—issues that have come to my attention—is to work through our own aviation security settings, to take the advice of the experts and not second guess the experts, and make sure we're doing everything we can to maintain the safety of the Australian travelling public.

Nicole Chvastek: I understand that the four men involved are dual nationals. Is it likely that if they are found guilty of these terror offences—and that is not to say that they will or won't be—but if they were to be found guilty, would your government seek to have them returned to their country of origin under your new legislation?

Darren Chester: Well, I'm not in any position to speculate on what may or may not happen to the four people involved. I mean, they're being interviewed by police, as I understand it. They're assisting with the investigation into an alleged terrorist plot. They're due their due process and their day in court if that's what eventuates, and what happens after that is entirely a matter for that time and for other agencies to decide. It's not something I could possibly speculate on today.

Nicole Chvastek: I'm speaking to Darren Chester, who is the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure and the Nationals MP for Gippsland. Darren Chester, Sam Dastyari—the Labor Senator, Sam Dastyari—has called for an end to political donations. He of course was famously caught up in his own political donation scandal last year. This is what he's told Australian Story.

[Excerpt]

Sam Dastyari: I'm not purporting that I'm coming at this issue as some kind of purist. I'm a realist on this in saying that this needs to change, that we have to reform and we need to ban, to limit, to restrict donations insofar as it's constitutionally possible.

[End of excerpt]

Nicole Chvastek: Time to ban political donations, Darren Chester. Does he have a point?

Darren Chester: Well, Sam Dastyari, as he admitted himself, doesn't come to this debate with clean hands given his role in receiving donations from some donors who were prepared to pay bills for Mr Dastyari that he didn't declare, and that's why he lost his job. Now, I believe, and the Government believes, that it's important that only Australians and Australian entities can participate in our elections, and while it's a very complex and a sensitive area, the Government is taking a methodical approach towards legislating a ban on foreign donations, and we're proceeding with that in the weeks and months ahead.

In terms of the broader question, I think that's a conversion that we can have with the community, but I believe others have already said today that it's not likely the Australian public will want to pay for the entirety of a party for their election campaigning. So the donations by Australian individuals or Australian companies, if they're properly declared and fully transparent, are a part of our democratic system.

Nicole Chvastek: But this is the problem, isn't it; we don't find out about many of these political donations until after the fact. And there is a limit of, I think it's $13,000 at which the political donation kicks in, and there are ways of hiding political donations.

Darren Chester: Well, I'm not sure about that point, your last point Nicole, about hiding donations. There are requirements for declarations and a level of transparency which I think are appropriate, and the Australian public needs to have confidence in that transparency in the system. In our [indistinct] election, you're probably aware the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters undertakes inquiries on various aspects of the campaign, and there's been a report- sorry, submissions made to that. An interim report was tabled to the Government earlier this year recommending the banning of foreign donations, and the Government has acted in that regard.

But more generally, I think you're right that people want to see transparency and know who has received a donation, that it's been properly declared, and they can have their confidence in our democratic process. I mean, people want to participate in our democracy, and I think it's good that people do want to participate, and part of that participation may well be donations. But I think the bottom line is it needs to be properly declared.

Nicole Chvastek: It's also regarded as a pay-off though, Darren Chester, that I'm giving you money because I'm taking a bet on the possibility that you will be in this position of power in the not-too-distant future and I want you to be able to hear my voice and I want to have some leverage over you.

Darren Chester: Well, I reject both those points, Nicole, suggesting that it's a pay-off or some level of leverage, I do find that a little bit offensive. You know, I've certainly participated in fundraising around my own campaigns and I've never felt in a position where I've been paid off or someone has any undue leverage over the decisions that I may make in the future.

Nicole Chvastek: But they're not giving you the money out of the goodness of their hearts, are they? They're clearly expecting something in return.

Darren Chester: But understand, Nicole, look, again I reject the suggestion it is a direct correlation that they want something in return. There are people, for example, who believe very strongly in the ethos and the values of my political party, or personally think that I'm a good bloke and worth supporting, who may want to see me elected against another candidate who they don't regard as highly.

Nicole Chvastek: Sure, but there are also those who'll give 200 grand to the Liberal Party and 200 grand to the Labor Party on the off chance that one of them will be elected and then they'll have that leverage.

Darren Chester: The point I was going to make though, Nicole, the participatory nature of our democracy, where people can make a donation or join a political party, or have free speech and comment I think is a good thing. But I understand the concern you're raising about larger donations, and that's where I think the transparency is an important part of it. That people understand that if a donation has been made either to someone or a political party, the nature of that donation, when it occurred, and I think a quicker turnaround in the declaration of that would probably give people more confidence. And keep in mind that the biggest donors to political parties in Australia today are the union movement, and I'm not sure the union members themselves ever authorise those payments, but they're made in their name year after year.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, just before I let you go, if there are Australians who are concerned today about flying in the wake of this alleged terror plot, is there something that you would like to say to them?

Darren Chester: Well, my message very clearly is that the ambition of these terrorists is to disrupt our life. Now, I would encourage people to have confidence to travel, whether it's for business or for leisure, knowing that the Government and the various agencies involved are doing everything in their power to maintain safety of our transport operations. And I'd also finally indicate to people, if they do see anything suspicious, I'd encourage them to be vigilant and to notice their surroundings as they go about their daily lives, or as they travel. If they do see something suspicious, to make sure they report it to the respective authorities as quickly as possible, no matter how significant or how small they think the issue might be. If it twigs in their mind that something's not quite right, they should report it to the authorities.

Nicole Chvastek: Have you got more to do, though? Neil Hansford, the chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, told AM this morning that it's catering and freight networks who need more scrutiny. And the Herald Sun reports Roger Henning, who is the chief executive of Homeland Security Asia/Pacific, saying a terrorist with a toothpaste bomb can still bypass all security at every airport in Australia because there are no scanners that detect plastic explosives.

Darren Chester: Well, inevitably in these sort of circumstances, we will have various people proclaiming to be experts making some claims about what can and can't be done in the Australian security sense. Now, as you would expect, I receive expert advice from people who are in the industry in 2017; they're not relying on previous experience. They're constantly looking to monitor and evaluate the situation, and as the situation evolves we need to try and be ahead of the game to make sure we're keeping people as safe as we possibly can.

Now, regarding issues around monitoring or security protocols around catering, for example, it is very closely scrutinised and the person who made that suggestion is completely incorrect. So there's a lot of activity that goes on which is both visible to the public and invisible to the public, where there was a complete focus on safety. It's not to say that everything is perfect. We're constantly looking to improve our protocols to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep people safe, and I think people understand that. I mean, people understand that they've been delayed today and they're being asked to turn up a bit earlier to the airport. The people I've spoken to today at the Tullamarine Airport have been very understanding, respectful and courteous to security staff because they know our motive is pure in the sense that we're trying to keep people safe.

Nicole Chvastek: Sure, but you would understand that there's now a chill of nervousness that may be running through the flying community.

Darren Chester: Absolutely, Nicole. I mean, I fly probably more regularly than most and not as regularly as others. I just returned from an international flight on the weekend and today I'm flying to Perth to go to a Cabinet meeting. My life can't stand still as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister, because of the threats of potential security issues around terrorist plots. I mean, these people want to disrupt our lives, they want us to stop travelling, and I'm not going to give them that personal satisfaction. I'm going to continue to do my job, to travel, and to do my role as both a professional person, but also as a father and a family man.

My family will travel for leisure as well in the future, and we'll continue to do that knowing full well there are people in our community who are working on our behalf every day to try and keep us safe. And I have an enormous amount of respect for the work they're trying to do and I understand the stress of their role. They are fighting an invisible force, if you like, someone who hangs in the shadows and tries to undermine their work, but they are working every day to keep us as safe as they possibly can.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, thank you.

Darren Chester: All the best, Nicole. I appreciate your interest.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester is the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure and the Nationals MP for Gippsland.

[ENDS]