SKY News Live AM Agenda

Interview

DCI075/2017

18 August 2017

Subject: Barcelona terrorist attack, public safety, Senator Hanson's burqa stunt, National Party Representatives' Citizenship

Kieran Gilbert: I spoke to Cabinet Minister and one of the last Nationals who have not been questioned under Section 44 of the Constitution, Darren Chester, for his thoughts on developments in Barcelona first of all, and then we look at other issues of the day.

Darren Chester: They’re horrific scenes we’ve seen come from Barcelona, and obviously it has reminded us all to be as aware as we possibly can be about our own situations when we’re in large crowds, to report any suspicious activity to police. But the bottom line is these are chilling and horrific scenes and our thoughts are with the Barcelona authorities and the people who have been killed and injured in this event.

Kieran Gilbert: IS has already claimed responsibility. The reality is—and we’ve known this for many, many months now; we saw that horrific attack in Nice on Bastille Day last year—but the terrorists can use vehicles, low-tech approach, but be deadly in that approach.

Darren Chester: Well, we’ve seen this really, Kieran, over the past decade, but it seems to have escalated in recent times. It is a low-tech approach, it’s an opportunistic approach. Really, it’s anywhere where you have a mass gathering of people, whether it’s around our transport infrastructure, or large crowds leaving sporting events and concerts.

We’re working with state authorities to see what design elements we can put into the streetscape. You’ve already seen, in our capital cities, you’ve seen bollards put in place to try and protect vulnerable pedestrians from vehicles. You’ve seen that already. We’re working all the time in terms of our security intelligence agencies to try and understand what the level of threat is, but it’s very difficult. It just means that we’ve got to be constantly vigilant for the potential of these attacks and be very aware of our own circumstances, our own situations as we go about our daily lives. We shouldn’t allow this…

Kieran Gilbert: As Transport Minister, is enough being done in our major thoroughfares, boulevards? You think of those major sporting stadiums around the country where there are swarms of people after a big match.

Darren Chester: Well, we have checks in place at a lot of those major sporting events on baggage and that type of thing. You’ve seen that. But also separation of pedestrians—vulnerable pedestrians—from vehicles through police patrols, through bollards. That’s the sort of thing we’re putting in place around Australia. There’s no question about this, this is a very challenging mode of attack to deal with.

Kieran Gilbert: Because you’ve got to get it right every time.

Darren Chester: Absolutely. We’ve got bustling cities, we’ve got people who want to get together for these great events, and we want to still enjoy the freedoms we really value about our Australian lifestyle. So we shouldn’t be scared off from doing what we want to do, but we’ve got to work together as a community, work with the authorities, put some design elements in place that help protect vulnerable pedestrians, and just keep on working together to try and prevent these attacks in Australia.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, the way that Parliament finished this week, extraordinary scenes with Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa in the Senate. The ASIO Director-General—both current and former, other security agencies—warn about alienating a cohort within our community because the human intelligence is so important. How do you weigh that up versus the discussion about whether or not a burqa is appropriate in Australian society? What’s your view of her stunt?

Darren Chester: Well, I think it was a stunt and I think it was a regrettable stunt. I think it was set to ridicule and cause division in our community, and I think that’s a poor approach from someone who has a very important role in the Senate as a leader in the community.

I think the message she sent from that stunt was a poor one. I think it potentially makes Islamic women a target from others who have extreme views on the other side of the debate. Then at the same time, our intelligence agencies, the authorities, keep telling us their capacity to work with like-minded, sensible people in the Muslim community—more than half a million Muslims in Australia—working with them to detect anyone who has run off the rails and they can take action to intervene, that level of intelligence and that relationship is so important. You don’t want to be alienating a community with stunts in the Australian Parliament.

Kieran Gilbert: The vast majority of which don’t wear burqas.

Darren Chester: Absolutely.

Kieran Gilbert: They might wear the veil, but the Catholic nuns, many of them still wear veils, don’t they?

Darren Chester: Well, wearing religious garments as a sign of your faith publicly is nothing new in the history of the world. You’ve just given an example from the Catholic faith. Now, I just think it was a mistake and I’d just call on Senator Hanson just to reflect on that, whether she’s actually put more people in danger through that stunt than she’d probably have perhaps recognised in having decided to wear the burqa into the Parliament.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally, and importantly for the Nationals as you’re one of the last Nationals standing really in the Cabinet, it’s been a debacle, hasn’t it?

Darren Chester: Well, we’ve had a rotten three weeks. There’s no escaping that. We’ve had situations where citizenship queries have been raised in relation to Senator Canavan, Senator Nash, and our leader Barnaby Joyce. While we’re confident that our reference to the High Court will clarify the situation and all three of them will continue doing their great work in the community, I acknowledge we have to do better at the front end, and we have to do better at the front end when it comes to the administrative work around vetting candidates, making sure they have that citizenship query completely clarified before they sign on the bit of paper.

You know, we’re frustrated by it as a party. We have a great and a rich history in Australia—one of the oldest political parties in Australia—and I think we’ve got a great future and we’ll bounce back from this. We fight together as a team, The Nationals. We’re a very close group and so if one of us is involved in a situation like that we all feel it. So it’s been a tough week and tough three weeks for the Nats.

Kieran Gilbert: Senator Nash found out from the Home Office on Monday that there’s a likelihood that she had dual citizenship. She’s copped flack for waiting until just before Parliament rose to provide her statement to Parliament. What’s your response to that criticism?

Darren Chester: Well, I understand the timeline regarding Fiona Nash’s situation was, when Barnaby’s situation became apparent, she made some inquiries and then received information back to her during the week, and we sought legal advice through the Solicitor-General, which arrived late yesterday. Now, I guess she had a choice at 5 or 6 o’clock yesterday: does she make a statement in the Senate that evening or wait until today to tell the media? I think she did the right thing by going straight into the Senate once she got the Solicitor-General’s advice and knew where she stood in terms of referring the issue to the High Court at some stage. I think it’s probably September that will occur.

I think she’s been completely upfront. I know Fiona very, very well—more than a decade now. She’s a very honest, upfront person. She’ll be upset by this. It’s embarrassing for our party and it’s frustrating for our party because we’ve had a great few years. We’ve been working very well to deliver for our regional communities, but we’ll get through this, we’ll get through this. We’ll get better systems in place with the vetting of candidates at the very start of their political careers and we’ll get through it.

Kieran Gilbert: And finally, your situation? Because we’ve already seen Canavan, Joyce, Nash.

Darren Chester: Well, I made the phone calls on Monday to check with mum, and mum reassured me all four grandparents were born within 50 kilometres of Sale in my electorate of Gippsland. I’m a pretty boring background in that regard. So yes, I’m…

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah, last time I checked Sale is-that’s well and truly in Australia, so you’re fine. Darren Chester, thanks.

Darren Chester: Thank you.