Topics: Morrison Government’s strong support for Australian police; new police taskforce to crack down on organised crime; safety of Parliamentarians; search for William Tyrrell.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, thank you, everyone, for coming here today. Commissioner Kershaw –thank you so much for hosting us here at the headquarters of the Australian Federal Police. It’s a pleasure for me to be joined today by my New South Wales state colleague the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, David Elliott; Commissioner Kershaw from the AFP; and Commissioner Fuller from New South Wales Police; and also we have representatives here from a number of our agencies, including from the ACIC, Mr Matt Rippon, the Deputy CEO of Intelligence. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the many hardworking members of the Australian Federal Police for the significant work that they have done to keep Australians safe over many preceding years and from what I know they will be doing over the coming years to support all Australians and to keep us safe.
The last time I stood next to Commissioner Kershaw at a press conference was to announce Operation Ironside – which was work that the Australian Federal Police did in conjunction with the FBI. It was a significant operation and one that has now seen more than 300 offenders charged and almost $50 million in assets seized. Now, today we are announcing another operation: Operation Phobetor. Phobetor was the Greek God of Nightmares – and that’s a very good name for this operation – the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Police will be doing everything they can to make sure they are a nightmare to serious and organised criminals. This operation is absolutely targeted on bikies; on triads; on cartels and on hitting them where it’s going to hurt them – which is going to be taking their assets. So, a lot of work has gone into establishing this operation – it’s up and running now – and of course it is a great opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Police. This operation compromises about 20 officers from the AFP, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the New South Wales Police Force – and they will be based at AFP’s Eastern Command operations in Sydney.
Today’s operation demonstrates once again that the Morrison Government can be trusted to ensure that Australians are safe and secure. We have increased funding to the Australian Federal Police; it now stands at $1.7 billion. This is again demonstrating that the Morrison Government is prepared to resource the Australian Federal Police so that they can do their job in making sure that all Australians are safe and secure. Now, I’d just like to invite now the New South Wales Minister, Minister Elliott, to make a few remarks.
DAVID ELLIOTT: Thank you, Karen. Operation Phobetor will see two world-class law enforcement agencies combine their resources to provide nightmares to the criminal element of this nation. My hearty thanks to Minister Andrews for allowing New South Wales to be the first jurisdiction to enter this memorandum of understanding with the Australian Federal Police. To Commissioner Kershaw and Commissioner Fuller, with the Crime Commission, we have seen three law enforcement agencies work extremely hard together to make sure that there is synergy when it comes to disrupting the criminal element in this nation. Already, we’ve seen some great successes when the two organisations have worked together – and my repeated thanks to the AFP for working alongside New South Wales Police recently when we recaptured Mostafa Baluch on the Queensland border. Can I say to Minister Andrews and Commissioner Kershaw, I hope we are worthy partners with you in this journey.
Unfortunately, the criminal element now doesn’t have borders, and that is why these Memorandums of Understanding need to be signed. There is no end of jurisdiction when it comes to crime, and we’ve seen that time and time again – not only between the States across the Commonwealth but of course right across the world. The work that’s been done through the AFP to allow the state agencies to get on top of what has become a devastating drug trade, of course, sex tourism and sex slaves and fraud overseas and domestically means that we will not take for granted arrangement this arrangement that we’ve got with the Australian Federal Police.
So, again my thanks to Minister Andrews for the leadership that she’s shown to the rest of the country, and particularly the criminal element, that there are no borders anymore. There will be no jurisdictions. We will be working as a team and making sure that when it comes to enforcing laws and keeping our families and communities safe, no stone will be left unturned. I’ll now hand over to Commissioner Kershaw.
REECE KERSHAW: Thank you, Minister Andrews and Minister Elliott. I would like to acknowledge Mick Fuller – the Commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force – for his initiative in relation to setting up joint taskforce Phobetor, and also Deputy CEO Matt Rippon of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.
This is a unique joint taskforce arrangement, where we’ve been able to unite the three agencies, utilising all the powers that our agencies bring to the table. More than ever, we know how difficult it is to tackle serious, organised crime – and through Operation Ironside, working jointly together with our state partners – we were able to deliver maximum effect and maximum damage to the criminal environment. I think for us, we’re going to be able to mobilise our international network. We’re based in 33 countries with 170 officers, and they will be at the beck and call of the taskforce based in New South Wales, and we’re looking forward to delivering damage offshore to those particular individuals and syndicates. We know that a lot of those criminal networks base themselves in hostile countries, but we’ve been able to demonstrate – even recently, together with New South Wales Police – hunt them down, arrest them and bring them back to Australia, and we’ll continue to do that.
In addition, one of the things that we’ve been able to do, working with New South Wales Police, is map out their structures. So we will be going after their logistical arms; their financial arms; their operation arms all at once. That has not been done before at the scale that we’re going to embark on. We’re going to be relentless. We’re going to continue to make sure that we keep Australians safe and keep our borders safe. Whether you’re Australian or not and you’re peddling misery into our communities; whether it be methamphetamine; heroin; cocaine – we’re going to be coming after you. I think of Ironside; that’s the beginning for us. We’ve still got a long way to go and we’re looking forward to working with both agencies on delivering that maximum damage. I’ll now hand over to Commissioner Fuller.
MICK FULLER: Thank you to the Ministers, Commissioner Kershaw. It was only a matter of months ago when we sat around the table to discuss a better way forward to tackle organised crime, and particularly transnational organised crime. A few months down the track today we’re launching Operation Phobetor that will be looking deeply into organised criminals, not only in Australia but across the world. New South Wales Police are committing a detective superintendent and another nine senior officers to complement the 10 officers from Australian Federal Police working out of the AFP building in Sydney. We know that the Joint Counter-Terrorism Team in Sydney is recognised around the world for their performance and their ability, not to just disrupt but also to prevent terrorism, and this will certainly emulate that. Making arrests in the space of organised crime is not a difficult one, but certainly picking apart the entirety of these criminal enterprises and ensuring that we maximise efforts in getting asset confiscation is something where Phobetor will play such a strong role. At the end of the day, it is about protecting the people of New South Wales and Australia, and Phobetor is the starting point for that. New South Wales Police grows by 500 positions next year, and no doubt will continue to make a significant investment into these types of strategies, particularly those partnerships with the Australian Government. Thank you. Any questions?
QUESTION: What is the AFP doing to protect MPs from increasing violence from right-wing extremist elements involved in anti-vaxxer so-called freedom rally protests?
REECE KERSHAW: So, as you know, we have a unit, a command, that looks after the protection of members of Parliament. We have been working with Minister Andrews in relation to conducting a review, and that’s with the Minister now as far as understanding what’s happened offshore. We’ve seen what’s happened in the UK and the US so we take the security of MPs very seriously. Even on the weekend, we had to mobilise a number of resources based on specific threats against different members of Parliament. So, we know that the environment has changed rapidly due to a number of factors and we will be making sure we can do as much as we can to keep our Parliamentarians safe. I don’t know if the Minister wants to make some comments?
KAREN ANDREWS: Thank you, Commissioner. Look, unfortunately, the environment in Australia has changed in respect of threats to Parliamentarians. We have had most recently impacts in the United Kingdom where Sir David Amess was murdered when he was conducting his work, which was meeting with constituents. I have worked very closely with Commissioner Kershaw in relation to the safety and the security of Members of Parliament. We are very aware that there are people in Australia who wish to do Parliamentarians harm – whether that be at the Federal level or at the state level or in some cases in local government. But I’ve been working with Commissioner Kershaw in relation – in the first instance – to Federal Parliamentarians. That work will continue. There are a range of threats that the Australian Federal Police and ASIO also monitor. There will be continuing work in relation to making sure MPs are safe as they go about their work. But the priority of Members of Parliament is for them to be able to do their jobs, which means that they do need to be out and about; they do need to be meeting with constituents; they do need to be meeting broadly with industry. Now, clearly the events that have taken place at protests are absolutely unacceptable; violence is not something that any Australian thinks is okay, quite frankly. So, even if you have a difference of opinion with someone, there is no way that you should act out any violence against that individual. So, the threats to State Premiers, to other Parliamentarians, are absolutely unacceptable, and the Federal Government has been unequivocal in terms of its disdain and calling out the fact that this is not acceptable, and we will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Commissioner Kershaw just spoke about threats over the weekend for specific parliamentarians. Are you able to expand on that?
REECE KERSHAW: Look, I wouldn’t want to go into that because we work with our intelligence agencies; with the Director General at ASIO; Home Affairs and other agencies; our state police counterparts; we’re all united in this area and we share that intelligence. So, we do base our protection based on those threat assessments which rely heavily on intelligence, including support from the community, in helping us form those viewpoints, and also understanding what events are coming up and so on. There’s a lot that goes into the protection; it’s not just rolling out with a protection team. There’s a whole back end; a lot of resources that go into the planning; the intelligence assessments; the threat assessments and so on; and then how do we treat that? At the same time, our MPs have to be able to carry out their job and do what they’ve been elected to do, so, we’re very mindful of that as well.
QUESTION: What other issue or role is the AFP playing in the Afghanistan Special Forces investigation and is the work making any progress now that the Taliban is in control? How much has that stymied it?
REECE KERSHAW: So, as you know, the Office of Special Investigator was set up to deal with the complexities around the Brereton Report and it is complex – war crime is a very complex area. The legislation is very complex, and then obviously being able to travel overseas and obtain witness statements and everything always presents an issue; but that’s something the OSI has been set up to do and they’ve hired specialist investigators from the state police. We’re very grateful for that, and we also have an AFP Commander in there as well so it’s a joined up effort. These are long investigations, very complex, and we will make sure that whatever happens, if there’s a brief of evidence to go forward to DPP, that will occur.
QUESTION: Is the Taliban being in control slowing this down?
REECE KERSHAW: I think it is about access at this stage. So, I mean, that would be something for those investigators, but we’ve been able to deal with matters using nearby countries on occasions, so that’s always an option, whether it be Pakistan or somewhere else nearby. I know there’s also, obviously communications, they’re able to contact people and so on. So, there will be different methods that will be used to contact those witnesses and manage them.
QUESTION: Can you give us an update about the AFP’s role in looking for William Tyrell’s remains?
REECE KERSHAW: Look, I think I might hand over to Commissioner Fuller, but we just supplied specialist searching capability at the request of New South Wales Police Force.
MICK FULLER: Thank you. New South Wales Police and support agencies such as AFP are still on the North Coast at Kendall searching an area around one square kilometre. We have taken 15 tonnes of soil and other pieces of evidence, or potential evidence, back for forensic investigation. Particularly challenging weather conditions at the moment, but that search will continue until investigators believe that their job is done. But, nevertheless, it’s been a challenging task for police up there. There’s still over 30 specialist police searching as we speak today.
QUESTION: Commissioner with the search being underway for a week, what pieces of new evidence… or is there anything new that’s been uncovered?
MICK FULLER: Without going into too much detail there has been material and other things found up there that would be foreign to normal bushlands. So, they need to come back to be forensically tested for DNA. But again, if you think about 15 tonnes of soil that’s been moved back into a clandestine lab, there could be weeks and weeks of searching through that before we have any answers.
QUESTION: One of the archaeologists involved in the search says it’s likely this part of the operation will lead to some closure for William’s loved ones. Do you share that view?
MICK FULLER: Look, I’m certainly hopeful that is the case, but there’s no evidence that’s been provided to me to date that that is a definitive position. But I guess we’re all staying hopeful –particularly with the search continuing – that we can find answers for William and his family and the community.
QUESTION: In terms of this operation, is the scope to expand beyond state policing jurisdictions?
MICK FULLER: At this stage New South Wales Police has the numbers they need on the ground. AFP from time to time are called in right across Australia. They have a specialty devices and they had some very cutting-edge devices that were used to X-ray under the ground and those sorts of assets are essential in terms of the search; sometimes even just to discount an area from a search area. So, we work closely together across a whole range of crimes, but this is a particularly important one in New South Wales at the moment.
QUESTION: How key to the operation is the creek being drained? How widely held is the belief that that could be where William’s remains are?
MICK FULLER: I guess the challenge – being seven years down the track and with the growth of vegetation and the possibility that things could have been moved by animals etc – we’re going there now to do this search, one square kilometre. We’re leaving nothing unturned in that search. We want to be certain that the search has been done as thoroughly as possible. Again, we could be there for a number of weeks.
QUESTION: Some persons of interest say that being listed or looked at by police has ruined their lives. How confident are police at the moment in terms of looking at the foster family?
MICK FULLER: Look, in terms of the investigation, a number of people have been looked at and discounted, and that’s appropriate in this type of investigation. But in terms of how William Tyrrell… his life came to an end, there’s still lots of questions that need to be answered, but a big part of that is either locating his body – or remains of his body – at Kendall; and, if not, then that certainly closes one part of the investigation; that’s not the end of the investigation. It’s also important to note that the coronial matter is still happening. Obviously, that’s been put on hold and that will still re-establish at some stage when investigators feel as though they have reached the end of the investigation.
QUESTION: How confident are police now that they’re looking at the foster mother as a person of interest?
MICK FULLER: Look, we are certainly confident in terms of the leads that we are working on at the moment, and I’m confident with the briefings that I’m getting that the new team is taking an enormous amount of time to profile nearly 1,000 persons of interest and they have taken a huge amount of time to get down to a very small group of people, and I certainly have great faith in Detective Chief Inspector David Laidlaw and his team.
QUESTION: Encrypted messaging… I’m just wondering how effective the recent powers are and what part they played?
REECE KERSHAW: So those new powers have just commenced, so obviously, we’re very grateful for those powers. I think they’re some of the best powers that a police force can have when it comes to dealing with whether it be encrypted communications or dealing with the dark web in particular. As you know, there’s also a takeover power of people’s social media accounts that we’re able to do under warrant, and also network activity warrant. I think that’s where that will be the most useful area, plus our data disruption warrant. So, we will be using all of those powers available to us to make sure we prevent any kind of attack or harm to our Parliamentarians, and also making sure that we can map out these groups. But understand this too: these days it’s very unusual for us to go it alone. We’re always joined up, whether that be with ASIO or the New South Wales Police Force or Border Force or Home Affairs, Australian Criminal Intelligence, AUSTRAC, the whole lot. We’re always teamed up on this. So we’ll use all of our intelligence capabilities to make sure that we’ve got the right picture and we’re defeating those people and preventing them from causing harm.
QUESTION: Have those been used so far?
REECE KERSHAW: I think I’ve got to be careful what I say because there’s some secrecy provisions, so I’ll probably have to come back to you, if I can, on that. Thank you.