Dual citizens involved in terrorism and “hate preachers” such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are in the sights of federal government plans to toughen up national security.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned the threat from terrorism at home and abroad, amid the rise of groups such as Islamic State, is now much greater and becoming harder to combat.
In his first national security statement, delivered at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Canberra, Mr Abbott said the nation must also confront a growing threat from home-grown extremism.
“By any measure the threat to Australia has worsened,” he said on Monday.
The number of Australians fighting with terror groups such as IS, as well as known sympathisers and supporters of extremism, had dramatically increased, as had the potential threat from home-grown terrorism.
The number of high priority investigations had risen to 400 – double what it was 12 months ago.
“Even if the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq stopped today, there is now an Australian cohort of hardened jihadists who are intent on radicalising and influencing others,” Mr Abbott said.
Under proposed changes, the Citizenship Act will be amended to strengthen the power of authorities to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals.
But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government couldn’t forcibly repatriate anyone if their birth country wouldn’t take them back.
“In that case we’re not able to send them back and they would have to remain in Australia,” he told ABC TV.
“We need to look at the ways in which we can reduce the threat level of that person to our society.”
While there are already limited powers that allow citizenship to be revoked, there have been just 16 cases since 1949.
Australian nationals would also risk losing privileges – including restricting travel, denying access to consular services and access to welfare – if they were found to be involved in terrorism.
Immigration department boss Michael Pezzullo said the government was looking to expand the grounds upon which revocation of citizenship could occur.
The department will also conduct a review that will include recommendations on strengthening the legal and policy framework around visas and citizenship.
Mr Abbott again singled out the Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir, saying terrorism advocacy laws would be strengthened to target “hate preachers”.
“Organisations and individuals blatantly spreading discord and division – such as Hizb ut-Tahrir – should not do so with impunity,” he said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar said his organisation had operated in Australia for over two decades without contravening a single law.
“Tony Abbott says he will take action against `hate preachers’, naming my organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir. But we have already been scrutinised for 15 years,” he wrote in a comment piece published on Monday by The Guardian.
“Every investigation has produced nothing untoward, nothing prosecutable.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the proposed measures deserved careful consideration, but liberties of citizens should only be reduced when existing arrangements proved inadequate.
But Australian National University terrorism expert Clarke Jones says the proposals are unlikely to make Australia more secure.
“New measures may even go the other way and exasperate the underlying causes of violent extremism,” he said.
Mr Abbott also said the national terror alert system would be upgraded and a national counter-terrorism co-ordinator would be appointed.
New programs would also be introduced to counter terrorist “propaganda” and the ability of IS to churn out up to 100,000 social media messages a day.