Top cop’s warning on ‘threat to democracy’

Senate Estimates
Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw said more than 700 reports of violence towards parliamentarians had been reported since July. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Australian parliamentarians are facing a rising number of threats to their safety, Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw has warned, with reports rising to 725 so far this financial year, up from just 279 in 2020-21.

In an appearance before senate estimates on Friday afternoon, Commissioner Kershaw said he was “concerned” by the rise in reported threats in recent years.

“In the past four years, reports of harassment, nuisance, offensive and threatening communications against Australian parliamentarians have increased by 160 per cent,” he said.

Senate Estimates
Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw warned of the rising threats to Australian parliamentarians. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Commissioner Kershaw said the force had devoted additional resources to ensuring parliamentarian’s safety.

“More activities and events in 2023 attracted a heightened level of security risk, which required the implementation of additional resources and risk treatment,” he said.“As of March 31, we recorded a 35 per cent increase year-on-year from 2023 relating to parliamentarians’ movements assessed as a significant risk or higher.”

Labelling the reported risks against MPs and senators as a “threat to democracy”, Commissioner Kershaw added that plans were already afoot to plan for the next federal election which is due by May 2025 at the latest.

“For Federal parliamentarians here today … if you feel unsafe or need advice, please contact the AFP’s Security Protection Diplomatic Liaison team,” he said

Young radicalised online: Kershaw

Earlier in his remarks, Commissioner Kershaw spoke of the “highly-concerning trend” of the online radicalisation of young Australians.

“We are concerned about the activity identified online, as well as what is happening in the real-world, including violence in schools, such as planning possible attacks on students and teachers, and the production of explosives or possession or use of weapons.

Since July 2021, the AFP and its counter-terrorism partners had commenced investigations into 27 young Australians between the ages of 12 and 17, with 60 per cent subsequently charged with a range of offences including advocating terrorism, distributing extremist material, planning a terrorist offence, or being a member of a terrorist organisation.

Despite the charges, Commissioner Kershaw maintained it was still the AFP’s priority to intervene before terrorism-related offences were committed.

“When possible, and where there is no immediate threat to the community, the AFP prioritises early intervention and disruption strategies ahead of prosecuting young people,” he said.

“Once there is a prosecution and conviction, many lives are severely disrupted.

In a plea to mums and dads, Commissioner Kershaw encouraged parents to pay attention to what their children viewed online. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

The AFP commissioner added that it took “significant resources” to manage high risk terrorism offenders after they had served time behind bars.

“The management of each offender requires dedicated resources, with planning typically starting two years before their release date,” he said.

“For example, the AFP managed and enforced extended supervision order conditions on an adult between 26 August, 2022, to 21 January 2024. This required about 80 members, and 10,300 operational hours.”

Commissioner Kershaw said there were currently 25 high risk terrorism offenders due for release within the next five years.

Even as the AFP was working with agencies and therapeutic services, as well as alongside community and faith leaders, Commissioner Kershaw called on parents to pay attention to their children’s “online nutrition”.

“There is a lot of junk and rubbish on the internet and social media platforms,” he said.