Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Budget Estimates

Mr Mike Burgess, Director General

31 March 2022

Good morning. Thank you Chair.

Australia’s security environment remains complex, challenging and changing.

Espionage and foreign interference has now supplanted terrorism as the most serious security threat facing Australia. This threat is pervasive, multifaceted and, if left unchecked, can do serious damage to our sovereignty, values and national interest.

Threat to life will always be a priority for ASIO and our partners. The terrorism threat level remains at PROBABLE.

There are ideologically and religiously motivated violent extremists who have both the intent and capability to do us harm.

The most likely terrorist attack scenario in Australia over the next 12 months will be a lone-actor or small-group attack.

The number of domestic terrorist attacks in Australia since 2014 was recently revised upwards—from nine to 11—to include two separate incidents that occurred last year.

The two additional attacks—one that was determined to be religiously motivated and the other ideologically motivated—were subsequently recategorised following lengthy investigations.

The nature of these incidents further reflects the complexity of countering terrorism where the motivation for an act of violence may not be immediately apparent.

As these incidents are now before the courts, I will not comment further on them.

We are also seeing a rise in specific-issue motivated violence driven by a wide range of grievances including anti-government sentiments, conspiracy theories and opposition to COVID restrictions and vaccinations.

This again highlights the complex, challenging and changing security environment.

As you would expect, I am conscious of these threats as we head towards a federal election. ASIO’s assessment is that it is highly unlikely the election will attract planned violent protest. Having said that, the opposition to COVID-19 measures, belief in conspiracy theories and other emotive specific-issue grievances are likely to persist, and there is a risk of spontaneous or opportunistic acts of violence at otherwise peaceful protests. Provocative or disruptive activity is also possible. ASIO will continue to work with our law enforcement agencies and other partners to ensure national security threats are identified and mitigated.

I would like to briefly take this opportunity to acknowledge Ms Heather Cook, who recently retired from the role of ASIO’s Deputy Director-General of Intelligence Service Delivery. Mr Chris Teal has now commenced in this role.

As you know, I take transparency and accountability very seriously, and Senate Estimates is an important mechanism in this regard.

I will always protect our people, sources and capabilities—we need to be able to do things that our adversaries believe are impossible, and exposing certain secrets can put our people, partnerships and operations at risk.

However, I firmly believe a vibrant liberal democracy requires a security service that is transparent and trusted, so I thank you for these questions.