Revelations that a French national associated with Al Qaeda lived in Australia from May until late October 2003, coupled with the surprise arrival of a boat with 14 asylum-seeking Turkish Kurds to an island near Australian shores, have led the government to reassert its commitment to effective border controls and internal security.
Despite uncertainty about the details of the stay in Australia of the alleged terrorist, French national Willie Brigitte, he is known to have entered on a tourist visa obtained in France. During his stay in Australia he married an Australian woman, a convert to Islam who has been a member of the Australian Defence Forces. Only in September did French government sources advise Australia of Brigitte's presence and their concerns about his activities — despite the fact that the French consulate in Sydney had replaced his reportedly lost French passport. Before Australia deported him to France, where he is being interrogated, Brigitte is alleged to have been organizing a terrorist attack.
Regardless of the details of Brigitte's stay in Australia, his "outing" and deportation have provided Australian authorities with the opportunity to justify, in the public eye, strengthened security measures. Authorities have raided the homes of individuals associated with the fundamentalist Wahabi prayer centre that Brigitte visited in Sydney. The government has also been quick to highlight that despite the expansion of powers given to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., French authorities have even greater powers to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists.
While the opposition Labor Party is resisting pressure to agree to further expansion of ASIO's powers, they did support the government's emergency recall of the Senate on November 9 for a special session that approved adding two foreign groups to Australia's list of banned terrorist organizations: the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas, as well as Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group with whom Brigitte is said to have trained. Neither group is listed as such by the United Nations Security Council.
The Labor Party did not, however, support the government's moves regarding the legal status of Melville Island, the spot 80 km from the northern Australian city of Darwin where the boatload of Turkish Kurds arrived. The government issued a "retroactive regulation" removing Melville and some 4,000 small islands off the coast of Australia from the country's migration zone (now defined as the Australian mainland, including Tasmania, an area where new arrivals have the right to lodge an application for asylum status). First proposed by the government at the time of the 2002 Tampa affair, a pivotal incident in which authorities prevented a boatload of asylum seekers from coming ashore, the idea was at that time rejected by Parliament.
The intent of the proposed regulation was to allow the government to claim that, because the people on such boats have not landed on Australian soil as they would like to redefine it, they cannot lodge asylum claims as would normally be possible under international law. The decline in "boat people" arrivals following the government's handling of the Tampa crisis and the use of Pacific Island processing centers meant that the government did not pursue parliamentary approval that would set the regulation in stone. However, when the government reactivated the proposal in Parliament following the arrival of the Kurds, the regulation was again defeated in the Senate by the Labor and minority opposition parties.
The 14 Turkish Kurds did manage to come ashore on Melville Island, but were sent back to sea by Melville residents before authorities arrived from Darwin. A government vessel later towed their boat out of Australian territorial waters, and the boat returned to Indonesia with its human cargo.
The strong government response stands in contrast with its unexpected and highly publicized announcement, later in the same week, that it was releasing an Iranian asylum seeker from detention, giving him permanent residence in Australia, and allowing his two young children to join him. However, political commentators view the moves to strengthen security and border protection as a more accurate representation of the government's present objectives than the one-off release of the Iranian asylum seeker.