National Press Club address - 22 July 2020

Delivered by the Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece P Kershaw APM on Wednesday 22 July 2020.

I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present today.

And I also acknowledge:

  • Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo
  • Director-General of ASIO Mike Burgess
  • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission CEO Mike Phelan
  • CEO of Sports Integrity Australia David Sharpe
  • AUSTRAC CEO Nicole Rose
  • Deputy Commissioner of the ABF Justine Saunders
  • The National Press Club

Ladies and gentlemen.

In our lives there are some memories we safeguard, often too fragile or too personal to share.

For many of us, it is about our families or about our childhood.

They can define us, determine our destiny and shape the adults we become.

I started in the AFP as a 19 year old in 1988.

Now in my 50s, and after becoming the eighth Commissioner of the AFP in October last year, I’ve reflected on why I wanted to serve – and why protecting the community has been so crucial and instinctive in my life.

When I was about four years old, I had an older foster sister who my parents took in and loved like their own.

When she was an infant, she did not have the same support or care that my sisters and I enjoyed.

In some cruel paradox of life, the evils of drugs, alcohol and neglect brought her to us, a girl who gave us so much love and so many cherished memories.

Her time with my family was just a few short years, but for me, the impact of that time was profound and lasting. The challenges she endured shouldn’t be endured by anyone, let alone a child.

This has never left my thoughts and is the foundation reason why I have such a strong sense of justice and wanted to serve the community.

It’s why I became a police officer.

Because when we have strong communities, we have strong, secure and healthy children.

I have never publicly disclosed before that I had a foster sister.

But I believe it is important to explain what type of law enforcement officer I am, what drives me, and why under my leadership, the AFP will – and must - head in a new direction.

My objective as Commissioner is to reinforce the sense of security and confidence Australians have in the Australian Federal Police.

I have had my feet under the desk for nine months now, and I know where the AFP needs to head.

Operational duties and results are our priority. Time and time again we see organisations forget what their core business is – ours is fighting crime – and what we won’t forget, is that we are a police force.

Under my tenure, the AFP will focus on five key areas – counter terrorism and foreign interference; transnational serious organised crime; cyber and fraud; and child exploitation.

Through our Brisbane-based Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, known as the ACCCE, we are striving to become a global leader in this crime area.

The AFP is being super-charged with a renewed sense of purpose and is being mobilised to track and take down our targets.

Already, we are more visible, more vocal and outsmarting serious crime.

We are muscling up and striving to always be one step ahead – that's the best way to describe it - because the world we live in demands it, and importantly, our community expects it.

The old threats still remain, but new ones are emerging as geopolitics, a global pandemic and technology influences how law enforcement needs to adapt to fight crime.

I have made sweeping changes since I took on the role of Commissioner and we are now seeing the benefits of those reforms.

This included decentralising authority and deploying personnel out of Canberra and back to cities and regions.

We are mobilising our resources to where the majority of our crime is.

Sworn police are back in uniform, which they are proud to wear.

We are going hunting for domestic and overseas-based criminals, who for too long thought they were untouchable.

Part of the new strategy is to disrupt earlier, and we can do that, because our intelligence and offshore reach is second to none.

We aren't fishing for minnows; our nets are for the big fish, and we have cast wide and acted fast.

With more than 100 AFP personnel posted in 33 countries, the AFP has a unique international remit and operates one of the world’s largest, and most diverse international law enforcement networks.

We have strong relationships with key international partner agencies that date back 40 years.

Just because a syndicate has moved, or has established offshore, where many now operate, it does not mean our tentacles cannot reach them.

At almost unprecedented levels, we are working with our partners to disrupt the lives of criminal Australians living abroad.

Just one recent example is the strong, working relationship between Dubai Police and the AFP, which in June this year helped the Organised Crime Squad in NSW close a seven-year drug importation investigation.

It is alleged Australian organised crime syndicates had fled to Dubai to avoid being apprehended by Australian law enforcement.

They allegedly imported almost 3 tonnes of MDMA and methylamphetamine into Australia. The drugs are estimated to have a street value of more than $150 million.

Last month, Dubai Police arrested two men within seven days of receiving an INTERPOL red notice, which ensured that the alleged offenders could not flee the jurisdiction.

NSW Police are now seeking the extradition of the two alleged offenders who were arrested in Dubai.

What does this mean? Well, it sends a very clear message to crime syndicates that it is time to get very nervous.

The AFP is using the full breadth of our resources, the full force of the law, and our intelligence, and our partnerships, to pick them off one-by-one.

And until those handcuffs are put on, we will make their lives miserable.

We are using unexplained wealth and proceeds of crime legislation to seize homes, cars, money and jewellery.

Suddenly, the partners of criminals are twice as unhappy - not only are their partners facing jail, but their dishonest wealth is being stripped from them.

One weapon in our armoury is the AFP-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce, known as the CACT.

The CACT’s mandate is to deprive individuals of the proceeds and benefits of their crimes, and to punish and deter them from breaching our laws.

It will unleash maximum damage to the criminal environment.

The CACT brings together the resources and expertise of the AFP, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australian Taxation Office, AUSTRAC and other partners like the Australian Border Force.

In the past financial year, the CACT has restrained criminal assets in excess of $250 million, a record result across the taskforce's nine-year history.

Supported by strong legislative powers, the CACT's large and Australia-wide team of police officers, litigators, financial investigators, forensic accounts and analysts are able to target all crime types.

Within the CACT’s record haul, we have restrained and confiscated assets linked to money laundering, illicit drugs, illicit tobacco, identity crime, Corporations Act offences and fraud against the taxpayer.

And earlier today, we held a press conference with partner agencies to reveal Operation Bordelon, an AFP-led investigation that has busted open a complex, multi- jurisdictional fraud.

Twelve alleged offenders across the east coast of Australia are facing serious charges, including conspiring with the intention of dishonestly causing a loss to the Commonwealth, and conspiring to deal with the proceeds of crime. Some of the offenders are facing a jail term of up to 25 years’.

The AFP alleges the criminal syndicate ran a tiered structure of corporate entities to receive payroll tax for labour hire services and then siphoned-off the Pay-As-You-Go Withholding tax component instead of remitting it to the Australian Tax Office.

We allege the defrauded funds were then moved to companies directed by syndicate members, their relatives and associates, and offshore to Singapore.

The value of fraud is about $17 million. This comprises tax not remitted to the ATO - essentially money owed to the taxpayer.

The AFP has restrained about $21 million in assets under Operation Bordelon, including 12 properties across QLD, NSW and ACT, 17 luxury vehicles and 65 bank accounts.

The AFP and our partners will continue to push hard to ensure members of this syndicate end up behind bars, and their assets confiscated.

A significant focus for the AFP will be restraining assets that have been purchased with the proceeds of crime.

I have set my leadership team a criminal assets confiscation key performance indicator of $600 million over the next five years, and I may even stretch that to $1 billion.

In April this year, the AFP established Taskforce Iris in response to the threat of fraud against the Commonwealth's COVID-19 stimulus package.

As of July 20 this year, the AFP has received 24 referrals in relation to the potential defrauding of COVID-19 financial support packages.

Twelve matters are under investigation, six matters have been finalised and a further six matters have been referred to other agencies. Four alleged offenders have been charged, including under Operation IRIS-RUBY, where in May two women were arrested in Port Macquarie for allegedly fraudulently claiming bushfire and coronavirus payments.

It is alleged they used 25 assumed identities to try to claim more than $27,000 in payments they were not entitled to, of which more than $10,000 was paid. They have both been charged with eight counts of obtaining financial advantage by deception, carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years’ jail.

Make no mistake. If you try to steal from the taxpayer, we will find you, and charge you.

However, to identify and track down fraudsters is not as simple as it was back when I was a young AFP officer.

It is complex and underscores why those who work for the AFP are not just the muscles who kick down the doors.
What distinguishes us from other law enforcement is the meticulous, brilliant, and dedicated people we have across every part of our organisation.

And we can't do this without intelligent and selfless Australians who want to serve their country.

And today I'm putting out the call. There are many exceptional Australians, especially our younger generation, who have lost their jobs through COVID-19.

As the head of an agency, it is incumbent on me to harvest the best and the brightest. So I ask, if you want to stop terrorists who seek to act out their twisted ideology, stop foreign interference or strip the invisibility cloak from the predators who hunt our children online, please heed the call to action.

Because we need you, especially those most vulnerable – our children.

Most of you sitting here today would be shocked by the extremely-high number of sick, child sex predators who use technology to steal our kids’ innocence and ruin their lives.

And to be frank, it's time Australians paid more attention. It is a confronting and despicable crime that often elicits an automatic response to tune out.

It’s not surprising because as a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes against children, I often think of my own and fear what if that happened to my children?

This is a tough message to convey - but no one saved their kids by covering their ears or eyes.

It is time to stop turning down the radio or walking away from the television when one of my team, almost daily, reveal another child exploitation bust.

We need parents and caregivers to understand how their children are being targeted and how technology invites strangers into their kids’ bedrooms. We need you to partner with us to fight this insidious crime.

We need you to upskill to learn and understand what your kids do on the internet. We need you to learn how social media services and platforms like TIKTOK, Instagram and Snap Chat work.

We teach our children how to cross roads and how to drive on our highways, so equally we must train them how to safely navigate the information superhighway.

Last year, the AFP's ACCCE received almost 17,000 reports of child exploitation – that’s about 45 cases a day. And from the six months from January to June 30 this year, the number of cases received by the ACCCE are already at 11,325.

The ACCCE and their Interpol-trained investigators, are helping save these victims, some too young to walk.
Our investigators frustratingly watch some victims grow-up online, being abused daily.

But the AFP will never give up. Pixel, by pixel, our investigators look for commonalities or anything that can identify those who need rescuing.

Between July 2019 to May 2020 - just 10 months - the AFP has laid 1078 Commonwealth Child Exploitation charges against 144 people.

It compares to 74 summons and arrests; and 372 charges laid in the previous financial year.

This crime type is getting worse. The average number of images seized when an offender is arrested has been steadily increasing. In the early-to-mid 2000s, a child sex predator had about 1000 images, now it’s between 10,000 to 80,000 images and videos.

And in some countries it costs less than a packet of cigarettes to order pay-per-view, pay-to-direct child rape and exploitation. And the number of Australians undertaking this abhorrent crime has increased during COVID-19. There are more people at home on their computers and more desperate people across the world.

In June this year, an AFP-led investigation named Operation ARKSTONE smashed open a domestic online network of alleged child sex offenders accused of producing and sharing child abuse material.

Earlier this year, the United States National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children provided information to the ACCCE about an Australian internet protocol address linked to the sharing of child exploitation material.

The AFP worked with state and territory police to uncover one of the biggest domestic child exploitation network of contact child sex offenders.

They are accused of abusing Australian children and recording their horrific crimes to share.

The AFP with state counterparts have charged 11 alleged offenders, across three states, with 257 charges. We have also removed 43 Australian children from harm.

Some of the offending was so confronting it has shaken some of our unshakable.

The annual report of the Internet Watch Foundation stated that in 2019 it assessed a webpage every two minutes.

And every four minutes that webpage showed a child being sexually abused.

Can you imagine if every four minutes a patron was being assaulted outside a pub, or if every four minutes there was another video on the internet showing cruelty to animals?

As a country we need to be more outraged about those who produce and distribute child exploitation material, and we need to be better engaged when the inevitable debate arises with Facebook and other platforms when they move to end- to-end encryption.

To put it simply, when these platforms move to end-to-end encryption, the job becomes harder for police to catch predators. We are very worried about when that day comes, while on the other hand, paedophiles are counting down the days because they cannot wait.

And I say this to those who argue that moving towards end-to-end encryption is the privacy they need and deserve:

I challenge you to explain that to a child who has been tortured, exploited and repeatedly for the gratification of others; explain to that victim that they may never get justice because technology has been designed to keep the identity of their monster a secret.

If it takes a village to raise a child, advances in technology now means it takes a country to keep them safe. Australians cannot relinquish this duty and the AFP will never relinquish this duty.

We will continue to push for new laws that make it easier and lawful to keep Australians safe.

But I know when we do that, we need to explain why it is necessary.

Because when we communicate better it helps the public understand why we do what we do.

By doing so, it also means we attract smarter people to our organisation, we get better intelligence; making it easier to dismantle criminal enterprises, and we install pride and confidence in our people, who risk their lives every day
to keep Australians safe.

But it’s not just the public we keep safe, it’s the nation’s critical infrastructure, personal information and corporate assets.

The internet and those devices that connect us all have become a blessing and a curse.

Malicious cyber activity against Australia’s national and economic interests is increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and impact.

The risks from cyber threats are anticipated to increase through emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G communications networks.

Organised criminals are using sophisticated cybercrime services for financial gain; stealing our personal information for fraud and extortion; and targeting our businesses for their highly-prized intellectual property.

The AFP has primary responsibility for the investigation of cybercrimes directed at critical infrastructure, systems of national significance, Commonwealth Government networks and those impacting the whole of economy.

This includes significant computer intrusions, hacktivism, ransomware and business email compromise.

The AFP works hand-in-glove with the Department of Home Affairs – led by Secretary Mike Pezzullo - so we can strategically land our law enforcement punch on those trying to harm Australians and Australian assets.

Cybercrimes defrauding Australians, including those seen during COVID-19, are often cloaked in anonymity though encryption and other anonymising technologies such as those used on the dark web.

The use of such technologies makes it easier to commit serious crimes and at volumes never witnessed before.

On top of that, the dark web allows criminals to trade in child abuse material, sell illegal firearms and illicit drugs, and plan terrorist attacks.

COVID-19 has not decreased our terror threat. Australia’s terror threat remains at Probable.

One of the extraordinary successes of the AFP has been its Counter Terrorism and Special Investigations Command.

Every day, when these personnel go to work they are on edge.

We have great intelligence and a superior counter-terrorism command but we all know it just takes one lone wolf with a car or a knife to cause death and fear.

Since September 2014, when the national terrorism threat level was raised, there have been seven attacks, however, nationally, there have been 18 major counter-terrorism disruption operations in response to potential or imminent attacks.

There have been 110 people charged as a result of 51 counter-terrorism-related operations in Australia.

And just since December last year, joint AFP and state police operations have conducted two major counter-terrorism disruptions into potential domestic attacks.

Our operational tempo has remained high during the pandemic.

Deployments and postings have been impacted by the travel and border restrictions in response to COVID-19.

Maintaining our international footprint and the ability to obtain evidence, collect and disseminate intelligence; and interact with persons of interest in conflict zones, remains critical to managing Australian foreign terrorist fighters.

There has not appeared to be a decrease in the rhetoric or propaganda from terrorist groups. Their intent remains the same – to inflict violence. And in one sense they are using the pandemic to help them recruit.

Extremists are seeking to take advantage of isolation, loneliness and financial stress to boost their numbers. We expect an increase in online activity is likely to help extremists recruit those who may be more susceptible to online radicalisation.

Targeting this crime type is a priority.


****

Today, in this room, we essentially have two vocations with similar goals - police and journalists.

We both strive to shine light into darkness. Sometimes we are at opposing ends of the argument but for the majority of the time, we do what we do because we strive for justice. For many of us, it is not a job, it is a calling.

Under my leadership the AFP will own our success as well as stand-up and accept our mistakes, because when you carry guns and take people’s freedoms away, it is incumbent on us do to so.

Overwhelmingly though, we get it right.

And the AFP is one of the most trusted and respected police forces in the world.

It is often the Australian way to downplay our success. Tall poppy syndrome seems to be an Australian disease with no cure.

But I will continue to unashamedly spruik the good work of the AFP of the past and the future.

We must remember that it was the AFP, working with the Indonesian National Police, who helped catch the Bali bombers, whose murderous intent stole the lives of 202 people, including 88 Australians, almost 18 years ago.

Not many people know this, or they may have forgotten, but how the AFP helped identify the culprits was nothing but extraordinary investigative work.

Our forensic team helped scour a crime scene 40,000 sq metres.

They found DNA from suicide bombers on the ceilings of buildings. Astonishingly, they detected potassium chlorate, the main component of the bombs, on lamp posts and cracks in the road around the crater, which were later linked to minute particles recovered from the suspect premises.

Fragments of serial numbers of electrical components, barely able to be seen with the naked eye, identified the 5100 Nokia mobile phone used to detonate a bomb.

And the AFP still remains at the forefront of helping to bring justice to families who fell victim to another mass murder.

We have just passed the sixth anniversary of the downing of MH17.

Thirty-eight Australians were among the 298 passengers and crew who were killed.

We should not allow time to dilute the outrage of the global community in condemning this crime.

During my time as the senior AFP officer in the Netherlands, I developed both personal and professional relationships with those tasked with leading this investigation. They are my friends and colleagues.

I will do everything necessary to support them to bring those responsible to account and provide some closure for those who lost loved ones in this tragedy because it is the right thing to do.

The AFP, with the Dutch and other partner agencies, have been integral in the deployment of expertise and the collection of vital evidence to help facilitate the trial of the four suspects.

The role of the Joint Investigation Team, comprised of Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Netherlands and Ukraine, has been crucial in pursuing the truth. As the investigation continues, the joint investigation team cannot rule out further indictments.

The AFP continues to support the Australian government, together with the Netherlands, in directly engaging with Russia regarding its role in the downing of the aircraft. Our hearts remain heavy for those who have lost loved ones and the AFP is dedicated to bring those responsible to justice.

Australians are tough but tragedy and uncertainty can unsettle even the most resilient.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has a long way to play out and unpredictability will keep the world off-centre.

But this you can take to the bank. The AFP will never give up in our fight for those wronged – whether here or overseas.

My commitment to every Australian, including the one million who live overseas; is that the AFP will work hard every day to keep you safe.

And just as importantly, the AFP under my leadership will be transparent and be open with the community.

A police force without transparency is a police force at risk of corrosion and lacking moral fibre. That is not the AFP. We stand tall, ready to serve and unwavering in our commitment to who we work for – you, the Australian public.

However, equally, I have a message for those who seek to do Australians harm. We will be relentless. We will outsmart you. And we will always be a step ahead.

The full force of the Australian Federal Police is coming for you.

I’m happy to take questions.

National Security Hotline

Read the AFP Annual Report 2018-19

The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation

Platypus Online: Read. Discover. Enjoy.