Rising body count of Australians in Syria and Iraq


At least 58 and up to 66 Australians are believed to have been killed in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, according to new Federal government figures.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection included the figures in evidence tendered in a case before the Fair Work Commission this week, in which the DIBP sought to end protected industrial action at Australian airports on public safety grounds.

Most of the evidence from the Australian Border Force’s assistant commissioner strategic border command, Clive Murray, is covered by confidentiality orders and cannot be published.

However, one statement by Murray – which is not confidential – said the recent industrial action at airports posed particular problems because it was being staged as 30-minute rolling stoppages nationally, which could be held at any time over a fortnight.

Murray, who was previously managed the AFP’s international network on serious and organised crime, said the national terrorist threat for Australia set by ASIO remained unchanged at “PROBABLE” over the last two years.

He summarised the current threat and response to terrorism in Australia as:

*48 people charged as a result of 19 counter-terrorism operations since September 2014 when the national terrorism threat level was raised to the current level

*15 convicted terrorist offenders in jail, with 37 before the courts on terrorism-related charges

*four attacks and ten major counter-terrorism disruption operations since September 2014

*around 110 Australians currently fighting or engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq

* around 200 Australians have travelled to Syria/Iraq since 2012, with more than half of them still active in the conflict zone

* at least 58 and potentially up to 66 Australians believed to have been killed in Syria/Iraq

* about 40 people have returned to Australia after travelling to Syria/Iraq and joined groups involved in the conflict

* some 200 people in Australia being investigated for providing support to participants in the Syria/Iraq conflict, including for “funding and facilitation” or seeking to travel

* around 185 Australian passports have been cancelled or refused in relation to the Syria/Iraq conflict


Some of the figures given by the ABF’s Murray seem to tally with figures given by the Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis at Senate estimates hearings in May this year.

For example, the ASIO chief quoted an “unchanged figure” of about 110 Australian citizens who were “actively engaged in hostilities or directly supporting hostilities in Iraq and Syria, fighting with ISIL.”

Lewis also said about 190 further Australians were involved in “direct support” with just over 400 “high-priority investigations going on”.

“There are 50 Australians that we can confirm have been killed in Syria and Iraq. That figure may be as high as perhaps 59, but I just am not in a position to speak further on that difference. But it is certainly 50 confirmed.”

Lewis added said that 177 passports had been cancelled while 33 had been suspended, which also seems to tally with the information given by Mr Murray.

However, the evidence given in the Fair Work proceedings by the ABF’s Murray refers to “at least” 58 fatalities in Syria/Iraq and potentially up to 66 deaths, which is higher than the figure quoted by the ASIO chief.

Murray said his confidential evidence contained more details on known or likely threats, but unknown threats were a “much more significant concern”.

“Without knowing what threats may manifest, in which ways, and at which times, ongoing vigilance taken through the application of ongoing effective borders control is critical.”

It should be noted that the CSPU argued that airport personnel in key security roles were exempted from the industrial action to protect public safety, but the Department had failed to manage the industrial action.

The Fair Work Commission terminated the bargaining covering DIBP employees, which puts an end to legally-protected industrial action in pursuit of a new workplace agreement after almost three years of fruitless bargaining.

However, the decision allows the CPSU to push for the Commission to arbitrate a new agreement, an outcome that was opposed by the government which is trying to cap public annual public sector pay rises at 2%.

FOOTNOTE: It seems I was the only journalist who attended the Fair Work proceedings, which is a common occurrence in tribunals and courts nowadays.

So, I thought it worthwhile putting the information on the public record, even though I have some scepticism about the claims made by Australian security agencies when it comes to domestic terrorism levels.

The statistics quoted by the ABF’s Clive Murray are not stated in the decision by Fair Work Commissioner Nick Wilson, which is available here: https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2016fwc7184.htm

Finally, I don’t know whether the figures on travel to Syria and Iraq include the former Coalition MP and junior minister, Wyatt Roy🙂

Worries over press freedom in Timor-Leste



The Timor-Leste government faces a stern test of its attitude towards press freedom when two journalists appear in court on Friday on charges of “slanderous denunctiation”.

The charges relate to a story published late last year in the Timor Post about the Prime Minister Rui Aria de Araújo and his former role as a finance ministry advisor in a state telecommunications tender.

The story contained an error, which was acknowledged and corrected as required under Timor-Leste’s press law.

But journalist Raimundos Oki, and a former editor of the Timor Post, Laurenco Martins, face up to three years’ jail if convicted.

A range of media freedom groups, including the International Federation of Journalists, have called for the charges to be dropped. They argue the charges amount to criminal defamation and will set a worrying precedent.

During a visit to Dili in May, I asked the Prime Minister about the charges during an interview that mostly dealt with the maritime boundary dispute with Australia and the Timorese economy.

In reply, de Araújo made one semi-valid point and one claim that is simply implausible.

The PM insisted he could not direct the State prosecutor to drop the proceedings – as suggested by international press organisations – because this would amount to the executive interfering in decisions taken by an independent legal office.

But de Araújo he also argued that he had sent details of the publication to the prosecutor as an ordinary Timorese citizen, not as the Prime Minister.

This last claim is nonsensical because, well, he is the Prime Minister.

Besides, his overall stance is contradictory. On one hand, de Araújo is arguing it would be improper to direct the prosecutor to drop the case, but on the other he reckons that it’s perfectly fine for the PM to lob a dossier complaining  about a media report into the prosecutor’s in-tray.


The broader point is that the entire Timorese leadership – from Xanana Gusmao , Jose Ramos Horta, President Taur Matan Ruak and PM de Araújo – have to decide if they want their country to have a free and independent press.

If the answer is yes, they should address the Media Law that came into force in 2014.

The charges against the two journalists are under the Penal Code, but both pose threats to press freedom.

Here is a piece about press freedom in Timor-Leste for the Walkley magazine on August:


Here’s a link to a petition calling for the charges to be dropped:


Here’s a link to an article on regional press freedom by ABC journalist and Walkley trustee Michael Janda:






Why is the board of Chevron Corp visiting Australia, all at once?

A cavalcade of five private jets landed at Fiji’s Nadi international airport on Saturday that reportedly carried the upper echelon of the oil giant’s board and management.

The Fiji Sun newspaper reported on Sunday that the jets were ferrying the board of directors of Chevron Corporation to meetings in Australia.


The paper said the Chevron jets were in Fiji five years ago, so the visit is not a first.

A spokesman for Chevron Australia confirmed that members of the board were visiting Western Australia for a few days.

However, the company did not respond to questions on the purpose of the visit and whether any major decisions were pending.

The interest of the board is understandable, given an interrupted mid-year start to production at its $US54 billion Gorgon LNG plant on Barrow Island which has endured big cost blowouts in the construction phase.

There have also been delays at Chevron’s $US29 billion Wheatstone project in WA

So there’s a lot for the Chevron chairman and chief executive, John S. Watson, to mull over  with the rest of the board (https://www.chevron.com/about/leadership).


Australian objections in Timor Sea case thrown out

The Permanent Court of Arbitration has thrown out the Turnbull government’s argument it did not have jurisdiction to hear a dispute about disputed maritime boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia.

In a decision published on Monday the five-member Commission said it was competent with respect to the compulsory conciliation over the maritime boundary.

“There are no issues of admissibility or comity that preclude the Commission from continuing these proceedings,” the decision.

Under the ruling, the 12-month period for the compulsory conciliation will run from the date of the arbitration which was dated September 19.

The conciliation will not be binding on the parties, but the Turnbull government will come under increased international scrutiny during the process, which is conducted under the UN

Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Timor-Leste government welcomed the decision, which followed a three-day hearing held in The Hague.

Timor’s Minister of State Agio Pereira – who is also their agent in the proceedings – said: “This process is an opportunity to set a good example in our region and we will engage with respect for the commission and its recommendations, ever conscious of the importance of maintaining the best possible relationship with our close neighbour Australia.”

Chief Negotiator and former Prime Minster, Xanana Gusmão thanked the Commissioners for their expertise and noted “Just as we fought so hard and suffered so much for our independence, Timor-Leste will not rest until we have our sovereign rights over both land and sea.”

Before the decision, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis said that Australia would abide by the Commission’s finding on jurisdiction but noted the final report was not binding.

Link to further information on the proceedings:


Link to today’s decision:





Aus govt defends status quo in Timor Sea


The Turnbull government has confirmed that it will challenge the jurisdiction of the UN-sponsored conciliation commission on the disputed maritime boundary with Timor-Leste.

A joint statement was issued in Canberra today by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, and the Attorney-General George Brandis.

The announcement comes hours before Australia is due to participate in the first meeting of the Conciliation Commission proceedings brought by Timor-Leste under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in The Hague.

“We will deliver a statement explaining the background of the dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste, as well as our position on matters relating to the legal competence (jurisdiction) of the Commission,” the statement said.

“In line with our pre-existing, legally binding treaties, which are in full accordance with international law, we will argue that the Commission does not have jurisdiction to conduct hearings on maritime boundaries.”

“Australia will abide by the Commission’s finding as to whether it has jurisdiction to hear matters on maritime boundaries.”

“If the Commission ultimately finds that it does have jurisdiction to hear matters on maritime boundaries, then its final report on that matter is not binding.”

The Ministers said the statement to the conciliation commission would reaffirm Australia’s “principled commitment to upholding existing treaty obligations with Timor-Leste.”

“These have benefited both our countries, and enabled Timor-Leste to accumulate a Petroleum Fund worth more than $16 billion, more than eight times its annual GDP.”

However, the Australian stance will not be accepted by Timor, which will give its opening statement to the proceedings later today.

Its main speaker will be former president, Xanana Gusmao.

Here’s link to the Aus govt statement:









Has Australia really changed its stance on a maritime border with Timor-Leste?

Australia has injected last-minute intrigue into the opening of compulsory conciliation proceedings over the unsettled maritime border with Timor-Leste.

The utterances came – more or less out of the blue — ahead of hearings which are due to start in The Hague on Monday evening (AEST).

To recap, Timor has triggered compulsory conciliation under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in an attempt to settle the maritime boundary between the two countries and claim a bigger share the large oil and gas deposits.

The process is the first such conciliation commission. The result is not binding but the recommendations carry moral force in being made in a report to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Timor can’t take its case to the International Court of Justice under because, in 2002, Australia withdrew from the treaty clause that provides for compulsory dispute resolution shortly before Timor-Leste’s independence.

It argues that international law supports the maritime boundary being on the median line between Timor and Australia.

Australia has argued that the 2006 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea Treaty (CMATS) put a 50-year hold on negotiating a permanent maritime border.

But Timor has argued that Australia did not negotiate CMATS in good faith because our spooks allegedly bugged the Timorese government offices in 2004.

Until this weekend, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop has argued that Australia negotiated CMATS in good faith and remains committed to it.

Bishop has argued that the Timor Sea treaties, including CMATS, have allowed oil and gas reserves to be developed for the benefit of Timor and Australia and are “entirely consistent with international law.”

timor5That’s the summary. But Australia has been a strong supporter of arguments mounted by the US and others that China should respect the ruling in favour of The Philippines on the South China Sea.

This has raised the question of why – if Australia is such a strong supporter of the international law of the sea – why not submit to arbitration on the maritime boundary with Timor-Leste?

This weekend, The Australian’s Southeast Asia correspondent, Amanda Hodge, quoted Bishop as insisting that Australia’s stance was fully consistent with its position in The Philippines arbitration case.

“In both situations we emphasise the importance of the rule of law and the willingness resolve disputes peacefully,” Bishop said, adding that Australia considered “the decision of the upcoming conciliation binding on both sides.”

A story about the Hague hearing for the ABC Online by Europe correspondent Steve Cannane included the following statement by Bishop: “As with the ruling in the Philippines arbitration case, we consider the decision of the upcoming compulsory conciliation binding on both sides.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Embassy in Dili issued a statement last week about the Hague proceedings.

“In this opening session, both Australia and Timor-Leste will present a statement,” the Embassy said. “Australia’s statement will outline Australia’s view of the Timor Sea dispute and how it might be resolved.”

These comments have brought speculation per whether Timor is close to a “win” on the maritime boundary, but it that true?

I interviewed the Prime Minster of Timor-Leste, Dr Rui Maria de Araújo, in Dili in April.

TimorPMPrime Minister Araújo said Timor-Leste was “very appreciative” of Australia participating in the conciliation, even though the “first point of disagreement” was that Australia had indicated it would be challenging the jurisdiction of the conciliation commission.

He said Australia had already indicated it would argue the 2006 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea Treaty (CMATS) deferred establishment of a permanent maritime boundary for 50 years.

“The way it is framed is that Australia is claiming that because of the agreement that we had, CMATS, the compulsory conciliation doesn’t have jurisdiction on that,” Araújo said.

“So the commission of conciliators will have to go through the arguments from Australia, and also the arguments for Timor-Leste, and make a decision.”

But has the position of the Turnbull government really changed between April and August?

The Timorese are skeptical, given their experience of the last 40 years or so.

They are wondering why Bishop refers to the outcome of the conciliation commission being binding from Australia’s point of view? Is Australia confident of winning the jurisdictional argument and then running the line that settles things for 50 years?

The opening arguments to the conciliation commission will be broadcast live on the Permanent Court of Arbitration website https://pca-cpa.org/en/news/timor-leste-australia/

Further hearings will be held in private. Stay tuned for the openings – they should be interesting !

Introduction (AEST) at 17:30 – 17:45

Timor-Leste’s Opening  17:45 – 19:15

Break  19:15 – 19:30

Australia’s Opening  19:30 – 21:00












J’accuse Fairfax Management IV (local communities want local stories)

Time is certainly on the wing. I haven’t criticised my old employer, Fairfax Media, for eight months.

But I will have to rectify that now, having been nettled by Fairfax management again forgetting that readers are not mugs and want local stories rather than generic lifestyle pieces that can be re-used across multiple mastheads.

I urge everyone interested rural and regional journalism to sign the petition urging Fairfax not to sack more than 60 regional journalists, photographers and subs from papers like the Bendigo Advertiser, The Courier, Wimmera Mail Times, Stock and Land, The Standard, The Border Mail, The Ararat Advertiser and Stawell Times News.

The petition is available here.

I’ve written previously about Fairfax management being to focused on costs when it comes to the metropolitan mastheads, which have been cut to the bone.

Note: I was one of those Fairfax refugees, taking a voluntary redundancy after almost 19 years at the Fin Review. I want Fairfax to thrive and deliver great journalism

But I find the planned job cuts at the regional papers puzzling. In the US, newspapers/websites outside the big cities have partly bucked the trend of circulation collapse which has forced the closure of many metro titles.

In Australia, titles like the Border Mail, the Warrnambool Standard and The Courier in Ballarat are said to be still making a profit.

But now Fairfax is rolling out the “NewsNow” system which involved getting rid of local sub-editors and having that work done a regional “sub hub.”

It’s been done at the Bendigo Advertiser as well as three NSW titles – The Daily Advertiser in Wagga, the Area News and The Irrigator.

Last year, the Bendigo Advertiser tried to argue last year that the changes would benefit readers:

“We now have more journalists. We have recast our newsroom to focus less on back-office duties and more on the content that you count on. That’s more reporters and photographers in the field to deliver you news and information from across the district.”

But it the remaining regional reporters will also have to also take their own snaps, sub copy and update the website.

Crikey’s media writer, Myriam Robin, last year obtained a job description for journalists under the new model, under which the typical daily output of a reporter was expected to be “six stories a day, two leads, two down pagers and two briefs”.

Her story is available here

Reporters would also expected be able to moderate comments online and post to social media, “as directed by senior staff”, and to “ensure all images gathered during a shift are appropriately archived by the conclusion of the shift”.

To which I say, how are Fairfax managers off for shoes and socks? Would they like staff to give them a free pair?

The changes detailed by Crikey mean further networked copy for the print editions. “Reporters write directly into a space in a newspaper template and format their copy to fit the required dimensions. Layout can be easily replicated across different papers in this way — the ad sales team for the region can sell and place ads in a template of a newspaper, with the local journalists then required to fit their copy to the newspaper layout template given to them. Editors (and potentially news directors) will then look over the almost-finished product, but their role is not to give the copy the careful attention a subeditor would. A finished story is then published immediately and not held over to the print edition.”

The central problem here is that these papers are in communities with a strong sense of identity and particularism. For example, Ballarat and Bendigo have been jostling for prominence since the 1850s – Albury-Wodonga is a unique regional city on both banks of the Murray River.

The readers of these publications want their own stories told.

In 2012, The Border Mail launched a series investigating rural youth suicide and depression, providing families of lost loved ones and the community a voice.

Last year, The Courier launched an investigation into claims that state government spray-hand employees were subjected to toxic chemicals without protection for decades.

Let’s not take their readers for mugs. What happens to these publications when there is less local content, plus lower photographic and sub-editing standards?

There has already been a strong show of support from local MPs and community leaders. Yet so far, Fairfax management seems to be in need of the digital era’s version of an ear-trumpet.

The regional changes seem to be adapting strategies used at Fairfax’s community newspapers in Melbourne.

I used to read The Weekly but it has now ditched local news coverage in favour of networked lifestyle stories and generic pieces that can be run across all mastheads.

As a reader, I find this has left local coverage to News Corp’s Leader group, which I now read for suburban news and sport.

The philosophy at Fairfax’s community newspapers – under their chief Anthony Catalano – seems to be that readers are mostly attracted to the real estate ads.

Furthermore, Fairfax management seems to have concluded that local news and sport “doesn’t sell” and they will only run stories that can be “monetised”. The latter types of stories are often linked to advertised products and services or PR pitches.

To which I say, Fairfax management seems to be gripped by a modified cargo cult – the belief that consumers will continue to buy a product when there is less local content (and knowledge) that is specifically aimed at them.

Another problem is that regional media outlets have provided the vital first break for many journos and snappers who made it to the national and international stage. The loss of this nursery ground will be a wider loss for Australian journalism.

However, my prediction is that Fairfax management will discover that communities do value their local news.

Please sign this petition to support local journalism.