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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3134

Mr HAYES (5:32 PM) —National security is a priority for this government. It is no secret that this government is committed to doing all that it can to guard our borders, to guard against terrorist attack and to do everything necessary to protect the rights of citizens of this country. We are working vigilantly to fight terrorism, and that requires us to increase the security measures that may apply with citizens of this country.

It is for this reason that I rise to support the AusCheck Amendment Bill 2009, which will amend the AusCheck Act 2007 to provide a capacity under the act for background checks to be carried out for national security purposes. AusCheck was created and began operation in September 2007. It was formed to help the aviation and maritime industries to identify high-risk individuals who should not be granted access to secure clearance areas in Australian airports or seaports. If you work in a designated Australian airport or seaport, you are required to hold either an ASIC, an aviation security identification card, or an MSIC, a maritime security identification card.

When I had the good fortune to work for some time as an adviser to Sydney airport, I had to go through the necessary checks and duly received an ASIC. It did not matter if you were working advising the chief executive officer or working in the baggage claim area; everyone had to go through the same degree of checks to enable them to have access to secured areas in the aviation transport industry. That is only to be expected. It is not that there were perceived threats there; it was that the then government, together with the industry, developed and implemented various regimes of safety and security checking to be observed in maritime and aviation ports.

I know the extent to which people are checked in those ports. One of the areas of some criticism, however, is that, whilst permanently employed baggage handlers in those days would go through the necessary police checks and be credentialled and issued an ASIC, I am not quite sure it happened in exactly the same way for people who came into the airport who were casual employees and were employed on a day-to-day basis. That is a matter that I think the operators of the airport and the users of those facilities have since been required to address.

During the time of the operation of AusCheck, it has gained wide acceptance across the Australian aviation and maritime industries. I think it would be fair to say that it has netted real results. Existing clients report that this system is working faster and reduces the administrative costs and burdens in comparison with the prior arrangement, when employees were required to get the necessary checks to be issued with an ASIC or a MSIC. However, the existing act only permits AusCheck to coordinate background checks for the purposes of the aviation and maritime security identification card schemes. This is a limitation because it may be, from time to time, that there are other areas of national security where it is deemed prudent that background checks occur. If that happened without these amendments going through, AusCheck would not have the legal capacity to be able to undertake that checking arrangement on behalf of the Attorney-General.

There is nothing in this bill that indicates areas where this may come to pass. I can speculate that it might be in areas where people are dealing with precursor drug chemicals or precursor chemicals for explosive material. It may be something that may arise in the future as being prudent to have people working in those areas subject to security checks for an appropriate identification scheme. However, if that were to come to pass without this amendment, it would not be possible to do that through AusCheck. Background checking for national security purposes offers a tool for meeting national security policy objectives including regimes related to high-risk industries and greater consistency in control of hazardous substances. It should be noted that no requirement for any person to have a background check will be imposed as a consequence of this amendment. This amendment empowers, on appropriate direction, AusCheck to conduct the identification security exercise, as opposed to actually determine who it is who is to be checked.

The amendments to the bill simply pave the way for AusCheck to take on additional background checking functions under future legislation. The bill also amends the act to authorise the use of identity verification information where it is required to verify the identity of a particular person. A national security background check could be used to implement background checking policy in a number of areas where there is a perceived national risk. For example, as I indicated in relation to precursor chemicals or other hazardous materials, there could be a perceived need to have access to secure or sensitive information. If that were the case, decisions could then be made to require those persons to undergo these security checks. But that would require another piece of legislation. This legislation does not determine who it is that would be required to undergo those checks.

The amendments will also include specific provisions to authorise and protect the information about an individual where this in-formation is required to complete other back-ground checks. For instance, in conducting criminal history background checks, it is some-times necessary to confirm the identity of an individual so that police services can distinguish between people of the same name and, on some occasions as I understand it, people who share the same birth date. In these circumstances it may not be possible to complete the background checks unless the identity of an individual can be confirmed through the provisions of further identification information, such as fingerprints. The amendments are intended to ensure that, if AusCheck is required to facilitate the provisions of this information to other relevant police jurisdictions, then this information will, firstly, be afforded all the additional protections given to other AusCheck personnel information and, secondly, not be available for any purpose other than a further background check. This is intended to reflect the purposes of collecting this information in the first place, which is the verification of a particular person’s actual identity, and only their actual identity.

Background checking is used worldwide. For those fortunate enough to travel overseas, they see it every time they go anywhere, particularly in a secure area, whether to the United States or to the United Kingdom—all airport personnel undergo these checks and carry the necessary equivalent of our ASIC or MSIC cards. This piece of legislation facilitates AusCheck having the capability, if and when directed by legislation, to conduct checks for national security purposes. It allows for greater efficiency in our national security scheme, which is something that is very important in our overall fabric of protecting not only the borders but also the citizens of this country. As I said at the commencement of my contribution, this government takes very seriously its role in relation to national security and it is for this reason that I commend this piece of legislation to the House.