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Friday, 28 November 2003
Page: 18380

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (12:16 PM) —I table a correction to the explanatory memorandum relating to this bill. I know it is not my area of expertise, but I thought I might make a slightly longer speech than simply tabling an amendment to the explanatory memorandum. In Senator Hill's absence, I am taking this bill through. The Non-Proliferation Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 will strengthen Australia's efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The bill will amend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Act 1998 and the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act 1994. It enhances domestic arrangements for the protection of Australia's nuclear facilities, reducing the risk of the proliferation of sensitive materials and information. The bill further underpins Australia's international, legal and treaty obligations and ensures Australia's domestic non-proliferation legislation remains at a high standard.

The government is deeply concerned about the spread of weapons of mass destruction, associated technologies and know-how. It took strong action against the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and is a key participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative. It has sustained Australia's commitment to the non-proliferation treaties, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Australia has played a key role in non-proliferation bodies, including the IAEA.

International treaties, export controls and other instruments remain critical to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but the government recognises that further efforts to strengthen domestic protection of proliferation-sensitive materials and information are essential. It is clear that there are few barriers, other than technical and financial ones, to rogue states and groups obtaining WMD related materials and knowledge. Therefore, we must make every effort to deny access to unauthorised persons and protect, to the maximum extent, materials and knowledge which might aid an adversary or place Australians at risk.

The Non-Proliferation Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 improves domestic legislation in three critical areas. Firstly, it strengthens Australia's arrangements for the protection of nuclear facilities, materials and related information and the arrangements for the application of non-proliferation safeguards to them. Secondly, the bill will give legal effect to Australia's actions in support of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty—known as the CTBT—ahead of the treaty's entry into force. The government was instrumental in securing adoption of this treaty by the United Nations General Assembly, having rescued it from the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which had failed to reach consensus. Under the CTBT, Australia has already established 15 of 20 planned nuclear test monitoring stations. Ten of these stations have already been certified—more than in any other country. All 15 are already providing data to the CTBT's International Data Centre in Vienna. Once the bill's amendments to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Act 1998 are in place, the government will bring immediately into effect provisions which ban nuclear testing in Australia and any contribution to testing by an Australian citizen anywhere in the world.

Thirdly, the bill implements changes to the machinery of government, including updating penalties in line with current practice, which will improve the effectiveness of each of the acts affected. The government is conscious of concerns that some new offences listed in the bill, particularly those related to the divulgence of sensitive information and trespass in specified areas, could be applied too broadly. I assure the Senate that this is not the case. The government welcomes the constructive engagement of Labor to further strengthen the bill in this regard. As with all modern legislation, this bill cannot be interpreted without the application of the Criminal Code—that is, part of the Criminal Code Act 1995, which, inter alia, seeks to ensure that criminal offence provisions are constructed, interpreted and enforced in a uniform way by the Commonwealth. The bill's criminal offence provisions are focused, and there is an appropriately high burden of proof required for successful prosecution.

I note that concern has been expressed that this bill will limit the rights of whistleblowers. The relevant proposed section, 26A, is focused on the protection of information which could compromise security arrangements which are clearly vital for the protection of nuclear facilities, materials and the public. The bill does not impact on the right of whistleblowers to report concerns relating to nuclear safety or the management of radioactive sources, which are the regulatory responsibility of state governments and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. Clearly, however, the communication of specific details about security arrangements that could be used to defeat those security arrangements would not be in the public interest. Most people recognise that it would be irresponsible and a possible danger to public safety for a person to publish specific and vital details about security arrangements.

Another concern that has been raised is that the provisions within the bill that deal with unauthorised access to restricted areas could curtail the right of legitimate protest—section 31A. That is not the case. The bill does not limit further the right of protest, as areas likely to be designated under this section are already off-limits to protesters and must be well-defined and clearly marked. However, the bill recognises that some parts of a nuclear facility and some nuclear materials are particularly sensitive, so it increases the penalty for unlawful entry into these sensitive areas, which are designated by a permit requirement. In the government's view, it is essential to ensure that nuclear materials are properly protected against theft, sabotage and terrorist acts. Responsible persons will recognise that their actions should not endanger public or personal safety. There are some places to which access must be tightly controlled.

The government accepts the amendments proposed by Labor. However, the amendments to the bill proposed by the Democrats are unacceptable. First of all, they gut the bill of its real security strengthening measures, leaving essential administrative changes only. Secondly, the proposed amendments listed as `Schedule 4—Transportation of radioactive waste' are likely to interfere with the Commonwealth's responsibilities and operations. In any case, these proposed amendments are unrelated to the purpose of this bill, which deals with the vital issue of non-proliferation. Similarly, the government rejects the frivolous amendment proposed by the Greens, noting that the bill has already been considered by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, and that that committee recommended that the bill should be passed by the Senate in its current form.

The government is firm on this issue. The bill will strengthen Australia's efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To this end, all its provisions are necessary and reasonable. It will contribute to efforts to minimise the risk that rogue states or terrorists might access proliferation-sensitive material or information. The bill will do so without impinging on the reasonable rights of all—in particular, the rights of all Australians to freedom of expression and legal protest. The bill is not intended to capture peaceful protests which in the past have been lawful. But governments have a duty to ensure that domestic regulatory frameworks are effective in deterring and meeting possible threats. The Non-Proliferation Legislation Amendment Bill will strengthen Australia's protection of proliferation-sensitive material and information. Accordingly, I commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Cherry)—The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Nettle be agreed to.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

Senator Hogg —Mr President, can I suggest that the bells be rung for one minute more? There seems to have been a problem with the timing.

The PRESIDENT —Yes. Ring the bells for one more minute.

Question put.