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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 114

Ms GEORGE (5:37 PM) —I will begin by commending my colleague the member for Batman for his very comprehensive analysis of the provisions of the Maritime Transport Security Amendment Bill 2005 that is before us this evening, and also for the chronology of the background to this second bill coming before the House. I concur absolutely with the comments he made about a number of issues that pertain to maritime security, and I will touch on some of those in my contribution this evening.

I think it is important to recognise that Australia faces a raft of systemic maritime security failures that the opposition has been highlighting for some time and failures that the member for Batman so comprehensively addressed in his contribution. In the last couple of days we have had the debate about the security lapses at airports. Let us acknowledge that we continue to have significant security breaches in our maritime sector. Essentially, there is a lack of resources available to adequately patrol our maritime borders, and we are totally underequipped in our ability to fight illegal activity in our maritime zone. The situation in port security is no less alarming. I want to draw parliament’s attention to a recent very comprehensive report issued by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Australia’s maritime security. One paragraph from that report says:

A terrorist attack on Australia’s maritime interests is a credible scenario. We have high dependence on shipping and seaborne trade, and are adjacent to a Region where terrorist groups have maritime capabilities. Australia still faces major institutional and operational challenges in reducing the risks of maritime terrorism. We haven’t met these challenges fully and we lack consistency in the response across states and territories.

They are the words of an authoritative independent body that is there to provide fearless advice to the government. Despite this government’s often shameless ‘tough on security’ oratory, this report draws attention to the government’s failure in key structural areas. I will return to some of these issues after commenting briefly on aspects of the bill before us this evening.

I will only comment on the bill in summary because I think the arguments and limitations have been well expressed by both the shadow ministers. We do support the government’s intention to extend the Maritime Transport Security Act to apply to offshore oil and gas facilities. That is a very important issue, not just for our economic wellbeing but, as the member for Batman indicates, the workers on these installations are often left in very vulnerable and precarious situations. There is no doubt that there is a need for an enhanced and formalised approach by operators to the security of fixed and floating offshore oil and gas platforms. The objectives of this bill conform with the existing regime under the act for ships and ports.

In addition to the extension to offshore installations, the bill will, for the first time, see the introduction of the Maritime Security Identification Card. Again, the member for Batman has expressed the opposition’s views on this issue. In principle, we agree that there is a requirement and a need for this to occur. It is probably quite surprising and amazing that currently there is no regime in place that requires checks on people working in ports, ships and offshore oil and gas facilities in a consistent national manner. The member for Batman was absolutely right in drawing attention to some of the issues that will need further detailed consideration in the Senate, and to the desire of all to see the details that will be encompassed in the regulations.

While in principle we support the introduction of these national identification cards, there are matters that go to the issue of privacy that are very important and matters that go to the potential past criminal records of some workers in the sector. That has to be balanced against our belief in second chance options for people who may have at some stage in the past fallen short of the law. Let us hope that the regime that is put in place is administered in a sensible way, bearing in mind the bipartisan approach to the identification cards that has been expressed in this chamber.

I want to touch on a couple of matters that affect my electorate. As you know, the electorate of Throsby encompasses the port at Port Kembla and I have raised in this House on numerous occasions matters that have come to my attention either through the union and the workers that work in the port or through community concerns. I reiterate the concerns that have been expressed by my colleague the member for Batman. We have at the moment a totally inadequate security regime for crews from foreign flagged vessels that come to our shores. In 2002, a total of 115,000 foreign crew members arrived. The government, by its own admission, has indicated that since July 2001, on the most recent figures, 103 crew members from foreign flagged vessels had gone missing once they reached an Australian port.

I looked at the answers that the government had provided and was quite concerned to see that crew members went missing, for example, from Wollongong on 6 and 15 November 2001, and from Port Kembla on 1 and 5 January 2002. One-hundred and three missing foreign crew, some of whom went missing in my local area, are 103 potential threats to Australia’s security. The fact that the crew often went missing in groups of three or four is especially of concern. Indeed, there have been more foreign crew gone missing from foreign flagged vessels in our ports since July 2001 than there have been unauthorised boat arrivals in the same period. So I do think we need to get the balance of our concerns in proper perspective. I raise this issue again because in my view this is an open gate in our protection regime that has to date not been effectively addressed.

The second issue I want to touch on is the need for improved cargo reporting. In March this year I pursued a number of questions on notice with the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Ellison. The minister advised me that the act requires vessels to report to Customs 48 hours in advance of arrival, unless the journey is shorter than 48 hours, in which case 24-hour pre-notification is required. In 2004 the proportion of cargo reports reported late to Customs was as follows: after the vessel had arrived and berthed, 7.83 per cent; and over or equal to zero and less than 24 hours before vessel arrival, 5.34 per cent. So in 2004 over 13 per cent of cargo reports reported late. The minister indicated in answer to a question:

Cargo reporting provisions of the Customs Act, currently in force, do not contain penalty provisions for late reporting.

There is no question that potentially dangerous cargo continues to be unloaded at Australia’s docks and left, as we have been advised by government officials, for several days before Customs establishes the contents of the cargo. Amazingly, the minister has advised me in his response to my question:

If a cargo report has not been received by Customs prior to the discharge of the vessel, that cargo is deemed to be surplus cargo.

He goes on:

Surplus cargo is treated as high risk cargo and may—

I repeat ‘may’—

be subject to examination or X-Ray.

What an amazing situation. This is a totally unsatisfactory response. Cargo notified late can sit on our docks and may or may not be subject to examination or X-ray. The minister’s answers to my questions also confirm that foreign flagged vessels, ‘can and do carry ammonium nitrate’ around our coastline. I am not convinced from his reply that adequate safeguards are in place to protect our nation against potential terrorist incidents. Remember the 103 crew from foreign flagged vessels that went missing? Were they missing from ships carrying ammonium nitrate? That is a legitimate question to ask. The security breaches and potential threats are all too obvious. There is an absence of a nationwide approach to managing the security of high-risk ships, with security arrangements varying from state to state and port to port.

In addition to the inadequacy of screening containers, there is a huge problem in the inspection of empty containers. Of the 700,000 empty containers arriving in our ports each year, only 190 were inspected in the last financial year. As a federal member with a port facility in my electorate, I have taken the opportunity to raise my concerns on behalf of my constituents. These concerns have now been more ably articulated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a body, as I said earlier, specifically established to give frank and fearless strategic advice to the government. The government needs to listen to this expert advice and act swiftly to remedy the litany of threats that continue to exist. It is high time for action. The bill before us, which has our support in principle, is a fairly limited response to the raft of systemic maritime security failures that continue to confront our nation.