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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 117

Mr BOWEN (5:49 PM) —I do not propose to detain the House for long. I do, however, have some brief comments to make on the Maritime Transport Security Amendment Bill 2005. As previous honourable members indicated, the opposition will support this bill with some reservations and with a reference to a Senate committee. Maritime security is an extremely important matter. It is an important matter for all countries in this new high-security environment but it is a particularly important matter for Australia, which relies so overwhelmingly on maritime trade and which has such important and busy ports so close to our major cities and population centres.

In the minds of the public, airport security is paramount and it is, of course, vitally important. But maritime safety is just as important and cannot be ignored. The honourable member for Throsby referred to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. I too found their paper very enlightening and their words cannot be ignored. Their recent paper entitled Future unknown: terrorist threat to Australian maritime security, authored by Anthony Bergin, is a particularly good piece and I would recommend it to all honourable members. The paper in part states:

We have a high dependence on shipping and are adjacent to a region where terrorist groups have maritime capabilities.

The institute report, in relation to reducing the challenges of maritime security, goes on to state:

We haven’t met these challenges fully, and we lack consistency in the response across the states and territories.

The institute recommends establishing a $100 million maritime port security program, improved coordination between national and state agencies, direct involvement of the Australian defence forces in ship and port security and the development of an Australian maritime skills database.

This bill makes some improvements to maritime security, and these are to be welcomed. The bill amends the act to extend coverage to offshore oil and gas facilities located in the territorial sea and the economic zone of Australia and on the continental shelf, ensuring that all regulated offshore oil and gas facility operators and other prescribed offshore industry participants develop and comply with an offshore security plan based on a security assessment of each regulated facility. That is a good thing and we welcome it. Oil facilities are very much a terrorist target. This was shown by the attacks on oil facilities such as those at al-Basra and Khor al-Amaya.

This bill introduces a maritime safety identification card. Again, as honourable members have indicated, Labor supports this with reservations. The card will be introduced to cover unmonitored employees who are required to access maritime security zones. The scheme will require applicants to undergo a criminal history check by the Australian Federal Police and a security assessment by ASIO.

It is very important that this process works well. The attention given to security concerns at Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport is the opposite in this case. It is quite clear, on any objective basis, that security at Sydney airport has fallen down. It has been, on any analysis, inadequate. These criminal and security checks must work. The evidence from Sydney airport is that the checks there either have not worked or have been ignored. This is something that cannot be fixed by legislation. The government must ensure that these checks are carried out and that they work. This is not something, as I say, that can be legislated; it is something that can only be done by commitment. It is something that can only be done through coordinated action.

There are things that the government needs to do to ensure that this happens. The government needs to get rid of the duplication in homeland security—and maritime security in particular. It needs to provide leadership in these matters. There are currently eight government agencies responsible for maritime safety in Australia: the Department of Defence, Customs, the Department of Transport and Regional Services, Coastwatch, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. There are eight—and there should be one. A department of homeland security, charged with the development of a Commonwealth maritime strategy, would be the right approach. This bill, in many ways, tinkers at the edges. It will not be opposed, but it does not make any substantial changes. The department of homeland security should also be charged with the job of reviewing whether the resources going into maritime security are adequate. There are worrying reports about the increases in illegal fishing vessels sailing into Australian waters, reaching the Australian mainland and entering Australian rivers. If fishing boats can do this, people with more nefarious aims can do it too.

The government has authorised the direction of private fishing vessels to interdict and detain allegedly illegal fishing boats. We have to be reasonable about this: the Australian coastline is very big and no government of either persuasion would always be able to monitor every part of it. Nobody is suggesting that. Nobody is saying that the Labor Party in office would be able to wave a magic wand and find that we can monitor the entire Australian coast. But it is worrying that the government has authorised private vessels to do this. It is not so much worrying because they have authorised private vessels to do this but that there is a need to authorise private vessels to do it. It is a sad reflection on the resources going into maritime safety. Frankly, if this government were fair dinkum about this issue, it would create a department of homeland security, it would develop a national maritime strategy and it would properly resource it.

The Minister for Transport and Regional Services and Deputy Prime Minister comes into the House day after day and says in question time, ‘We have a belts and braces operation, and it only comes into force after a terrorist incident,’ only for it to be revealed by questioning from the opposition that not only was the Inspector of Transport Security removed from duties and moved across to the immigration inquiry but most, if not all, of his staff have been as well. This is what I found most worrying. It is one thing for the inspector—as worrying as that is—to be transferred, but for all of the staff to be transferred as well, frankly, shows a lack of direction and a lack of high-level commitment to this issue. I think that the government has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to this issue, and it could do a whole lot better.

The government are normally not backwards in accepting recommendations from the United States government, which correctly created a Department of Homeland Security. There is no reason this government cannot do the same. They should have a dedicated minister for homeland security, they should have a dedicated department of homeland security and they should have not as their primary aim but as their only aim matters such as those before us in the House tonight.

In conclusion—as I said, I did not want to detain the House for long; I only had some brief comments to make—the Labor Party recognises that our oil and gas facilities are clearly targets. They have been targets overseas, and we need to do everything we can to defend the people working in very hard circumstances on those facilities and to defend Australia from economic impact if those facilities are damaged in any way. We also need to ensure that only those people who have proper business in our maritime security zones are there. These proposed identity cards seem to go some way towards achieving that, and I commend those cards; but, as I said, they will work only if they are implemented properly, if the criminal and security checks are carried out and, just as importantly, if the security people are listened to, as it appears they have not been listened to at Australia’s airports.