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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 121

Mr DANBY (6:07 PM) —Maritime security is of great importance to the people of Melbourne Ports. I have the honour of representing the great maritime centre of Port Melbourne and I have a large number of maritime workers—for example, stevedores, seafarers—and their families living in my constituency. They are the people who work in Australia’s ports and make our great export industries possible. These communities have been the target of this government’s attack on their employment and working conditions. I reflect on the fact that the great boom in productivity that is taking place has led to almost no decrease in the cost for importers and exporters that the government predicted with its trickle-down effect. Yes, there has been a boost in the box rate and the clearance of ships through Australian ports, but all that has done, and the government knows this, is boost the profit of the companies that have the duopoly that dominates Australian ports.

The people who work in my electorate expect the Australian government to take the security needs of Australia’s ports seriously. It is people such as those I represent in Port Melbourne who will suffer if there is a terrorist incident in an Australia port. I want to restate the concerns of all of the people on this side of the House who have spoken prior to me about the abuse of cabotage under this government. The single voyage permits of 141 foreign flagships in the period January to March is indicative of the mentality of the Liberal Party’s predecessor, the UAP. Its then leader Bob Menzies—Pig Iron Bob—despite the imminent threat of war with Japan, only looked at the lowest common denominator—making a few pounds on exports to Japan. Saving a few dollars by having a slightly lower priced foreign ship doing what Australian ships and seafarers should be doing is the ethos now. Neither takes into consideration the national interest. And, of course, a lot of that pig-iron came back to visit us during the Second World War when, as I am sure members opposite know, hundreds of merchant ships, manned by brave Australian merchant sailors, were sunk by the Japanese along the east coast of Australia. If we were in a similar situation now, we would not have the shipping to take our coastal trade up and down the east coast.

Sadly, I see very little evidence so far that this government is taking the issue of maritime security sufficiently seriously. It is nearly four years since September 11, and we have no united department of homelands security or single minister responsible for coordinating Australia’s defences against terrorism. These responsibilities are divided between the Attorney-General, the Minister for Defence, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and the Minister for Justice and Customs—and, as we now know from the missing Customs report, it would seem that reports are not even passed from one department to the other.

We have no coastguard with undivided responsibility for protecting our coast. This task is still assigned to our dedicated but overstretched Navy, when their real job should be to guard our sea lanes and to take part in the various combined defence and peacekeeping operations we are committed to. This government are full of tough talk about protecting Australia against terrorism, and when they take appropriate action they have the full support of the opposition. But, so far, the government’s response has been piecemeal, slow and inadequate. This bill is far from being the comprehensive solution to the issue of Australia’s maritime security that the government ought to be bringing into this House, but it is a step in the right direction. For that reason, people on this side will support it.

As the honourable member for Barton said, the Maritime Transport Security Amendment Bill 2005 amends the Maritime Transport Security Act 2003 in two ways: it extends coverage of the act to offshore oil and gas facilities located within Australia’s territorial waters or exclusive economic zones, and requires that all 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 facility. Insofar as they go, those steps are welcome.

The second part of the bill amends the act to introduce the maritime security identity card. The card will be required by people who wish to access maritime security zones, which may be areas in ports or on ships. The bill requires those who need to have such a card to submit to a check of their background, including a criminal history check by the AFP, a security assessment by ASIO and an unlawful non-citizen check by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Cards will be issued only to persons who have successfully met background checking requirements. The government have not informed us of the kind of criminal record that will prevent an individual from receiving a card or the criteria they intend to use to determine that issue. Today, when discussing airport security, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the government would try to make a balanced decision on these matters, balancing the legitimate need to exclude people who have criminal convictions relating to matters relevant to national security from access to secure areas, with an understanding of the fact that people have been in occupations that offer employment to people whose records in the past have been less than perfect. People who have served sentences and paid their debt to society do have a right to rehabilitate themselves through employment. Not every criminal conviction, particularly those that were 20 years in the past, should be taken as grounds for excluding a person from secure areas when it would mean that person would lose their employment.

People who live in port communities, such as those in my electorate, take the issues of security very seriously and they quite rightly expect me to take up these issues on their behalf. As the member for Batman mentioned in his speech, the issue of ammonium nitrate being transported through Australian ports is surely a matter that ought to concern all members of this House. That is why on 9 December last year I asked questions of the Deputy Prime Minister in his capacity as Minister for Transport and Regional Services. I asked him: for each of the last 10 years (a) how many tonnes of ammonium nitrate were carried around Australia’s coast by single-voyage permit ships; (b) what was, firstly, the name and, secondly, the country of origin of each ship carrying ammonium nitrate; (c) which ships that carried ammonium nitrate were granted unrestricted access to Australian ports; and (d) did his department or any other agency have a record of the crew of each ship that carried ammonium nitrate and, if so, what was, firstly, the name and, secondly, the nationality and, thirdly, the security status of the crew members? What security measures were employed for handling ammonium nitrate on these ships and what assurances could he give us about their integrity? Could he say how Australian security measures for single-voyage permit ships carrying ammonium nitrate compared with those of other Western countries such as the United States of America? Was he aware that only 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate caused untold destruction in the port city of Texas City in New Mexico? Did he intend to review current security arrangements with the transport of ammonium nitrate to ensure the safety of Australian ports?

Madam Deputy Speaker, it will surprise you to know—though you may have been listening to the end of question time the other day when I raised this under the standing orders—that nearly six months later I still have no answers to these questions. This is not a trivial issue. Ammonium nitrate is a common chemical used in agricultural fertiliser and, as the member for Batman said, we need it for our agricultural needs. It is also the most common ingredient in explosives used by terrorists to make bombs. It was used by the right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh to kill 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and it was used in the Bali bombing in 2002 when Jemaah Islamiah killed 202 people, including 88 of our fellow Australian citizens.

That is one possible risk of ammonium nitrate passing through Australian ports. The other is accidental explosions—for example, the 1947 Texas City disaster I referred to earlier. Two thousand three hundred tonnes of ammonium nitrate was on a freighter, the SS Grandcamp. The explosion was one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the United States. The official death toll was 581 and over 5,000 people were injured. The Texas City accident was caused by a small fire aboard the Grandcamp. In that case the explosion was accidental, but it would not be difficult for a saboteur or a terrorist to cause a similar result in an Australian port if such a person could gain access to a ship carrying this chemical. Such an explosion could destroy Port Melbourne or Port Kembla or Fremantle or Port Adelaide, just as the 1947 explosion destroyed most of Texas City.

I do not expect that the minister will able to tell me the name and security status of every crew member of every ship which has carried ammonium nitrate into an Australian port in the past 10 years. I asked him for that level of detail to underline the point that no such records are kept and no such security clearances have been given. That is the point of the bill we are considering and that is why we are supporting the bill. I do expect him to be able to tell me what he is doing to ensure that the importation of this potentially deadly chemical through Australian ports is going to be subject to some kind of monitoring needed in the future given events of the immediate past. That was the point of my questions and I am still waiting for answers to them.

The threat of a terrorist attack on an Australian port is a real one. Not far to our north are some of the busiest ports and shipping lanes in the world. Up to 300,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca, the Lombok Strait and Sunda Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia, including ships carrying two-thirds of the world’s trade in liquefied natural gas, LNG. Hundreds of ships bound to and from Australian ports pass through these waters. We have already seen in 2000 the attack on USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors. That was an attack on a fully-armed and operational warship. It would be much easier to attack a freighter in Sydney Harbour or an LNG carrier off the Australian coast or an oil rig in Bass Strait. In 2002 we saw the attack on the French supertanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden by the Yemen franchise of al-Qaeda. Maritime terrorism is not a figment of the imagination; it is a fact. This bill is part of the government’s overdue and inadequate, but nonetheless welcome, response to that threat.

The al-Qaeda operative responsible for the Cole attack, Abdul Rahman al-Nasheri, was captured by US forces in 2002. He told those questioning him that al-Qaeda was planning more attacks on US and Western warships. But attacking warships will now be much harder following the Cole incident. Terrorists traditionally always favour soft targets such as merchant ships, oil tankers, cruise liners and undefended civilian ports which offer much easier and more tempting targets that any naval vessel. By contrast to the attitude we seem to have in Australia, where we permit the single-voyage permits for foreign ships without knowing who the sailors are aboard them, other countries take this very seriously. Illustrating that problem are the alarming statistics presented by the member for Throsby in her remarks about the 103 members of foreign crews gone missing in Australia, in groups perhaps and from ships bringing ammonium nitrate. Other countries take these issues very seriously. As the member for Batman pointed out, the Jones Act means that the United States has determined that they will produce their own shipping, that no-one will be allowed to do shipping up and down the coasts of United States apart from US seafarers. They do not have this lowest common denominator mentality—the cheapest-dollar ships we can buy, and people we have not checked coming into Australian ports in ships carrying loads of dangerous chemicals.

I am pleased to see the government taking these measures to improve Australia’s maritime security. I am happy to support this bill, as is the rest of the opposition, but I am far from convinced that the government is taking this issue as seriously as it should. When I see a bill creating a unified department of homeland security and placing a minister in charge of domestic security taking seriously the danger of unregulated traffic in dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate and addressing the issue of the increase in these single-voyage permits of foreign flag vessels, then I will be convinced that the government’s action is living up to its rhetoric.

I conclude by pointing to the very important assessment by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Australia’s maritime security in its report Future unknown: the terrorist threat to Australian maritime security. Its assessment was quoted by the member for Throsby, but I think it is worth while to quote it again. This institute is the independent think tank that is responsible for looking at these issues and is funded by the federal government. The report said:

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.

That is a very ominous warning.