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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 9189

Mr PERRETT (12:22 PM) —I rise to speak on the National Health Security Amendment Bill 2009.Firstly, to do so, I just want to take you back to 1995 and one of the movies that you might have been watching at the time—if you had time to watch movies. Outbreak was a movie that starred Dustin Hoffmann, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr, Patrick Dempsey, and even Donald Sutherland and Kevin Spacey. I clearly remember the opening scene because it was an interesting way for a Hollywood action film—which is basically what it was—to show something happening when there was actually nothing happening.

The opening scene started with the camera following a virus through the air, up through an air vent, into a cinema and eventually you see someone coughing when they catch the virus. It is a hard thing for Hollywood to show nothing happening. It is sort of like showing paint drying or the National Party embracing climate change. It is hard to see anything happening. But this movie showed it. They subtly introduced the idea of a fictional Ebola-like virus called Motaba and then showed how the military and civilian agencies react to containing its spread.

I will now move away from Hollywood to the legislation before the chamber: a bill to amend the NHS Act to enhance Australia’s ability to secure certain biological agents that could be used as weapons. I am thankful for this legislation because it has added to my collection of acronyms. I will call security sensitive biological agents SSBAs so your collection of acronyms is expanded as well. They are divided into two tiers: tier one agents obviously pose a greater risk, and tier two agents are rated as less likely to pose a security risk. It is a particularly horrible list. It starts with anthrax and goes on to Botulinum toxin—I am sure the member for Banks is not familiar with this Botulinum toxin—which is the most lethal toxic protein. However, when it is purified you can use it as Botox. And I am sure the member for Banks is not familiar with that! There is the Ebola virus, the foot and mouth disease virus, Ricin—a derivative of which, known as sarin, was used on the Tokyo subway by the Aum cult and killed 12 people. Ricin is 500 times stronger than cobra venom. There is also SARS. Smallpox claimed up to 500 million lives in the last century. In 1947, the Soviet Union established a smallpox weapons factory. These things have been around—and on our minds—for the last century or so. They are significant. The plague has taken 200 million lives since the sixth century, having peaked in the 1300s. All school kids would have studied the times when fleas on rats spread along the trade routes, and so the plague struck. More recently, in 1940, the Japanese used it in China and dropped bombs containing fleas. I am not sure how it worked out, but these diseases have been used as weapons. To name but a few, tier two agents include things like African swine fever, sheep pox and goat pox, botulism, lumpy skin disease virus—which I do not know much about, but it does not sound very pleasant—salmonella, other types of cholera, and yellow fever.

The regulatory scheme that the government is proposing for SSBAs currently includes stringent requirements relating to notification of the types and locations of SSBAs, along with standards that must be met by organisations—such as universities and labs—that handle SSBAs. Over the past year and a half, the government has worked closely with these organisations and other experts to ensure a smooth implementation of this regulatory scheme. When you see that list, you understand why. A number of areas have been highlighted where improvements to the scheme might be made, and we have responded accordingly. The proposed amendments enable the Minister for Health and Ageing to respond immediately and appropriately to the challenge of safeguarding public health and safety in the unlikely event of an SSBA related disease outbreak. The proposed changes enable the suspension of certain existing regulatory requirements and the imposition of new conditions to ensure that adequate controls are maintained. In the movie Outbreak you see how a government could overreact in such circumstances. In Australia it is important that we get the processes and regulations right.

The amendments also ensure that the minister has access to all relevant information about how to deal with an SSBA—the right sort of technical expertise, advice from the chief veterinary officer—coming from Queensland, we have seen how important that is with the recent Hendra virus outbreak—the chief medical officer et cetera. The amendments will also extend reporting controls to biological agents suspected to be SSBAs. This measure will clarify the obligations of entities at the early stage when they are handling a biological agent and, after having performed all the usual testing procedures for that biological agent, there is a positive presumptive indication for SSBA. The new provisions will require an entity to report its handlings and transfers of suspected SSBAs. It also requires entities to comply with all the standards for suspected SSBAs. Thirdly, the bill will enhance the investigation powers available under the NHS Act, which means that inspectors can monitor warrants, including seizing evidential material, doing so appropriately and storing material appropriately. The new measure also introduces defence related warrants that provide powers to search premises and seize evidential material.

As I said, we do not like to think about these diseases being used for improper purposes, but unfortunately there are some people out there in the world who would consider it. In fact, when you go through the list of countries that have dabbled in using these agents for warfare, it is quite scary. Importantly, this increase in investigation powers provided to authorities in Australia is complemented by necessary safeguards to ensure that there is a proper use of those powers. This includes safeguards such as authorisation by a magistrate and provisions governing return of seized property and compensation for any damage.

This bill also makes some less significant but equally important amendments to improve the operation of the legislation and provide greater clarity for those people who have to work with SSBAs. I am particularly interested in this because in my electorate of Moreton, at Coopers Plains, Queensland Health Scientific Services—which used to be called the John Tonge Centre—will be at the front line should anything happen such as an outbreak of SSBAs. These changes relate to requirements to report certain events involving SSBAs to local police, any minor changes to annual and biannual reporting of information recorded on the national register, new capacity to cancel the registration of an entity or its facility if they are no longer handling SSBAs, and amendments to the definition of biological agents so that bacteria and viruses that do not have the capacity to spread rapidly but may still be highly dangerous are captured. The proposed changes have been the subject of extensive consultation with relevant experts, including entities working with SSBAs, intelligence—which is very important, obviously—security agencies, the public, animal health laboratories, and state and government agencies. I commend the legislation to the House.