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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 9193

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (12:41 PM) —This morning in the House I spoke on amendments to the Aviation Security Act 2004. Those amendments were about enabling regulations to be made to designate security-controlled airports, a particular category of airport according to their risk profiles; allowing unannounced inspections of businesses involved in air cargo; allowing the secretary of the department to enter into enforceable undertakings with the aviation industry participants as a remedial measure; and expanding the scope of compliance-control directions to cover the operation of security-controlled airports and screening authorities. Right now I am speaking on another important piece in the policy jigsaw that helps to ensure our nation’s security, the National Health Security Amendment Bill 2009.

Friday will be the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. I happened to be in New York a week before September 11 and went and saw the Twin Towers. Like most people, I will never forget what happened on September 11, and I felt a particular connection because I was there only the week before. Next month will be the seventh anniversary of the terrible Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. The threat of international terrorism to our nation and our way of life remains very real. It was only a month ago that a plot was uncovered that allegedly involved an attack on Holsworthy barracks in Sydney.

We require a comprehensive and flexible policy response to the ever-changing nature of international terrorist organisations. Terrorism does not confine its targets to life and property. Terrorism is an attempt to terrorise, to destroy a public sense of security and confidence. Residents on the Central Coast, where my electorate is, need to have confidence in the security of their nation and the integrity of our borders. This bill today is a part of the policy response required to hamper the will of those evil few that wish to cause harm to Australian citizens and our way of life. The Attorney-General’s portfolio Security environment update 2007-08 outlines the government’s approach to the threat of terrorism and says:

The Australian government is working to ensure our national security framework remains comprehensive and adaptable to changes in our security environment. Terrorism remains a serious threat to Australia’s security. Strong cooperation between the Commonwealth, State, Territory and local governments is vital to countering this threat, but businesses and the broader Australian community also have an important role to play. To ensure that Australia’s security framework continues to achieve the goal of protecting Australia from terrorism, our arrangements must be sustainable and supported by appropriate resources.

The National Health Security Amendment Bill 2009 amends the National Health Security Act 2007 to make arrangements for the safe handling of security-sensitive biological agents, SSBAs, that could be used as weapons. Three main changes to the act are proposed, along with a number of less significant but important changes.

The bill amends the NHS Act to enhance Australia’s ability to secure certain biological agents that could be used as weapons. The regulatory scheme for SSBAs currently includes stringent requirements relating to notification of type and location of SSBAs, along with standards that must be met by organisations handling SSBAs. Over the past year and a half, the government has worked closely with organisations that handle SSBAs and other experts in the field to ensure smooth implementation of the regulatory scheme. A number of areas have been highlighted where improvements to the scheme might be made. This bill enhances the regulatory scheme for SSBAs in three important ways.

First, the proposed amendments enable the Minister for Health and Ageing—who I acknowledge is here at the moment—to respond immediately and appropriately to the challenge of safeguarding public health and safety in the 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. The proposed amendments also ensure that the minister has access to all relevant information, including advice from the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Veterinary Officer, and others with scientific or technical expertise in SSBAs.

Second, the amendments will extend reporting controls to biological agents suspected to be SSBAs. This measure will clarify the obligations of entities at early stages of handling a biological agent when, after having performed all the usual testing procedures for that biological agent, there is a positive presumption of identification of an SSBA. The new provisions will require an entity to report its handling of suspected SSBAs including transfers of those agents and will require entities to comply with new SSBA standards for suspected SSBAs.

Third, the bill will enhance the investigation powers available under the NHS Act. The NHS Act currently provides inspectors with monitoring warrants which do not extend to seizing evidential material. This new measure introduces offence related warrants that provide powers to search premises and seize evidential material. Importantly, this increase in investigation powers is complemented by necessary safeguards to ensure proper use of the powers. This includes safeguards such as authorisation by a magistrate and provisions governing the return of seized property and compensation for damage.

The bill also makes some less significant, but equally important, amendments to improve the operation of the legislation and provide greater clarity for those working with SSBAs. These relate to requirements to report certain events involving SSBAs to local police, 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 subject to extensive consultation with relevant experts including entities working with SSBAs, intelligence and security agencies, public and animal health laboratories, and state and territory government agencies. Powers of entry, by occupiers’ consent, to search premises, and anything on premises, for evidence that inspectors reasonably suspect may be on the premises are also captured in this bill. There are also powers allowing entry, by offence related warrant, to search premises and gather the kinds of evidence specified in the warrant—and, if inspectors find that kind of evidence, there is power to seize, inspect, examine, measure and conduct tests on, or take samples of, such evidence. There are also certain powers to operate electronic equipment on the premises relating to obtaining evidence, such as seizing equipment and disks, tapes and other storage devices; putting evidence into documentary form and removing such documents from the premises; and transferring evidence onto tape, disk or other storage device which can be taken off the premises.

It is noted that inspectors under this act are not law enforcement officers. It is recognised that exceptional circumstances should exist before granting non-law-enforcement personnel, such as inspectors under the NHS Act, significant powers associated with offence related warrants. It is considered that such exceptional circumstances exist in this case because the biological agents that are the subject of this legislation are, by their nature, highly dangerous. There are significant security issues that arise from breaches of the SSBA regulatory scheme and any breaches have the potential to cause extensive damage to public health and safety, the environment and the economy.

It is proposed that the services of the inspectors appointed under the Gene Technology Act 2000 will be retained for the purposes of the NHS Act. These inspectors already exercise powers related to offence related warrants under the Gene Technology Act 2000. They are experienced in cautiously and appropriately exercising such powers. To further ensure the powers are exercised with care, the Department of Health and Ageing will develop an internal governance framework for inspectors made under the SSBA regulatory scheme addressing issues relating to accountability, training, resources and risk management strategies.

While it is acknowledged that where such powers are conferred to non-law-enforcement officers it is important that there be processes built in to ensure proper accountability for the exercise of these powers, it is noted that such processes have, in fact, been built into the act and the bill. For example, it is noted that under sections 63(1) and 63(3) of the act itself anyone appointed by the secretary, in writing, as an inspector must be a person who is appointed or employed by the Commonwealth and whom the secretary is satisfied has appropriate experience and skills. Under section 63(2) of the act, an inspector must comply with any directions of the secretary when performing functions or exercising powers under the act. Another example is that, in such circumstances, an inspector is, and would continue to be, required to show his or her identity card to occupiers of premises.

It is also noted that there do not appear to be provisions specifically about challenging the exercise of inspectors’ powers in the bill. However, this may be explained by reference to the context in which such inspections would occur: highly dangerous biological agents with a potential for extensive damage to public health and safety in the event of a breach of the SSBA regulatory scheme. It is also noted that the government has stated that DoHA will develop an ‘internal guidance framework’ for such inspections which will address such matters as accountability and risk management strategies.

In conclusion, the legislation is part of the government’s ongoing response to the national security threat facing our nation. Residents of my electorate on the Central Coast need to have confidence in the security of their nation and in the integrity of our borders. This legislation is part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve both real security outcomes and confidence in our security structures to keep our citizens safe. I commend the bill to the House.