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Thursday, 19 November 2009
Page: 12193

Ms ROXON (Minister for Health and Ageing) (9:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill amends the National Health Security Act 2007 to enhance Australia’s capacity to secure certain biological agents that could be used as weapons. Such a biological agent is also known as a security sensitive biological agent, or SSBA, and includes the agents of diseases such as anthrax, smallpox and the plague.

The regulatory scheme for SSBAs currently includes stringent requirements relating to the notification of the type and location of SSBAs in Australia, along with standards that must be met by organisations handling SSBAs. These standards relate to matters such as the secure handling, disposal and movement of SSBAs, along with background checking requirements for relevant personnel.

The bill I am introducing today enhances the SSBA regulatory scheme by enabling me to determine that background checking of persons who handle or dispose of SSBAs is conducted by the Australian Background Checking Service, otherwise known as AusCheck, of the Attorney-General’s Department.

The proposed amendment to the act is consistent with the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which has recommended that a principal act authorise the establishment of a background checking scheme that can be conducted by AusCheck.

Given the importance of background checking to the SSBA regulatory scheme, I have ensured that the proposed change has been subject to extensive consultation with experts. This has included consultation on the need for background checking and that it should be conducted by AusCheck. The Department of Health and Ageing has consulted with agencies responsible for obtaining and assessing information about the risks and threats posed by biological agents (such as ASIO), public health laboratories, state and territory government agencies and other experts in SSBAs.

AusCheck will coordinate the background checks that will consist of an assessment of a person’s criminal history and security checks against a set of disqualification criteria. The details of the SSBA background checking scheme will be set out in the SSBA Standards and the AusCheck regulations. Those details will also be subject to further consultation.

I am confident that the bill before us appropriately enhances the security of the existing regulatory scheme for SSBAs, ensuring that we continue to deliver on our international commitments and the national imperative to actively improve our capacity to maintain adequate controls on biological agents. This builds on the Rudd government’s continuing commitment to protect all Australians from potential threats.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Coulton) adjourned.