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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 57

Senator JOHNSTON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (12:44 PM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum and a correction to the revised explanatory memorandum relating to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (2007 Budget Measures for Students) Bill 2007 and move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech’s read as follows—


I am pleased to introduce the National Health Security Bill 2007.  This is an important Bill that delivers on the Government’s ongoing commitment to enhance Australia’s capability to protect the health of the nation and to respond to naturally occurring epidemics or to terrorist attacks involving chemical, biological and radiological agents.

Since the 2004-05 Federal Budget, when $1.6 million was committed over three years to develop national health security legislation, the government has worked cooperatively with all relevant organisations, States and Territories to develop legislative foundations for the exchange of health information between jurisdictions.

The Government’s efforts were provided added impetus in May 2005, when Australia agreed to adopt the International Health Regulations.  The Regulations aim to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

The Bill before us addresses both the Government’s Budget objective and Australia’s treaty commitments by formalising and enhancing existing voluntary arrangements for sharing information about communicable disease, releases of chemical, biological or radiological agents, and the occurrence of other public health events of national significance.

Where it may be necessary to share personal information, for example to trace interstate contacts of people affected by notifiable diseases, the Bill has been drafted to ‘authorise’ rather than ‘compel’ the exchange of information.  This approach reflects existing cooperative arrangements.  The circumstances in which such information can be exchanged are clearly defined and a range of protections have been included in the Bill to ensure appropriate care in the holding and use of personal information.

The Bill also authorises Government to meet international obligations by, for example, enabling the provision of personal information to the World Health Organisation to respond to public health emergencies of international concern.

Personal information will also be able to be exchanged with other countries, for example, to assist the repatriation of Australian victims of overseas mass casualty incidents.  While Australia has an outstanding record of response to horrific events such as the Bali Bombings, we can always do more to improve systems, communication and ultimately our capacity to repatriate and treat victims of such incidents.

In addition to formalising and enhancing the mechanisms for the exchange of health information, the Bill also implements recommendations of the COAG Hazardous Biological Materials Review to establish a national regulatory scheme to minimise the security risks posed by security-sensitive biological agents.  These include infectious agents, such as bacteria and viruses that can spread rapidly within a population, and toxins derived from animals, plants or microbial material.

Currently there is no nationally consistent legislation that covers all facilities and entities that handle security-sensitive biological agents.  Indeed, it is not possible to accurately identify those facilities and entities that handle security-sensitive biological agents, or their location.  This legislation addresses this risk by providing for the registration of entities handling security-sensitive biological agents and the ongoing regulation and monitoring of those registered facilities.  The Bill also requires entities to comply with biosecurity standards relating to, for example, storage and security requirements for personnel and transport.

The proposed approach to the regulation of entities handling security-sensitive biological agents has been developed in consultation with affected agencies and all States and Territories through the COAG Review process.

The Government recognises that, if we are to achieve an appropriate balance between ensuring protection of the public and also minimising the impost on business, then all affected parties must continue to be closely involved in the implementation of the regulatory regime.  The Bill therefore provides for an 18 month implementation period prior to the regulatory scheme coming into effect.  This provides an opportunity for the Government to work with the sector to ensure that there is minimal regulatory burden and to implement a supporting education and awareness campaign for the new scheme.

I should briefly note that this Bill is the first of a number addressing national health security issues.  As agreed by COAG at its April 2007 meeting, further consideration is currently being given to legislation to enable co-ordinated national responses to health emergencies and mass casualty situations.  I understand that this work is progressing well.

I look forward to debate on the National Health Security Bill.

I move that the Bill now be read a second time. The Social Security Legislation Amendment (2007 Budget Measures for Students) Bill 2007 amends the Student Assistance Act 1973 and the Social Security Act 1991. The Bill gives effect to measures announced in the 2007-08 Budget that concern the income support for students programmes, and updates aspects of the administration of ABSTUDY and the Assistance for Isolated Children (AIC) in line with similar provisions under the Social Security Act 1991.

Amendments to the Student Assistance Act 1973, under Schedule 1, provide legislative support for the provision of services to ABSTUDY and the Assistance for Isolated Children (AIC) schemes.

The first amendment aims to simplify the processes currently used by the Australian Government (as represented by Centrelink) to recover payment(s) made under the ABSTUDY and AIC schemes that have been deposited into an incorrect financial institution account. This is consistent with the provisions of the Social Security Act 1991.

The second amendment will allow notices issued under section(s) 343, 344 or 345 to be issued electronically. This amendment is required to incorporate current technologies and data transfer processes used by Centrelink for other student income support payments into the administration of the ABSTUDY and AIC schemes.

Amendments to the Social Security Act 1991, under Schedule 2, insert a new category of Level of Course to the levels of eligible study. This adds Masters degrees as eligible courses and removes the current restriction on Austudy recipients which prevents them from receiving payment if they have already gained a Masters level degree.

The amendments also attach Rent Assistance payments to Austudy to increase the support for mature age people participating in education. Items 1, 3 and 6 to 8 clarify existing policy by inserting that a course supplied by a VET provider qualifies along with a TAFE course. This up-dates terminology to reflect current usage.

From 1 January 2008, students enrolled in an approved Masters by course-work programme, which is required for entry to a profession, or is the fastest pathway to professional entry, will be eligible for Youth Allowance and Austudy payments. This provision will also extend to students enrolled in a Masters course-work programme where a university has diversified by restructuring its course delivery. As Minister for Education, Science and Training I will determine approved courses on application by higher education providers. The legislative amendment makes provision for the approval process.

The extension of Youth Allowance and Austudy to include approved professional Masters degrees responds to a growing trend to increase the level of qualification required for professional entry. The measure enhances Australia’s international competitiveness, will assist in addressing Australia’s skill needs and contributes to the nation’s skill development. The measure ensures that low income students have the financial assistance they require to complete a Masters degree to obtain entry to a profession.

To maintain consistency with student income support policy, as defined by the Act, and the new amendment which extends income support to Masters courses, an additional amendment is required to remove the current restriction on the provision of income support to students who have already attained a Masters degree. This amendment has no effect on the existing allowable time and progress rules, which are maintained. It also does not apply to students who have attained a doctorate.

From 1 January 2008, Indigenous students in receipt of the ABSTUDY Living Allowance will be able to access Crisis payment under the ABSTUDY Scheme. Amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 will clarify that a social security Crisis payment is not payable if the person is qualified for an ABSTUDY Crisis Payment in respect of the same circumstance.

Items 11 to 16 provide access to Rent Assistance for eligible Austudy students. From 1 January 2008, students aged 25 years and over who receive Austudy will be able, if eligible, to receive assistance with their rental accommodation expenses. This amendment provides additional support for mature-age students from low income backgrounds providing them with the opportunity to participate in education and training. Extending eligibility for Rent Assistance to include recipients of Austudy brings this payment into line with other income support recipients, such as those receiving Youth Allowance and Newstart.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Johnston) adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be an order of the day for a later hour.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.