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Thursday, 17 September 2009
Page: 6866

Senator STEPHENS (Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector and Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Prime Minister for Social Inclusion) (12:52 PM) —I thank Senator Cormann for indicating the opposition’s support of this important bill. As he so rightly said, it enhances Australia’s obligations for securing certain biological agents that could be used as weapons. Such biological agents, also known as SSBAs or security sensitive biological agents, include the causative agents of diseases such as anthrax, smallpox and the plague.

The National Health Security Amendment Bill 2009 enhances the regulatory scheme for the SSBA in three important ways. First, the proposed amendments enable the responsible minister to respond immediately and appropriately to the challenge of safeguarding public health and security in the event of an SSBA related disease outbreak. The proposed change enables the suspension of certain existing regulatory requirements and the imposition of new conditions to ensure that adequate controls are maintained. Second, the amendment will extend reporting controls to biological agents suspected to be SSBAs. The new provisions will require an entity to report its handlings of suspected SSBAs and comply with new standards of suspected SSBAs. Third, the bill will enhance the investigative powers available under the National Health Security Act, which introduces powers to search premises and seize evidential material and to use necessary and reasonable force in executing the warrant. Importantly, this increase in the investigation powers is complemented by necessary safeguards to ensure proper use of those powers.

In addition, the bill makes some less significant but equally important amendments to improve the administration of the scheme, such as reporting requirements and enabling cancellation of registration. In particular, the bill requires that, in addition to reporting certain events such as the loss or theft of an SSBA to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing, the entity must make a report to local police. While entities would as a matter of practice make a report to police in these circumstances, the proposed changes put that matter beyond doubt and ensure a comprehensive investigation of the incident, including law enforcement input. The proposed amendments also enable the Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing on application by a registered entity to cancel the registration of an entity or its facility if they no longer handle any SSBAs. This is a sensible change that simply ensures that the entity or its facility is no longer captured by the act and its reporting obligations.

The measures introduced by this bill appropriately enhance the existing regulatory scheme for the SSBAs and it underlines the Rudd government’s commitment to protect all Australians through maintaining controls on biological agents that could be used as weapons.

I thank Senator Cormann for his contribution to the debate. I note that the bill also received the opposition’s support in the House of Representatives, where the honourable members recognised the need for the bill’s measures and supported the government’s position to be ever vigilant against the threat of bioterrorism. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.