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Thursday, 25 February 2010
Page: 1198

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (12:53 PM) —I rise today to speak on the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009. Security sensitive biological agents, SSBAs, can be of benefit in medical, health and scientific research but can also pose a significant risk to human health. Bacterial and viral pathogens and toxins derived from living organisms have the potential to do harm through unintentional release, careless handling or, worse, malicious intent—for example, with anthrax. It is important that regulation of SSBAs is effective, consistent and provides appropriate safeguards in the interests of national security.

The bill before us today continues the reforms in this area made by the coalition government. The coalition government provided an investment in national health security capability in the 2004 budget. The coalition action strengthened national health security, preparedness and response capability in the event of a national health emergency or terrorist attack. The budget measure included provisions for a national register of laboratories that use or store high-risk pathogens and toxins.

In 2007, COAG agreed to the recommendations of the report on the regulation and control of biological agents. The report analysed the effectiveness of Australia’s existing regulation of SSBAs and ASIO’s assessment of threats to Australian institutions and entities storing and handling high-risk biological agents. COAG agreed to a nationally consistent scheme to regulate all aspects of the supply chain for SSBAs.

The National Health Security Act, which this bill seeks to amend, was introduced by the now Leader of the Opposition. The scheme introduced under the National Health Security Act aimed to ensure that national health security was maximised whilst minimising the regulatory and administrative burden on affected institutions. The National Health Security Act targeted security risks by consolidating the regulation and monitoring of facilities that handle SSBAs across all jurisdictions.

The risks identified as a result of a lack of nationally consistent legislation included: limited physical security requirements for facilities and entities holding SSBAs; lack of monitoring of the location, nature or destruction of SSBAs; no requirement for checking of facility and entity employees with access to SSBAs to ensure that they did not have criminal or terrorist links; and facilities and entities not uniformly reporting access to SSBAs. The National Health Security Act addressed these risks.

In relation to the bill before us today, section 35 of the National Health Security Act provides for the minister by legislative instrument to set requirements relating to the security status of the individuals who are entitled to handle or dispose of SSBAs. This bill explicitly provides that the minister may require background checks in setting those requirements for individuals involved in handling or disposing of such biological agents. The bill further provides that background checks be conducted under AusCheck for individuals who handle or dispose of SSBAs.

The AusCheck Amendment Bill 2009 sought to expand the range of background checks that AusCheck was authorised to undertake. The original expansion was to include matters related to Australia’s national security, the defence of Australia, a national emergency, the prevention of terrorism offences and executive power of the Commonwealth. A Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry recommended, amongst other things, that, in order for AusCheck to conduct background checks for individuals, there must be provision made in the principal act. The coalition also noted the concerns of the committee in relation to the lack of consultation by the Rudd government prior to the proposed expansion of AusCheck’s role. The government subsequently amended the AusCheck bill to account for the committee’s recommendations.

The bill today complies with the Senate committee’s recommendation and the subsequent amendment to the AusCheck bill for authorisation for such background checks to be included in the principal act, in this case the National Health Security Act. Background checking for individuals involved in handling and disposing of SSBAs is consistent with the intention of the national health security reform process. The coalition accepts that there has been consultation throughout this process. The coalition supports measures which provide sensible safeguards to human health and the environment as provided for in this bill. The coalition will not be opposing the bill.