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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
23/05/2012
Estimates
INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORT PORTFOLIO
Inspector of Transport Security

Inspector of Transport Security

[10:00]

CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Palmer. Colleagues, we have 20 minutes for questions for Mr Palmer. Mr Palmer, do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Palmer : I will make a brief one, if I may. I want to take this opportunity to inform the committee that my term as the Inspector of Transport Security ends on 7 June this year. I will be standing down from the position at that time. I thank you for all the support and interest you have shown in the workings of the Office of the Inspector of Transport Security during the tenure of my office. I have really appreciated the interest that has been shown in the nature and type of questions that have been asked throughout the seven or so years I have been here.

My position will be taken by Mr Andy Hughes, to my right, who has been appointed to take my place effective 8 June. Andy is probably well known to many of you. He comes ideally equipped for the responsibilities of the position. He is a 33-year experienced police officer. He has had service in the AFP, including the senior executive service, and was the chief police officer for the ACT as well as being in charge of national operations and international operations for the AFP. He was the Commissioner of the Fiji Police Force right up until the dispute that arose in that country. He has had two years with the United Nations as the police adviser on head of police peacekeeping for the United Nations internationally, and he is still doing a lot of mentoring work with the United Nations from time to time in short-term tenure. Mr Hughes comes ideally equipped for the position and will commence the day after I cease.

Operationally, we are just about at the end of the last inquiry, which is the oil and gas offshore security oil and gas inquiry. The report should be handed to the minister by the end of this month.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Palmer. I know we will miss you. Do we take it that you will be in retirement writing a tell-all book? No chance of that. Welcome, Mr Hughes. On that note, Mr Palmer, I think it would be criminal if we did not end your time of questioning with Senator Heffernan. We will start with Senator Fawcett. We only have until 10.20 am.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But Bill will have to say something.

CHAIR: And we are not going to shut Senator Heffernan up.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I can start.

CHAIR: No, you cannot. You can have your moment of glory during the last part of questioning to Mr Palmer.

Senator FAWCETT: I take it from some of your comments previously, and even today, that part of your role is an oversight of how security is enforced and how effective it is. Could you comment on security at airports, not so much for passengers and crew—there has been a lot of discussion on that recently—but where things are at at the moment, in your view, for people who come airside but not through the screening process? They are folk who perhaps are maintainers or cleaners, baggage handlers et cetera. Could you describe any concerns you may have with that area of security?

Mr Palmer : I am not really in a position to do that, Senator, for the following reason: I only conduct inquiries as directed by the minister. I do not have any own-motion oversight capacity. So we only do inquiries into areas of transport security or offshore facility security that are considered by the government to warrant an audit, ombudsman style objective assessment of the current state of play. We have not to this time been asked to look at airside security. I have had no occasion to really take any interest in it for probably three or four years. The current inquiry, which commenced over 12 months ago, is on offshore oil and gas security. Of course, it has little relationship to airside aviation except with regard to heliports servicing offshore facilities.

Senator FAWCETT: I accept that. That clarifies the fact that the minister has not directed you to. Have you received any advice from other parties indicating that such an inquiry may be warranted?

Mr Palmer : It is one of the issues that has been raised from time to time in discussion between the secretary and me. It is an area of continuing interest that may be relevant for consideration of an inquiry by this office.

Senator FAWCETT: So when you have those kinds of submissions and informal comments, how do they arrive? How do you get that information?

Mr Palmer : Part of the brief I have from the minister, Minister Albanese, is from time to time to give advice on areas that we think may warrant an external or objective audit or assessment process and to let our minds run in terms of the areas that have not been looked at for some time or about which concerns have been raised in other quarters. Airside security is one of those issues that has come to my attention as an area that may benefit from some external scrutiny.

Senator FAWCETT: How recent and how numerous have been the bits of information? You still have not exactly disclosed in what form they come, but let us just call it pieces of information.

Mr Palmer : I have not had anything directly. Comments have been made to me by some of the aviation stakeholders during the course of this current inquiry that it remains for them an area of some discomfort because of just the nature of doing business. When we were, as part of the process, being asked to consider next inquiries, we let our minds run. That was one of the areas that, it seemed to me, was something we had not had occasion to look at and which it would benefit, because of its nature, by having somebody make an assessment that did not own any of the patch, if you like.

Senator FAWCETT: Are there any plans in train at the moment for such an inquiry?

Mr Palmer : It would be a matter for the minister’s discretion.

Senator FAWCETT: Is there a recommended list for him to consider?

Mr Palmer : There will be a list put to the minister by the secretary and by the incoming inspector. I have had a conversation with the minister. These issues were raised as part of that conversation of areas that would be appropriate for consideration. So that is where we are. But the final decision rests with the minister, and the secretary will be putting specific recommendations to him, as will the incoming inspector.

Senator FAWCETT: So the question again is: is this area of airside security on that list going to the minister for consideration?

Mr Palmer : It was one of the issues I raised with the minister, yes.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Mr Palmer, you look far too fit and far too young to be retiring. Mr Hughes, you are not a Junee boy, are you?

Mr Hughes : No.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I think it is important that the public is aware—that is why we like to call you to these meetings—that there is a system of being ever vigilant on air safety. In your time as the inspector, are there issues that you have dealt with that you feel need further consideration?

Mr Palmer : I think from time to time there have been issues we have dealt with that would benefit at some stage from being revisited and reviewed to see whether we are still in a position that we would be totally comfortable being in. It is a moving feast. Best practice today may not still be best practice in two, three or five years. But nothing leaps out at me in terms of the sorts of inquiries that we have done to date.

Senator HEFFERNAN: But just for the intergenerational transfer and for this committee’s intergenerational transfer from you to Mr Hughes, you might like to give, with the permission of the minister and the secretary, some thought to a summary so that we are ever alert. I think it is very important for the public to know that we are ever alert to aviation security et cetera. One of the things that has been raised with me in recent days by pilots, which may not be an issue for you, is where in the plane the people—what are they called?

Mr Palmer : Do you mean the air marshals?

Senator HEFFERNAN: The air marshals. Do you consider it important that the captain of the plane knows where the air marshals are, or is that inconsequential?

Mr Palmer : I have not had occasion to look at air marshals at all and I am not really in a position to make an informed comment.

Senator HEFFERNAN: You have not had that—

Mr Palmer : No. I had not really even given that issue a moment’s thought until you raised it now. I would have to think about that before I could see pluses and minuses in that sort of scenario.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I do not want to get you into trouble.

Mr Palmer : I do not know. I do not have enough information.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Mr Mrdak, do you have a view on that? It has been raised with me. Obviously, Mr Palmer and Mr Hughes work on references given to them for things to do. We went through that when we got the explanation of the role of the inspector.

Mr Mrdak : It has not been raised with me. But I am happy to take on notice whether there is any work going on on that matter.

Senator HEFFERNAN: By the way, I do not want to breach any security et cetera.

Mr Mrdak : Certainly, Senator. As you know, this is largely a matter for the Attorney-General. It is an operational matter for the Attorney-General’s portfolio, which we do not directly have any influence on or involvement in. But certainly that issue has not been raised with us. I do not know whether it has been raised with Attorney-General’s or the relevant officials in that portfolio.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Mr Palmer, have you already put on notice here today the references you have been given in the last 12 months?

Mr Palmer : In the last 12 months?

Senator HEFFERNAN: Yes.

Mr Palmer : During the last 12 months, we have only been engaged in the offshore oil and gas security inquiry, which has been going since February last year. We have had no other references given to us in that time, and that has been a full-time job. I think that has unquestionably been the most complex and widespread inquiry that we have to date been asked to be engaged in.

Senator HEFFERNAN: What we can ask you is limited because we can only ask you what you have been referred to. So I guess that means you get out of this pretty lightly on your last estimates.

Mr Palmer : Probably so.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Very well done. Welcome, Mr Hughes. I think we need to maintain public confidence. I think the combined work of the department, you, Mr Mrdak and others is pretty essential in that regard. Thanks very much.

Mr Palmer : Thank you.

Mr Mrdak : Do you have any further questions for the inspector?

CHAIR: No. Thank you very much. Enjoy your retirement.

Senator HEFFERNAN: He will not retire.

CHAIR: We will take a short break for morning tea.

Proceedings suspended from 10: 12 to 10 : 34