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Thursday, 8 February 2007
Page: 8

Mr BEVIS (10:11 AM) —I rise to speak on the AusCheck Bill 2006. The bill seeks to establish a regulatory framework for the conduct of a centralised background-checking service to be conducted by the Attorney-General’s Department. The bill provides authority for the department to coordinate background criminal and security assessments for applications for the aviation security identification card, the ASIC, and also the maritime security identification card, the MSIC. Labor note with some concern any subsequent schemes, and that is a matter I will comment on later in this debate.

The bill also provides authority for the department to maintain a database of applicants and card holders, to collect, use and disclose information and to recover costs for conducting background checks. That sounds reasonable enough, but in these matters the devil is often in the detail. As the name of the bill implies, the concept of background checks is not something that this parliament should be legislating for without careful consideration to ensure that the civil liberties of Australian citizens are not unduly impinged upon.

Clause 5 of the bill in fact defines a ‘background check’ as an assessment of information relating to an individual person. It includes an assessment of information about the person’s criminal history; information about the security assessment that ASIO makes of the person; and information about the person’s migration status if the person is not an Australian citizen. We should not blithely pass over the invasiveness of these assessments. They are important assessments, particularly for the aviation and maritime industries in a post-2001 environment. It is critically important that people in these sensitive areas are properly and thoroughly checked for the safety of all involved. But these are not simply identity checks; these are exhaustive, quite invasive security checks on a person’s background. That is what is required in those sensitive security areas. We in this parliament should understand that, and I am sure the people of Australia would want to have attention drawn to the fact that these are significant security assessments and personal background checks. They should not be conducted lightly and they should not be conducted on citizens frivolously or vexatiously.

It is important that, in adopting and considering this bill, we establish a framework that not only ensures the security and safety of the Australian public, which we all expect as one of our basic rights, but also protects the civil liberties, individual rights and freedom of citizens and safeguards unwarranted and obtrusive investigations into their personal lives, which these sorts of security checks involve.

Another concern emerges when looking at clause 5 of the bill. The explanatory memorandum to this bill also defines a background check as:

... other ... information about the person that may be described in regulations.

That is, apart from the matters listed in this bill, the government is seeking the power to establish by regulation other information that it may wish to obtain. I appreciate that they are disallowable instruments; I received that assurance from the Attorney’s office during the past week. But I think the government does need to explain the sorts of information that it anticipates it needs that power for. One of the things that we will be seeking to have further explored in the Senate and to a lesser extent during the consideration in detail stage here is the nature of the information that the government thinks it might want to collect beyond that provided for in this bill but which it thinks it needs the power by regulation to establish.

We see a number of references to criteria to be set out in regulations. For that reason, this AusCheck bill does go further than Sir John Wheeler’s recommendations. Sir John Wheeler, of course, was the United Kingdom expert engaged by the Howard government to conduct a review of aviation security. His review, a public report, is a 50-page chronicle of the things this government has got wrong in aviation security. It was a 50-page report of what it should have been doing since 2001 and unfortunately had neglected. He did make a number of recommendations and comments about the problems of security at the airports in Australia and the problems about security checking of staff, but I think the scope that this bill establishes goes beyond that provided for by Sir John Wheeler in his report.

In fact, the bill allows the government to slip new criteria in by regulation, and even a new scheme into the regulations, that need not be related to national security. I am not certain that the safeguards in this bill go far enough to protect the basic rights of Australians in dealing with that. The bill’s purpose is sound and good and we support it, but as I mentioned before the devil is in the detail. We will be seeking from the Attorney-General, here and in the Senate, assurances and further information about those matters.

I acknowledge that there are some safeguards in the bill, but I am concerned about their adequacy. As the bill currently reads, clause 14 is a safeguard on the retention and subsequent use of information in the AusCheck database. Information can only be used in an incident that poses a threat to national security, and the dissemination of criminal intelligence or security intelligence is restricted. The identities of people are safeguarded, and I understand the arrangements that are intended to apply for statistical and research purposes are sound. It is desirable that the database be available for research purposes, and that is provided for in the bill.

What Sir John Wheeler intended by a centralised data collection agency was improved aviation security and, as I have acknowledged, that is an important thing that we support. Sadly, the government’s track record in this field is very poor. The ASIC system and aviation security in Australia in general need reform.

In 2005 the minister for transport, who has responsibility for the ASIC, set an arbitrary cut-off date for ID card applications of 31 December 2005, failing to take into account the time taken for pilots to pay for and receive police checks. In fact, that deadline was not able to be met, and at the time the government acknowledged that problem, claiming that the deadline could not be met because of ASIO’s workload associated with security matters around the Commonwealth Games. Well, surely with proper management the government would have foreseen any difficulties there. The Commonwealth Games was not a surprise event; it had been in the planning for many years. The government and ASIO had full knowledge of the nature of the security checks required for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games; they established a time frame for the ASIC assessments that should have been well informed by the demands of ASIO at that time with the Commonwealth Games. They simply got it wrong and mismanaged the system. The minister for transport was subsequently forced to change the deadline to 31 March 2006, and even that has not fixed the problem. Pilots who missed the original December deadline but submitted their applications by the March deadline still have not received the ASICs and in some cases are therefore not able to access their aircraft air side.

There is perhaps a more worrying aspect of the operation of the ASIC by this government, and that is the lost ASICs. This has been a problem since the system began. In the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit on 23 November 2005, evidence was given that 384 ASICs had been either lost or stolen—384 high-security passes to our aviation industry could not be accounted for. That is a pretty alarming statistic when you consider that at that time not a lot of ASICs had actually been distributed. I have to say, in the current context of a smartcard debate, one can only imagine the chaos that will be the lot of Australians under the mismanagement by the Howard government in its attempts to look after a nationwide smartcard distribution. The fact of the matter is there are about 10,000 or 15,000 ASICs—aviation security identification cards—and about 400 of them have already been lost. The government does not know where they are and cannot account for them. Imagine what is going to happen with 15 million smartcards. There are going to be tens of thousands of these smartcards lost. The government is making a great play about the importance of this card in solving identity theft, and we all want to ensure that identity theft is properly addressed. But this government’s mismanagement in the security area shows great incompetence.

The thought of 15 million smartcards being managed by the Howard government does not instil a great deal of confidence when you consider that, with just a few thousand security cards in the aviation industry, they have already managed to lose 300 or 400 of them. It will be interesting to watch how they go about the development of the smartcards. Hopefully they will not make the same mistakes they have made with the management of the security cards in the aviation industry.

In July 2006 the aviation industry magazine Australian Aviation had a very interesting article about the mismanagement of the aviation security cards by the Howard government. There was an article in it that quoted Mr Kerans, who was the Australian Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association vice president, I believe. It quoted him as saying that when he went to collect his ASIC from Qantas in Canberra, he was shown a box of red plastic cards that were all on lanyards and was left to sort through them unsupervised to pick out the one that was his. He said in the article, ‘I could have pocketed any quantity of ASICs I wanted.’ Those cards are the high-security passes that guarantee people access to the sensitive security areas of our airports and aircraft.

The government’s mishandling of this extends not just to the calling for applications, the processing of applications, the management of the system and the recovery of lost cards but even to the process of how they distribute them. Can you imagine a bundle of high-security cards being placed in a large box and someone being left in the room by themselves with that large box and told, ‘Go and get the one that’s yours’? There was nothing stopping that person picking up half a dozen of them if he wanted to, other than his own good sense and honesty. That is the high-security system that this government is managing.

This bill will establish a central agency—and that is a good thing. We support that. John Wheeler recommended it and we have been advocating it. We support that purpose of this bill, but having a central agency is not going to help improve security if we have the level of incompetence that this government has shown in the way in which it subsequently goes about handling the administration.

The threat to Australia following 11 September 2001 is genuine, but the mismanagement of the aviation sector by this government has simply been dangerous. The Howard government have been in power now for far too long—more than a decade—and it is long past the time that they should have seriously addressed the problems that beset security in Australia’s aviation and maritime industries. They rolled out a maritime security identification card system, and that is something that is also supported by the industry and by this side of the House. That involves detailed background checking of Australian maritime workers. That is a necessary thing. The industry understands it and the unions understand it. It has improved security amongst Australian-flagged ships.

I say ‘Australian-flagged ships’ deliberately, because whilst this government has required Australian crews to undergo thorough, invasive security and criminal background checks it does none of that with foreign crews. That is a problem that should be ringing alarm bells for a government in any situation, but for this government it is an even bigger problem because they—like no government before them—have misused and abused the process of giving permits to foreign-crewed ships to travel around Australian ports.

There has been a system in place for many years to enable foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed ships to operate the Australian coastal route by special permit. That is a sensible enough mechanism to deal with the ebb and flow of demand and supply of ships on the Australian coastal route. This government have used it as a tool to attack the Australian-crewed ships and their economic viability around Australian ports. The simple fact of life is that this government, as I have commented before, have handed out these permits like tickets in a Friday pub chook raffle. If you want to get permits to travel around the Australian coastline with foreign crews on foreign-flagged ships all you have to do is ask. This government do not do any of the security checks on those crews that are done on Australian crews.

In fact, it is worse than that. Not only do they not do the checks; they do not even enforce their own laws. The government have a requirement that ships coming to Australian ports from overseas have to advise of their crew and cargo 48 hours before arriving in port. That is a sensible law; we support it. The incompetence of the Howard government, though, does not implement it. The truth is that there are a significant number of ships that come to Australian ports without ever having provided that information. And that number has grown in the last 12 months. The figures demonstrate that the number of ships arriving in Australian ports without advising of their crew and cargo has increased over the last 12 months of available data.

So the situation is getting worse, not better. The mismanagement of the Howard government in these matters is jeopardising security. In 2005 the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a damning report on the state of Australia’s security arrangements called Future unknown: the terrorist threat to Australian maritime security. That report identified the danger of foreign-flagged vessels carrying dangerous goods around the Australian coastline. Labor has warned the Howard government about this problem on many occasions. We have specifically warned about the dangers of foreign-crewed, foreign-flagged vessels for which there has been no security check carrying ammonium nitrate around Australia’s coastline.

I can recall a couple of years ago being at the Gladstone port with Kim Beazley, the then leader of the Labor Party, conducting a press conference, and a foreign-crewed ship, carrying 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, was in the background. The government had done no checks on the security of that crew or the vessel’s owners. Ammonium nitrate is a highly volatile material. When it is mixed with fuel, it becomes a very seriously dangerous explosive. It has been the explosive of choice for terrorists around the world for some years.

This is not a fanciful proposition. Indeed, there have been explosions involving ships carrying ammonium nitrate that have occurred by accident. Those incidents have occurred without the problems that we confront in a post-2001 world. The most notorious of those incidents occurred just after World War II, when the French freighter the SS Grandcamp, carrying 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, was docked at Texas City. On 16 April 1947, the ship’s decks caught fire and the ammonium nitrate exploded. That explosion was so great that it was heard 150 miles away. It produced a mushroom cloud that rose 2,000 feet in the air. The locals thought there had been a nuclear bomb attack and that the United States was at war. In fact, the explosion was so severe that the SS Grandcamp’s anchor, which weighed 1½ tonnes, was thrown two miles and ended up embedded 10 feet underground. That was the size of the explosion caused by that ship carrying ammonium nitrate. Yet, virtually every week of the year, without conducting anything like the security check required of Australian seafarers, the government hands out voyage permits authorising foreign crews on foreign-flagged ships to travel our ports while carrying dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate.

The proper course of action is that Australian seafarers, who have had those security checks done on them and who are fully trained and appropriately equipped to deal with these situations, should be carrying those goods. But the Howard government, for other reasons and agendas, is happy to let that unfold. Frankly, it is irresponsible and typical of this government that it has arrogantly avoided any serious probe of foreign-flagged vessels carrying dangerous goods around our coastline. The example I gave of the Texas City incident involving the French freighter the SS Grandcamp would have devastated any Australian port, but still the government refuses to heed the warnings.

It is not just in these areas that Labor have sought to raise concerns. We have also pointed out that, in our region of the world, Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah have acquired the skills and have the opportunities to launch a maritime terrorist attack. These groups operate in South-East Asian waters, near to our borders, and in waters in which the incidence of piracy is the highest in the world. Again on the last available figures, there are two acts of piracy per week in the waters just to our north-north-west—exactly the area in which those terrorist organisations operate.

These concerns are compounded by the knowledge made available by United States intelligence sources that the al-Qaeda group is suspected of owning or having a long-term charter fleet of between 15 and 18 bulk general cargo vessels. This American intelligence assessment is publicly available. Whilst it is believed that these vessels are used to generate revenue to support the group or to provide logistics for the terrorist network, it is also feasible that one of these vessels could be used as a floating bomb on a suicide mission, making use of an explosive just like ammonium nitrate. Against that background, the failure of the Howard government to ensure that these dangerous chemicals are handled by crews who have been properly checked and cleared—and at the moment that applies only to Australian crews—is a great disgrace. Let us think about the consequences of that for a moment. Al-Qaeda has access to maritime vessels, it has expertise in maritime terrorism, it has expertise in explosives and it has access to those explosives, yet the Howard government runs at a snail’s pace in upgrading maritime security.

Labor keeps a watchful eye on the bills presented by the Attorney-General. His bills have become somewhat notorious for undermining important rights or for simply being poorly drafted. Who can forget the Attorney-General’s bill introduced into this parliament that included a number of quite offensive provisions, subsequently removed? In 2005, he introduced into the parliament a bill that included things like the strip-searching of minors. There was also the one-word bill that changed ‘the’ to ‘a’ to overcome a drafting problem in a hastily prepared earlier piece of antiterrorism legislation. Quality, considered and well-balanced laws have not been the hallmark of this government when it comes to dealing with security matters.

We will seek to refer this bill to the Senate legislative committee for closer scrutiny, particularly the possible future applications of the powers conferred in it beyond the ASIC and the MSIC. As I have commented, the purpose of this bill in establishing a central checking agency for ASIC and MSIC is supported; it is a sensible provision. We have been calling for it for some time, and the sooner it is up and running the better. It will not solve the maladministration of aviation and maritime security that has been the hallmark of this government, and it is because of those concerns that I move the following second reading amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for its failure to provide necessary security upgrades to protect Australians, including:

(1)   its careless roll-out of the Aviation Security Identification Card (ASIC) scheme. That flawed roll-out included the loss or theft of ASICs and a history of airport security bungling;

(2)   its delays in rolling-out the Maritime Security Identification Card (MSIC) scheme and its careless and widespread use of single and continuing voyage permits for foreign vessels with foreign crew who do not undergo appropriate security checks;

(3)   permitting foreign flag of convenience ships to carry dangerous goods on coastal shipping routes without appropriate security checks; and

(4)   failing to;

(a)   ensure ships provide details of crew and cargo 48 hours before arrival;

(b)   x-ray or inspect 90 per cent of containers;

(c)   establish and properly fund an Australian Coastguard; and

(d)   establish a Department of Homeland Security to better coordinate security in Australia”.

There are a number of aspects of the second reading amendment that time has not permitted me to address. I should make a couple of quick comments before I conclude, though, about one aspect of it. We have here a bill, to be administered by the Attorney-General’s Department, dealing with security, largely in the transport department. Therein is highlighted one of the difficulties that Labor has been pursuing for the best part of the last six years. Our view on this side of the parliament is that the best solution to the modern threat of non-state terrorism is to have a dedicated department, a department of homeland security, where all of the agencies involved in providing that web of protection for Australians are administered under one minister and under one department.

At the moment, this government has those responsibilities divided up over half-a-dozen different ministers and even more departments and agencies. You need only look at an airport to find that three or four ministers are all responsible for the security that goes on in that one place. Where you have that degree of overlap it invites error, it invites omission and, of course, it invites a waste of resources. We can afford none of those things in responding to the threats that we now confront in this world. Labor has for years argued the importance of having this single department with responsibility and a clear chain of command. The odd thing is that, when the chips are down and there are important events to be held, the government actually understands that and adopts what would be Labor’s approach.

When Australia was charged with looking after the Olympics, for example—perhaps the most challenging security event in the world—it gave all security command to one person: the New South Wales Police Commissioner. So, although we had, for example, federal police and military personnel, for the purposes of their tasks at the Olympics the military personnel were under the command of the police commissioner in New South Wales. They knew there had to be one structure, one line of command, and to make it work in the most challenging of environments, at the Olympics, they did that. One wonders why, in the years since then, and particularly since 9-11, the government have not seen fit to establish an ongoing structure that mirrors that same rationale.

I also draw attention to a concern I have in relation to clause 8 of the bill, relating to the establishment of the scheme. Subclause (2) sets out the purposes for which background checks may be conducted. It is an extraordinarily broad list of items. Most of them are straightforward and to be expected. Of course we expect security checks to be done for the prevention of the carrying out of a terrorist act, for national emergencies, for national security, for the defence of Australia or for a number of the other things that are listed. But that provision seems to give scope for the Commonwealth to do background checks for any purpose whatsoever which may have no relationship at all to issues of security, defence or dealing with terrorist acts. One of the things I hope the government will be able to shed some light on during the consideration in detail and in the Senate inquiry is the purposes for which they intend those powers to be used and the need for legislation to be drafted in such an extraordinarily broad manner. We look forward to pursuing those matters of detail at the appropriate time.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Is the amendment seconded?