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Thursday, 8 February 2007
Page: 8

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (10:41 AM) —I second the motion. It is with some pleasure that I stand in support of the position adopted by the Labor Party on the AusCheck Bill 2006 and especially the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister and member for Brisbane, Mr Bevis. This is a very important bill, as has been previously stated by the member for Brisbane. It is all about trying to make sure that we in Australia can sleep at night without any significant fear with respect to the battle against terrorism. It is a common-sense bill, in my opinion, that provides the regulatory framework for the conduct of a centralised background-checking service operated through the Attorney-General’s Department.

Given the international challenge of terrorism at the moment, it is very important that we have a coordinated approach to this very serious challenge that confronts, at this particular point in time, not only Australia but also, importantly, the global community in which we live. It is interesting to note that the bill is another endeavour to configure correctly our national security settings and results from recommendation 19 of the Wheeler review. As the shadow minister for transport up until the last election in 2004, I have to say that I thought the Wheeler report presented many balanced and informed recommendations. It represented a comprehensive review at that time of what should be done to strengthen the security arrangements that operate within Australia—and they are so important to Australia’s desire to have the best possible armoury in the global fight against terrorism.

The bill therefore correctly provides for the creation of a new centralised division of the Attorney-General’s Department, to be known as AusCheck. This agency will be responsible for conducting background checks on those who work in the secure areas of air and sea ports. That is obviously important to my shadow ministerial responsibilities for transport. It applies namely to the holders of the aviation security identification card, ASIC, and the maritime security identification card, MSIC. Once fully established, it is envisaged that the division will operate on a cost recovery basis. In my opinion, this bill builds on all the work done in the previous parliament with respect to the development of the aviation security identity cards and the maritime security identity cards, because they go hand in glove with comprehensive legislation going to aviation and maritime security in Australia that was properly considered in a cooperative way by both sides of parliament.

AusCheck will commence operations from 1 July 2007. But I must say that the opposition has considerable criticism of the fact that this is two years after the decision of the government in 2005 to establish the new division. I would have thought that the challenge of terrorism would have required a little bit more haste and a certain decisiveness by the government to get this framework in place sooner than the late hour at which we are now considering this important legislation. From my point of view, the delay seems a relatively lengthy period of time for what should have been a relatively simple process. But we do welcome AusCheck’s establishment, despite the government’s tardiness on this front.

AusCheck will require additional enabling legislation to conduct background checks outside the Aviation Transport Security Act 2004 and the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Act 2003. Obviously, a maritime security identification card is required if a person needs to work unescorted or unmonitored in a maritime security zone. That is a pretty fundamental requirement as far as I am concerned. This obviously covers waterfront workers, seafarers on Australian regulated ships, Customs brokers, shipping agents and contractors as well as service providers and maintenance workers—a comprehensive list of workers who are engaged in one way or another in the Australian maritime industry. With respect to the aviation field, identification cards are required by many persons working in an airside or a landside security zone at a security controlled airport that has regular transport services.

Whilst these cards are exceptionally important, the opposition still maintains considerable concern about the failure of the government to adopt a more comprehensive approach to aviation security arrangements in regional airports around Australia such as those at Wyndham and Burnie in Tasmania. We think it is ridiculous that at some of these airports you can board a plane unchecked; yet when you arrive at, for example, Melbourne Airport, you actually have to go through security having already undertaken the trip. We have previously indicated that, in our opinion, the threat of terrorism is real. Although we have comprehensive security, regimes at major capital city airports, such as in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, there seem to be gaping holes in the security arrangements at some of our key regional airports around Australia. I remind the government that we need a further examination of this challenge, because the last thing we need is for someone who wants to do Australia and Australians harm to work out these weakness in the system and exploit them for their own ends.

Holding either identification card indicates that the holder is of a suitable character to work in a secure area, having undergone background checks including a criminal history check, a security assessment by ASIO where required, and an authority to work in Australia check by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to ensure that the person is a citizen or permanent resident. The bill also provides authority for the department to maintain a database of applicants and cardholders; to collect, use and disclose information; and to recover costs for conducting background checks. Obviously it is important that we guarantee the security of this information, because it goes to considerable information about individuals in the Australian community. I remind the authorities to have a wary eye with respect to maintaining the security of this personal information.

The database is about minimising duplication of effort where individuals have a need to undertake background checks for different purposes, and should improve the Australian government’s response to a security alert by providing a centralised repository of information on persons who are required to enter a secure area. Hopefully, over time, this will streamline security procedures with respect to people who work in these highly sensitive industries.

Background checks have increasingly become a critical aspect of the workforce, with Australian Background reporting that 21 per cent of the 1,000 applicants it surveyed lied about their skills, experience or qualifications—which is of considerable concern to all of us. Interestingly, some five per cent had criminal convictions and, of these, 21 per cent or one in 100 applicants had prior convictions for theft or embezzlement. So, in many ways, this is no longer just about security; it is also about the major challenges of theft and fraud in some of the industries that operate in Australia. So it is important that we have a proper eye with respect to these challenges too.

In 2002, fraud cost the Australian economy $5.8 billion, which represents over 18 per cent of the total cost of crime. However, rates of reporting fraud are low, with about 25 per cent in small business and around 60 per cent in large companies. This means that, due to the nature of the crime, perpetrators can re-offend in another company or agency that does not conduct thorough background checks. I think it is important that these issues be brought to the attention of the House, because they are of fundamental importance to the operation of business in Australia from not only a security point of view but also the point of view of guaranteeing that honest practices prevail in the operation of Australian business.

In the context of my portfolio responsibilities as shadow minister for tourism in addition to transport, I well understand that security at our air and sea ports is vital to Australia’s tourism industry, because this industry employs over half a million Australians. Many of those people are young people starting out in their working lives, and there are also increasing opportunities for more mature-age people to work on a part-time basis. We need to try to overcome some of the major challenges that exist with respect to attracting labour to and retaining labour in the very important export-earning tourism and hospitality industry, which Australia has been so good at for so long.

I also remind the House that, with my former responsibilities as shadow minister for resources, I have on a number of occasions raised the importance of ensuring that maritime security is upheld at all times to the highest possible standard, going to background checks and identity cards for anyone in the gas industry who works on board or offshore. Obviously, the importance of that is understandable. In addition, there are also the important issues raised by the member for Brisbane, which went to foreign-flagged vessels, foreign crews and sensitive cargo, such as ammonium nitrate.

The opposition, especially through the speeches of the former Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, has pursued these issues on numerous occasions. But, unfortunately, the government has continued to turn a blind eye to the importance of maintaining an efficient domestic maritime industry more regularly staffed by Australian crew rather than having our waters principally devoted to foreign ships with foreign crews without adequate security checks. We will continue to remind the House of these issues, especially when you consider some of the cargo, such as ammonium nitrate, that is being carried from port to port around Australia. It is imperative that the security regime that exists in Australia is second to none in the world. The opposition takes the issue of maritime and aviation security very seriously and takes the view that there is no room for complacency on this front—a view we believe is also shared by the Australian public.

The workers dutifully perform their tasks on the wharves and in the airports, and I believe that they and their families have a lot to gain from a secure maritime and air travel environment. If anything goes wrong, they are the first affected. As is the case with any employment arrangement, we have to make sure that all Australian workers have the capacity to work in the safest possible environment. In any survey of Australian workers and their families, the issue that always comes out first is not the wages and conditions of employment but the desire to ensure that, when a worker goes to work each day, he or she is not killed or maimed at work and is able to come home. I regard this security regime as being important, in the same way as normal occupational health and safety standards are important to Australian workers and their families.

It is also important to recognise that these workers are not the barrier to making sure that we have the best security regime in the world. They are the eyes and ears that will alert us to any threat. In our modern-day world defined by a climate of fear, we can sometimes mistakenly see the fear as inordinate in relation to the actual threat and, in doing so, place unnecessary intrusions on the private lives of ordinary citizens. I raise this because of my regular contact with the aviation and tourism industries. Whilst it is important that we have the toughest regulatory regime possible, we have to maintain a balance with what is required given a particular level of threat. That requires not only ongoing consultation and proper assessment of the security arrangements required in Australia and for the purposes of international travel but also having proper regard for the potential impact on the operation of Australian industry.

With respect to the travelling public, it also requires us to have proper regard to how we manage and put in place the ever-increasing number of changes that are being pursued in the security regime in Australia. For example, as has happened overseas, we will soon, in an international aviation context, go with more thorough and restrictive requirements regarding taking fluids on board international carriers. This issue will have to be worked through very carefully. There will also be greater checks on what we carry onto those international carriers. I ask the government to ensure that they properly consult industry when putting these changes in place and allow sufficient time, and minimise the inconvenience to the travelling public, with respect to the introduction of these major changes.

The second reading amendment is vital because it proposes two important alterations. They involve deleting two unguarded clauses for criteria in future regulations—clauses 5(d) and 8(c). In proposing and supporting the second reading amendment, the opposition calls for a complete definition of what a background check is—so that people understand more fully what is involved—and for the scope of the AusCheck scheme to be embedded in the bill. We believe that this would provide for an additional safeguard against the misuse or potential misuse of AusCheck.

While this might appear an overly cautious amendment, it does address a number of concerns surrounding so-called Big Brother legislation—and I note comments from the government party room this week on Big Brother legislation and personal identity cards for the purpose of the operation of the social security system in Australia. It is perhaps easy to blur our sense of perspective in this world of 24-hour, seven-days-a-week live and instant media that can seemingly elevate everything to crisis level. In this climate, it is easy to assume that our present situation confronts us with threats like no other and that our world is the most dangerous, the most hazardous and the one most plagued by terror. Every era has had its threats and its own focus on the origin of those threats, and I contend that the 21st century is no different to any other.

This is not to say that the threat of terrorism today is not greater than it was before that tragic day 5½ years ago on September 11 in the United States. It is greater, and our democracy is more fragile than we think as a result. It has been claimed by the Attorney-General’s Department that a terrorist act aimed at Australia’s interests has been carried out, aborted or disrupted every year since 2001, which is something that we have to have in mind in considering this type of legislation. Our fear of the threat may, from time to time, be out of proportion, but it is real and legitimate. That is why I stand here today in support of this bill and encourage the swift and efficient establishment of the new division, AusCheck. It is also why I support the second reading amendment, which provides an additional safeguard against the misuse of a centralised background-checking service. Our national security is, as we would all agree, of the utmost importance—but it cannot come at any cost. I commend the second reading amendment to the House and indicate the opposition’s overall support for the bill.