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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7604

Senator BRANDIS (12:12 PM) —The AusCheck Amendment Bill 2009 seeks to amend the AusCheck Act 2007 to provide a capacity for background checks under the act to be carried out for national security purposes. In 2005, the coalition government established a centralised background-checking service in the Attorney-General’s Department as part of a wider initiative to strengthen aviation and maritime security. This service, known as AusCheck, was created to help the aviation and maritime industries to identify high-risk individuals who should not be granted access to secure areas of Australian air and sea ports. It began operation in September 2007.

AusCheck is responsible for identifying individuals who should not be eligible for an Aviation Security Identification Card, ASIC, and/or a Maritime Security Identification Card, MSIC, by applying a consistent interpretation of the statutory requirements and coordinating background, criminal and security checks on applicants, and for notifying the relevant issuing bodies of the outcome of these checks. These background checks were previously processed and coordinated by the Background Checking Unit of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government—whose acronym I will not hazard. AusCheck maintains a database of all applicants and card holders for the aviation and maritime industries and operates on a cost-recovery basis. The current act only allows background checks for the purposes of the Aviation Transport Security Act 2004 and the Maritime Transport and Offshore Security Act 2003 in order to coordinate background checks for the purposes of the Aviation and Maritime Security Identification Card scheme.

The amendments will also include specific provisions to authorise and protect biometric information about an individual where this is required in order to complete a background check. The amendments are intended to ensure that if AusCheck is required to facilitate the provision of this information to the relevant police jurisdiction then this information will be afforded all of the additional protections given to other AusCheck personal information but not be available for any purpose other than a further background check. This is intended to reflect the purpose of collecting this information in the first place, which is the verification of a particular individual’s identity only and for no wider purpose.

The bill also includes amendments to the provisions that give authority for AusCheck to provide an online verification service. The online verification service is currently restricted to verifying aviation security identification cards and maritime security identification cards. With the addition of a national security background check capacity this authority is accordingly expanded so that an online verification service may be used to verify other types of cards or licences that may be issued indicating that a person has undergone a national security background check.

The bill was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, which reported on 18 June 2009. The committee unanimously made seven recommendations for amendments to the bill. The recommendations were directed to increasing safeguards for the protection of private information and to restrict the uses to which AusCheck data may be put. The recommendations are, if I may say so, very sensible and a testament to the good work of the committee. I am pleased that the government has responded to the report with the amendments circulated on sheet AF220. The amendments directly implement five of the committee’s seven recommendations. The two remaining recommendations are also being implemented by sensible alternative means. I commend those amendments

Australia’s airside and waterfront sites are obvious areas of vulnerability to crime and security threats. We need to have confidence that, as far as possible, those areas are secure and that those with a demonstrated criminal propensity or otherwise posing unacceptable risks are excluded from them. This regime is not perfect: in particular, there are serious concerns about the maritime security identification card arrangements that allow people with criminal histories to work on our docks and deal with sensitive cargo. This is an area which requires constant vigilance and, while supporting this bill in its amended form, I urge the government to give priority to minimising the criminal element on the waterfront.