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Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Page: 178

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (11:57 PM) —I thank the members who have participated in this debate: the members for Brisbane, Blair, Melbourne Ports and, latterly, the member for Blaxland. I apologise that I have not been here to hear all of the comments but I do have some observations which I will make.

First, the Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection is one of 13 international terrorism conventions and protocols which aim to strengthen the international legal framework to combat terrorism. Australia was one of the first countries to sign the new convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism, which is yet to enter into force. The accession of the convention on the marking of plastic explosives, often referred to as the MARPLEX convention, will mean that we are a party to the remaining 12 international terrorism conventions currently in force and, I have to say, one of not too many countries that is party to as many conventions.

As one who plays a part in trying to get countries within this region to focus on the implementation of conventions and assist with the drafting of laws to ensure that they can do so, let me make it clear that we attach a great deal of importance to these matters. This particular convention arose from concerns about the use of plastic explosives in terrorist acts, particularly in the aviation environment. It aims to make plastic explosives even more detectable by requiring them to be marked and therefore inhibiting their improper and unlawful use. The Law and Justice Legislation Amendment (Marking of Plastic Explosives) Bill 2006 implements this marking requirement and imposes strict controls on the use, possession, manufacture, traffic in, import and export of plastic explosives which are not marked with a prescribed chemical marking agent. The unauthorised use of unmarked plastic explosives is punishable by 10 years imprisonment as an upper limit.

The bill provides for some important and reasonable exemptions to the requirement to mark plastic explosives. Existing Australian manufacturers of plastic explosives will be given 12 months to modify their processes to comply with the new obligations. Existing stocks of unmarked plastic explosives manufactured prior to the commencement of this bill may be used for up to a three-year period. The unmarked plastic explosives may be used for research purposes. In compliance with the convention, defence and police forces may use unmarked plastic explosives for up to 15 years from the commencement of the bill and there are exemptions to enable the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police to possess, import and traffic in unmarked plastic explosives in special operational circumstances where authorised. The bill was developed in consultation with the states’ and territories’ explosives industries. The passage of this bill will mean that we are one step closer to the accession to this important convention. The bill is consistent with the government’s ongoing commitment to countering global terrorism, particularly in the South-East Asia region.

In relation to the debate, I would like to make a number of salient points. First, there has been some criticism of the time that it has taken to accede to and implement this convention. That ought not to be of surprise, given the complex nature of it and that it did involve a number of government agencies that are able to use these materials and had to ensure that they were able to be compliant. That, inevitably, requires a good deal of discussion, negotiation and, ultimately, resourcing. The accession to this convention is something we have sought to deal with as quickly as possible. I was pleased that my colleague the member for Blair recognised that we were taking a balanced approach in relation to these measures. I think in my concluding remarks I have demonstrated that.

The member for Blaxland, who has now left the chamber, raised some issues in relation to other products. He may not be aware that I released a statement on this last week. We have already put in place arrangements to supervise the control, distribution and storage of ammonium nitrate. We are now moving to implement a wider range of possible measures and we have released a discussion paper. I noticed that he was a very thoughtful contributor, so he might like to look at that discussion paper and make some observations about the way forward. We want to do this in a way which involves all of those who are likely to be adversely affected as well as those who appreciate the importance of protecting the Australian community. The member for Werriwa might like to draw my remarks to his colleague’s attention. We also recognise that, in relation to some of the points he made of detail, the member for Blair is a thoughtful contributor, and we will look at the issues that he has raised about the marking of the components. I do not know whether that is technically possible, but it is an issue that we will give him a written reply on, as he has raised it.

But let me deal with the member for Melbourne Ports. I must say that I thought the Labor Party would be starting to shift ground on policy that is not terribly sensible. I am a bit surprised that the member for Melbourne Ports wants to be at the vanguard of advancing policy which has been, I think, very significantly discredited by the Labour Party in Britain and by the experience of the United States. He was running the line that I am in some way a part-time homeland security minister and that Labor’s policy was to have a full-time minister for homeland security.

I do not think he knows anything about part time and full time, but what I can say is that if you look at the position of the minister for home affairs in the United Kingdom, you see that they have a far wider range of activities in addition to homeland security—if you like to use that term—that they have to administer. I have been a minister for immigration and I can tell you that that involves a hell of a lot of work. But the minister for home affairs in the United Kingdom has to deal with security issues and immigration. So let me just make the point that, if you look around the world, you will find that there are a lot of interconnectivities in areas that often mean that these issues have to be dealt with by people who undertake other responsibilities.

The Attorney in Australia has always undertaken a supervisory role in relation to domestic security issues. We used to call it espionage. The issues are much the same: protecting the nation’s secrets. Those issues have not gone away. Are they suggesting that somebody else—somebody who does not fulfil the quasi-independent role that is expected of an Attorney-General—ought to do that? I think that would reduce the level of public confidence in the way these issues are dealt with at the present time.

Let me deal with this canard of a minister for homeland security giving you a better system. In the United States they wanted to deal with the problems of lack of interconnectivity of a lot of agencies that have to work together. We saw in relation to Hurricane Katrina that just creating another agency and giving it a name and saying it is an umbrella organisation does not necessarily work. I am not one who likes to criticise the United States—I think they recognised there were some lessons to be learnt from the way in which Katrina was dealt with—but Homeland Security has failed them dismally. What it has meant is that a lot of people are having to relearn their tasks.

The emphasis that we have put on dealing with security issues has been on ensuring that there is a high degree of interconnectivity. There is. That is the term that Dennis Richardson, the former head of ASIO, used to use to describe the way in which agencies in Australia worked. We have a situation where we are well practised. In other words, people know what their responsibilities are. In London, people were carrying out exercises on the day before the London bombings. Those exercises meant that people were not only well practised but knew each other and were able to work together. They came from different agencies. You do not need to have some overarching minister trying to draw everything together. You need to have people understanding what their roles are and practised in exercising those roles and in strategically thinking about how to deal with those sorts of emergencies if we face them.

Those who are continually pressing for some overarching homeland security department and a minister who has some overriding responsibilities ought to be able to substantiate where there are significant shortcomings in the way in which the security arrangements that we have put in place work in Australia. I have never heard it articulated. I have never heard any suggestions that there are shortcomings. I have heard no evidence. I think it is one of the ideas that they picked up from the United States—because they went down that route—that they ought to just quietly discard now that they have an opportunity to review the way in which they go about their quest for government.

Finally let me say—and this is for the member for Melbourne Ports—that, in my own experience, every time you change arrangements, change the way in which people report and establish new procedures and new protocols, that becomes the dominant objective: how do you reorganise yourself? It becomes inordinately time consuming. It becomes very technical trying to look at all of the requirements that you have to address. It takes your eye off the ball, and it means that the real effort you ought to be putting into protecting the community is lost while you are trying to reorganise yourself.

I am sorry that the member for Melbourne Ports was not here to hear my observations. I would hope that, rather than picking up what I think is rather outdated policy, he ought to focus on the real issues of how we can deal with risks that the Australian community face and how we are going to address shortcomings, not waste our time trying to reshuffle the deck and reorder and rethink the way in which we go about protecting the Australian community.

I commend this bill to the Main Committee. I am delighted that it is being supported by the opposition. It is an important measure to ensure that we are implementing our international obligations and, even more importantly, that we are in a better place to protect the Australian community.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.