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Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Page: 1005

Mr GEORGANAS (3:13 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Home Affairs. Will the minister update the House on measures to make Australian airports safer for Australians and visitors to Australia? Is the minister aware of other views about those measures?

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Home Affairs) —I thank the member for Hindmarsh for his question and for his ongoing interest in these very important matters that we confront at our airports. Yesterday the Prime Minister, accompanied by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government and I, announced major national security measures that will improve the safety of passengers and those employed at our major capital city and regional airports.

I would like to outline those changes involving the Customs and Border Protection Service and also the Australian Federal Police that will make our airports safer. Firstly, I indicate that there will be $24.9 million over four years to enhance passenger risk assessment by Customs and Border Protection which will allow for a more effective assessment of a larger number of passengers earlier and faster. It will allow for proper analysis, the proper storage, the proper assessment and effective profiling of passenger data and sharing with other border and intelligence agencies—a very important mechanism to improve the way in which we track passengers who come into our ports. It will mean effectively that we will have more information about who is coming here. It will also determine and establish the history of travel of persons of interest and, therefore, we will be able to measure potential risks and also determine appropriate responses to those potential risks.

Secondly, there is a $17.7 million initiative over four years to enhance by almost 50 per cent the presence of firearms and explosive detection dogs who will assist bomb appraisal officers and other uniformed Australian Federal Police officers in making a very effective and highly visible contribution to airport security. This, of course, is fully supported by the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Tony Negus. I also indicate that there is $12.3 million over the 2010-11 year to assist the transition of the unified police model to what is now described as the all-in model, effectively ensuring that over a number of years the Australian Federal Police take primary responsibility for the security of our major airports in this country—a very important initiative, one that was not taken up by the previous government but was embraced by this government. We are working now with the state governments and the state jurisdictions of police and the Australian Federal Police in order to ensure that we bring that very important measure forward and have it properly realised.

While the majority of travellers go through airports in capital cities such as Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, our increased security measures will also boost safety and security for our regional airports. We know that the previous government neglected the needs of the security of regional airports for far too long. We know that there were concerns raised by communities within the regions in this country about the security of our airports and that they fell on the deaf ears of those opposite. So for almost 12 years they neglected those regions. They like to say that they are the party for the regions, but what did they do? They did nothing when it came to securing the airports in those areas.

In relation to the announcement yesterday, industry has already been quick to support the government’s initiatives. Qantas will support measures that improve aviation safety and security and will work closely with the government and border agencies to ensure measures balance the priorities of passenger safety and security with practical operations of airports and airlines. Singapore Airlines has said the airline was comfortable with the changes. A company spokesperson said: ‘The government is acting in a reasonable and enlightened manner. This is a positive development.’

The events in the United States late last year involving Northwest Airlines flight 253 are a chilling reminder to us all that the threat to airports and aviation is ever present. These measures are central to this country’s national security, and the government had hoped that this challenge could be dealt with in a considered and bipartisan manner; but, unfortunately, that is not the case. So desperate are those opposite to score political points on such an important issue that they have failed to check the facts. In a joint release distributed yesterday by the members for Wide Bay and Stirling, the opposition have been very loose with the truth. First, they assert that risk based assessments have reduced aviation security. That is entirely untrue; that is wrong. Since July last year, when the new air-screening measures were implemented, there has been an increase in the number of major criminal detections, including drug detections. Secondly, the member for Stirling and the member for Wide Bay assert that the number of Australian Federal Police sworn officers has dropped since the election. This is entirely untrue. The facts prove the lie. Since the election of the Rudd government in November 2007—

Mr Keenan —Say a number.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —I will, don’t you worry, Member for Stirling. One day you might even get a question.

Mr Pyne —Mr Speaker, a point of order: if I was required to withdraw on Thursday that the minister was telling a bald-faced lie, I am not sure that it is in order for the minister to be now using the same language and not be asked to withdraw. I had assumed you would ask him to withdraw.

The SPEAKER —Order! I have listened carefully to the way in which the word has been used and, in the context of the way in which it was used I did not require it to be withdrawn.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —In relation to the number of sworn officers since the election of the government, there has been an additional 181 officers—that is a 6.7 per cent increase—and we are ahead of our commitment to ensure that we have 500 additional police in the five years, ahead of that forecast. So that is another assertion made by those opposite which is entirely mischievous and untrue. Thirdly, the member for Stirling and the member for Wide Bay have accused the government of ‘walking away from air security officers or sky marshals’. The opposition is wrong, wrong and wrong. The fact is that the Air Security Officer Program continues to provide an integral layer of security at our airports and there has been no reduction whatsoever in the funding for the program.

It is one thing to be loose with the truth in some other areas of public policy but, when it comes to national security, we would expect those opposite to join with us to combat serious and organised crime and to combat terrorism. What we do not expect is for them to mislead the public in terms of what the government is doing. I suggest to the opposition that they join the government—put aside their distortions and their political opportunism—and support our border and intelligence agencies by embracing these very important national security measures.