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Thursday, 13 September 2018
Page: 9028

Mr HILL (Bruce) (11:13): I want to record for the House some revelations that we heard in the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit by Defence officials raising serious concerns about the privatisation of security clearances in Australia and how private contractors are now being used to assess Australia's highest level of security, positive vetting. These are security clearances required for our most senior public servants: secretaries, CEOs, military officers and others in key roles. They're people who have access to the nation's greatest secrets. Candidates, as part of this process, have to reveal sensitive personal information, including sexual behaviour and financial, medical, drug and alcohol issues for at least 10 years prior.

At a public hearing of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit a few weeks ago, we heard that, because of the backlog, they've effectively privatised it. Eighty-five per cent of these security clearances are now done by a panel of private contractors, which is quite stunning. Even more shockingly, though, we heard that because of the IT failures, which mean the private contractors can't access the Department of Defence IT, all of this incredibly private information is being whizzed around by motorcycle couriers in hard copy, and some of it has even been misaddressed and sent to the wrong place. We also heard that, as part of this privatisation—amazingly, with no explanation the department could provide—these private contractors are keeping information on file in their businesses about everyone who was spoken to as part of these very sensitive security checks. Clearly, if you even watched a spy movie let alone had any sensible thought about how these things might work, you would see that this does open up the possibility down the track of blackmail and further investigations by foreign powers.

Regarding one matter of concern, I've been waiting patiently for information for two or three weeks since the hearing. I was assured by the Department of Defence, via the secretariat, that within 24 hours we would have advice from the department as to which 14 of the 22 contractors on the panel were involved in this highly sensitive positive vetting work. The department's gone silent—dead. There's no explanation. I'm unclear now what they've got to hide. We were assured during the hearing:

Part of the management of the panel is increasing oversight around foreign ownership and foreign control.

We were also assured that none of these contractors were doing any work for foreign governments. That's all well and good. However, some basic company searches which I've now conducted do show some foreign links—and tenuous foreign links, in many cases—between some of these contractors and foreign actors, in that some of the directors who were born in foreign countries appear to live here now and some of the directors of these companies live in foreign countries. That's not, of course, to say or allege at this time that there is foreign control. It's simply to make the point that the department has to come back and properly explain what they're doing to ensure not just that there's no foreign ownership and control but that there's no trace of foreign connections or foreign influence over this highly sensitive work.

Finally, I think it would be a very good thing if the department did some cost-benefit analysis on getting public servants to do this work in the Department of Defence.