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Thursday, 13 September 2018
Page: 92


Mr HILL (Bruce) (11:28): I will just finish the remarks I was making earlier. To precis: the radical privatisation of Australia's security clearances raises serious concerns about how contractors are undertaking Australia's highest level of security vetting, positive vetting. Eighty-five per cent of security clearances are now done by private contractors. Since this was revealed at a hearing of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and following media coverage, I've been contacted by people with anonymous tip-offs that these security clearances cost at least $35,000 per clearance. So it's outrageous that the government has admitted that it has completely failed to even do a basic assessment of the costs and benefits of doing more of this work in the Department of Defence. That would mitigate just about all of the risks the committee identified, including having motorcycle couriers whizzing around with the sexual information, drug and alcohol history, mental health history and financial history of Australia's most senior public servants. We don't know who these couriers are. They are Australia Post and private contractors. For all we know, they're using Deliveroo!

The department must urgently provide an absolute assurance to the parliament that there are no foreign links with any contractors undertaking these sensitive security clearances. A basic company search indicates that some of these companies have directors that were born in and are living in the United States, that other directors were born in nations such as China, India, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea and appear to be living here, but there is a distinction between foreign control and foreign influence. I can't overstate the sensitivity of this work. When you know who has been spoken to as part of someone's security clearance then it's easy to reconstruct the trail to understand later on how you may blackmail these officials. That's common sense. These security clearances are black and white. The Department of Defence's agency says, on balance, you're a yes or no, weighing up all of the risks. It's clear that, if you understand where someone's vulnerabilities are, later in their career you can start to put pressure on them.

The government also wants to see, as part of its policy change, more sensitive personal information like sexual behaviour and medical and financial records shared with departments, yet it appears to have no policy on how this information would even be secured. It's difficult to believe assurances that we heard at the hearing, 'Don't worry; we keep all this stuff safe,' when the Prime Minister's department recently sold a filing cabinet full of cabinet documents. I think it is a false economy to use arbitrary staffing caps, which are just controlling one input into a department's budget, divorced from outcomes or any cost-benefit assessment. Sometimes it is simply cheaper to do stuff in house. This is not just a sterile argument about privatisation versus public. As the audit report showed, this is inherently difficult and secret information, and none of the contractors can interface with the Department of Defence's IT systems. The risks are multiplied enormously when this stuff moves around by paper outside the Department of Defence. This is a radical privatisation, and the government should reconsider whether they have the balance right.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Gee ): There are no further constituency statements by honourable members.