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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 17

Senator GREIG (1:36 PM) —The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Amendment Bill 2004 expands the range of circumstances in which ASIO can provide security assessments regarding individuals for the benefit of the states and territories. Under the current regime ASIO is empowered to provide security assessments in relation to individuals who have access to security restricted information or places. However, following a COAG agreement regarding the regulation of ammonium nitrate in Australia, it has become necessary for ASIO to provide assessments in relation to individuals who have access to hazardous substances which are restricted on security grounds.

On 25 June this year COAG agreed to institute a national ban on ammonium nitrate other than for specifically authorised users. The ban is to be implemented by way of a licensing regime in each state to ensure that ammonium nitrate is only available to individuals who have a demonstrated need for it, are not a security concern and will store the substance safely. As an initial point, I would like to express the Democrats' strong support for a ban on the purchase and use of ammonium nitrate other than for a limited number of legitimate uses. This is an issue which we have campaigned on, and we welcome the government's decision to finally address the dangers posed by this substance. Given the potential for ammonium nitrate to be used in acts of terrorism—which has been known since at least 1995 when it was used by Timothy McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma bombing—it is incredibly disappointing that the government has taken so long to introduce this legislation. In fact, it does amount to some degree of negligence on the part of the government. Senator Andrew Bartlett took up this issue with the government on 21 June this year, when he asked:

Why is it that, over 18 months after the danger of accessibility of ammonium nitrate for use as an explosive was identified as a significant risk, it can still be purchased over the counter without any sorts of controls or even a need to show ID?

Significantly, only four days later COAG finalised plans for the national ban.

The Attorney-General has indicated that he has intelligence suggesting that Jemaah Islamiah had planned to use ammonium nitrate to bomb the United States and other Western targets in Singapore, including the Australian High Commission. Legitimate uses of ammonium nitrate include mining; quarrying; the manufacture of fertilizer and explosives; educational, research and laboratory use; commercial agricultural use by primary producers; and services for the transportation, distribution and use of the product. Given that around a million tonnes of ammonium nitrate products are used in Australia each year, there is clearly a risk for this substance to end up in the wrong hands. It is, therefore, vital that Australia has a strict licensing regime to regulate the purchase, supply, import, export, possession, handling, use, storage and transportation of ammonium nitrate.

While we Democrats have no hesitation in supporting the strict regulation of ammonium nitrate use and the furnishing of security assessments by ASIO in conjunction with the regulatory scheme, we are concerned by the way in which this legislation has been drafted. Rather than providing for security assessments specifically in relation to the use of ammonium nitrate, this bill has been drafted in broad and ambiguous terms. The bill provides that a security assessment can be furnished in relation to:

... a person's ability to perform an activity in relation to, or involving, a thing (other than information or a place), if that ability is controlled or limited on security grounds ...

We Democrats are concerned by the breadth of these terms. We acknowledge that the potential scope of the legislation will be limited by the fact that it will apply to activities that are controlled or limited on security grounds. `Security' is defined in the act as protecting Australians from espionage, sabotage, politically motivated violence, the promotion of communal violence, attacks on Australia's defence system and acts of foreign interference. Furthermore, it is limited by the fact that it will apply to activities that would affect security in connection with matters which are within the functions and responsibilities of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, we remain of the view that the bill is too broad. In its current form it will enable the government to expand the range of `things'—to use the language in the bill—with very little accountability.

While we Democrats recognise that there may be other hazardous substances in relation to which security assessments will eventually be required, we are not prepared to give the government a blank cheque to expand this list. Our view is that anything in relation to which security assessments may be furnished must be prescribed by disallowable regulations. By requiring the government to list ammonium nitrate and other similar substances in the regulations, there will be some form of ongoing parliamentary oversight of this process. If there is concern about the furnishing of security assessments in relation to any particular substance or thing, the regulations listing that substance or thing will be able to be disallowed by our parliament. We Democrats had intended to move an amendment precisely with this effect during the committee stage; however, having consulted with the Labor opposition, we have discovered that they had given instructions for the very same amendment to be drafted. Consequently, we simply acknowledge and support that amendment. In closing, we do welcome the introduction of this bill, which, unlike much of the government's other antiterror bills, will actually help to make Australians safer. It is long overdue and we are disappointed by the government's incredibly broad drafting of it, but, as I have indicated, we intend to rectify that situation during the committee stage.