House debates

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


National Security

5:31 pm

Photo of Arch BevisArch Bevis (Brisbane, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Aviation and Transport Security) Share this | | Hansard source

Two weeks ago, the world remembered the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the trains in Madrid, Spain, that occurred on 11 March 2004. Those attacks killed 190 people and injured more than 1,500. Yesterday, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, and the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, spoke about the horrible public transport attacks in Madrid, and in London on 7 July last year.

The Madrid attacks were the deadliest assault by a terrorist organisation against civilians in Europe since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. The Madrid attacks saw 10 bombs explode on four trains in three stations during rush hour. The Blair government have instigated a series of initiatives to shore up what has been a robust UK land transport security system. Sadly, no similar security improvements have been implemented by the Howard government. The Howard government have been on notice for the last two years that urgent rail security reforms are required. This is a national issue. Responding to the threat of terrorism requires all governments to play a role. But at its core, responsibility for security against terrorists rests with the Commonwealth. We need national leadership, a national land transport security plan and a national security standard.

The Howard government have put more effort into political spin than into practical solutions. They have been more interested in media conferences than meaningful security reforms. Labor’s blueprint on security takes transport security seriously. In July 2005, Labor spelled out a $30 million funding initiative for rail security. That pool of funding included dramatically increasing the use and availability of closed circuit televisions and also the much wider use of explosive sniffer dogs. An important part of land transport, particularly rail security, also involves new design requirements for rail carriages and stations to minimise black spots and areas where bombs may be concealed.

Where Labor has a blueprint to improve transport security, the Howard government has media advisers. I will have more to say about rail security at another time. In the short time available in the adjournment debate today, I want to turn my attention to a more urgent situation that is of greater concern—that is, the porous northern borders of Australia. Last year over 8,000 illegal vessels were sighted operating in Australian northern waters but there were only 280 apprehended in Northern Australia. Those 8,000 sightings no doubt may include some double counting. However, it is by no means an exaggeration. No-one asserts that we sight all illegal boats; clearly we do not. In fact, 8,000 is, by most estimates, well below the actual figure of illegal vessels entering our northern waters. Whilst our surveillance needs to be improved, our nation’s capacity to deal with the incursions needs major improvement. With at least 8,000 incursions the government managed to apprehend just 280. The odds are heavily in favour of the illegal fishers, the criminals and the people smugglers. This presents a range of extremely serious problems. On 14 February this year at Senate estimates the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Abetz, conceded:

... if a disease were to come to Australia courtesy of one of these boats ... the national interest could really be at stake, as a result of which I think we need a holistic approach to this. It is more than just the fishery ... there are consequences even for security.

He was absolutely right, but in a moment of honesty uncharacteristic of this government, Minister Abetz then admitted:

... we need a more whole-of-government approach. I think we are heading in the right direction but we need to do more.

Dead right, Minister; the government does need to do more. A whole-of-government approach is not simply setting up more interdepartmental committees. It requires one minister with clear responsibility—not at least three, which is the case under the government’s present structure. It requires one department, not about a dozen different agencies across three or four departments that operate currently under the Howard government’s approach to border security and homeland security. Therein lies the answer: to do more, to have a whole-of-government approach, does indeed require the establishment of a national homeland security department.

The threat from government incompetence in securing our northern borders is far more serious than even Minister Abetz let on at the Senate estimates in February. In the waters immediately to our north-west, near Indonesia and in the Malacca Straits, piracy is a weekly event. More than anywhere else on the planet, shipping in these waters is threatened by piracy and even hijacking on a weekly basis. The most recent figures produced just at the end of last year for 2004 tell us that there were 93 piracy attacks in those waters during 2004. Very alarmingly, al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups, like Abu Sayyaf, Gerekan Aceh Merdeka and Jemmaah Islamiyah, all operate in those regions and no doubt have the capability to conduct maritime terrorism. Indeed, Osama bin Laden’s family business interests included maritime assets. It would be foolish not to accept that a capacity exists amongst that terrorist network to take control and operate major vessels.

In spite of the government having the power to require all ships coming to Australian ports to identify their crew and cargo, the government actually allows foreign vessels to ignore that requirement. In any event, even when the information is provided by the ship’s master, the Australian government makes no effort to confirm that the crew is who it claims to be. On top of all of that, the government hands out single-voyage permits like they are weekly chook raffle tickets so that flag of convenience ships can carry dangerous chemicals around the coastline of Australia from port to port with impunity and without security vetting.

At the end of last year, the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, and I went to Gladstone to focus attention on one of those ships that was carrying 30,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive precursor chemical known to be used by terrorists—a favoured chemical for terrorists around the world and used by the al-Qaeda network on a number of occasions—and recognised as such by the Australian and state governments that have legislated to control it. Yet the government wilfully allows flag of convenience vessels to carry extraordinarily large amounts of this dangerous chemical into Australian ports without so much as checking who the crew of the vessel is.

Australia desperately needs a coastguard if we are to properly protect our northern maritime borders. That has been part of Labor’s national security blueprint for years. It is more essential now than ever. At the moment, there is a very innovative and worthwhile group of Aboriginal sea rangers doing a great job in filling some of the gaps left by this government. The Djelk sea rangers patrol coastal waters off the Northern Territory coast, including the Liverpool estuary, the Blythe River and Rolling Bay. They monitor infringements by commercial fishers, identify and clean up beach litter and observe activities that need to be reported Customs, quarantine and fisheries.

An SBS program, the Living Black, featured the Djelk Aboriginal sea rangers and their work. That program raised further concerns about the failures of this government in protecting our northern borders. In that episode, the rangers found an illegal vessel stuck in the sand. They contacted Coastwatch, the police and Customs. Overworked and under-resourced Customs staff were not able to respond for more than 12 hours. The rangers offered to intervene, but that offer was refused, despite Customs being too busy to do the work themselves. The illegal fishing vessel slipped away from Customs—another opportunity missed by the Howard government. That is one of a number of examples of that kind that can be cited.

The Howard government do not have a comprehensive plan for fighting terrorism. Their tactic has been to alarm Australians and talk tough. That is not a substitute for well-thought through policies implemented in a focused and comprehensive way by a dedicated department charged especially with that vital task. The Liberal government and its members like talking about terrorists. They play the politics of the debate, but they fail to implement meaningful and effective security measures.

The more serious dilemma that is presented to Australians now is the need for the government to refocus its attention and to adopt Labor’s policy in relation to the establishment of a homeland security department and, in relation to the north, to establish a meaningful coastguard.