House debates

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Inspector of Transport Security Bill 2006; Inspector of Transport Security (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2006

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 31 October, on motion by Mr Vaile:

That this bill be now read a second time.

upon which Mr Bevis moved by way of amendment:

That all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: ‘whilst not declining to give the Bill a second reading, the House:

notes the failure of the Howard government to appoint a person as Inspector of Transport Security until one year after the announcement of the position;
notes that the Howard government finally committed to underpin this important job with appropriate laws in May of 2005 but has only now introduced legislation into the House for that purpose;
condemns the slowness with which the Howard government dealt with the important role of Inspector of Transport Security;
condemns the Howard government’s dismissive use of the Inspector of Transport Security who has been engaged on an average of just one day a week in spite of repeated failures in security in the Australian transport sector at the same time as terrorists have targeted aviation and rail transport over years; and
condemns the Howard government for its failure to engage the Inspector of the Transport Security in a full-time capacity’.

9:18 am

Photo of Michael HattonMichael Hatton (Blaxland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have a new Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Vaile. He has just started this job. The person who is actually filling the job of the Inspector of Transport Security has now been working for a couple of years. But whereas Mr Vaile is in a full-time occupation, the Inspector of Transport Security is required to work, usually, only one day a week—a simple part-timer. He has been doing so for two or three years now with no legislative power to cover him. It has taken some years, despite Labor’s prodding of previous transport ministers, for the government to come to the House with this set of cognate bills, the Inspector of Transport Security Bill 2006 and the Inspector of Transport Security (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2006, defining the powers of the Inspector of Transport Security, giving him a legislative basis and, granted the legislative basis and that the position taken into account by that is a part-time position, stating that he may be appointed part time. In fact he is appointed part time, because he is doing only one day a week.

The Inspector of Transport Security is supposed to be independent, yet he cannot initiate a single thing on his own. He takes instructions from the minister. It is only if the minister determines that there is a matter for him to look into that he can be given a job to do. It would have saved the Commonwealth a lot of money if the minister had just said, ‘One of my staffers can do this.’ Ministerial staffers already have overtime; there is a particular amount of money available to them. If the real power still lies within the Department of Transport and Regional Services and in the minister’s office, if the independence of the Inspector of Transport Security is not fundamentally guaranteed in order for the person to operate independently, why would you not just do it straight out of the department or out of the minister’s office?

The shadow minister made this point, and I think he made it well: you need to look at this position in terms of its significance and the legislative bindings associated with it in the same way that you look at the position of the Inspector-General of Intelligence. There should be a commonality in the approach taken because of the significance of the positions of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and the Inspector of Transport Security. This should not be just a one-day-a-week temporary job. It should be full time because the threat is full time; it should also be a position where the legislative basis is assured and fundamentally independent so that the Inspector of Transport Security can operate in the same manner as the Inspector-General of Intelligence and do the job that needs to be done in an unfettered way. The other requisite we are asking for is that the Leader of the Opposition should be taken into the confidence of the minister and the government so that the appointment of the person to that position is entirely bipartisan so as to recognise the significance of it.

You would not think that the government would have taken so long to put this bill before us. Indeed, it has taken the government two full years to appoint anyone to the position of Inspector of Transport Security. It was not until 4 September 2003 that the government announced their intention to create this position, and that was two years on from the attacks of 11 September 2001. By my reckoning, that is almost three years and at least one Minister for Transport and Regional Services or maybe two—former Minister Anderson might have still been fulfilling the role—as Mr Truss took over that role. The third minister for transport is Minister Vaile. He now has carriage of this. He is burdened with the problem that the position of Inspector of Transport Security is a one-day-a-week job. He is burdened with the problem that, although the strength and intensity of terrorist attacks have dramatically increased since 11 September 2001 and that it has become entirely apparent that modes of transport were used to effect those attacks, the pennies have not fully dropped here in Australia.

Throughout that period—almost three years—while we have been waiting for legislative backing for this position of part-time Inspector of Transport Security, we have seen a situation where the government just does not seem to understand that an attack could occur in Australia. Our transport security should be a full-time matter not just for people in charge of security at state government level or for people in the department but also for the Inspector of Transport Security. There are a number of reasons why this is necessary. We had the incident the other day when an ammonium nitrate train stopped for a short period of time and somebody shovelled tonnes of the stuff out the back of the truck into a ute. The reaction was: ‘Oh, it is probably not for a bunch of terrorists. It’s probably just someone who wants to take the ammonium nitrate and flog it off to someone to use on a farm or as explosives for farm purposes.

As the shadow minister, Mr Bevis, has rightly pointed out, this stuff is not really expensive. You can buy ammonium nitrate legally from one end of the country to the other. It is not something that people will pay a lot of money for, unless they are up to a nefarious act and want to use it to fundamentally damage our people, our institutions and our transport networks. We have seen a series of different examples of potential holes in security that have not been tracked or stopped. The government has not taken action in relation to them. In his contribution, the shadow minister used one particular example, which he has spoken of previously, as have I and other members of the opposition. This issue is of fundamental concern to our port security. It is a fact that ships under foreign flags carry crews who have never been security checked. They come to Australia, dock and then wander around from port to port with absolutely no inspection or control. There is just a hope that things will not happen. The shadow minister said:

On many occasions in this parliament I have raised the example in September of last year of one of those vessels, the Pancaldo, travelling around the Australian coastline on a voyage permit carrying 3,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is the explosive of choice that terrorists have used around the world for some years. Its use has been regulated by agreement with COAG, but the Commonwealth allow its widespread use by flag of convenience vessels with crews who have never undergone security clearances here in Australia, unlike Australian crewed vessels where maritime security identity cards provide thorough background checks on all Australian seafarers.

Take that ship into Sydney Harbour, roll it up to where our naval vessels are docked and loaded with ammunition, blow it up and you blow away Sydney. You might hope if a ship full of 3,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate entered Sydney Harbour and powered its way to where our naval vessels were loaded with their own form of high explosives that there would be an intervention and it would be stopped. But the first guarantee should be a proper regime of transport security. Have we got it? The answers is no.

It is likewise with Sydney airport. Sir John Wheeler undertook an intensive period of investigation of security at the airport. He came up with what was a good and strong report. He did the best according to his knowledge, experience and ability in producing that report. But one of the problems he had was that, when someone looks at things from the outside, they do not really see what normally goes on. The fact that there was a major investigation underway meant that the normal security operations at Kingsford Smith airport were different. There was a show put on for Sir John Wheeler. The people who worked in security were told that there would be no control whatsoever on overtime. They could work as much as they liked. The money was there to do all the jobs they did not normally do, as long as Sir John Wheeler was there.

On the day he left, the uncontrolled overtime stopped. The day he left, the act of saying that Kingsford Smith airport was fundamentally safe ceased. Despite the changes made at Kingsford Smith airport following his report, the way in which people operate there is still fundamentally a cause of great concern. Why? Because the criminal activity at Sydney airport that has gone on for decades has not been tapped, it has not been regulated and it has not been investigated. Our current situation simply does not address it. I do not believe a hodgepodge of AFP,  with some association with the state police, along with the way they have to interact with Customs, can identify or fix this problem.

Probably the only way that you will fix this is to put in a dedicated service, using state police, such as detectives, who have experience in investigating matters, who have on the street experience and who know the sorts of things that crims get up to and the way in which they operate. They can work with a situation where the security cameras are turned against the wall, where you are told that it just happened on one day and it really was not supposed to be such a great problem. There is a fundamental pattern of behaviour at Sydney airport in regard to the massive amount of goods that go through it. There is great criminality, and it has never been properly stopped.

One of the fundamental areas of concern in transport security is where you marry criminality with terrorist intent. That has happened in other places. We know it has happened here, because one of the Qantas baggage handlers was one of the first people investigated in terms of their connections with terrorists. But I also know from personal experience just how bad the situation is with private security companies. There are now a range of them. I know that we went from a situation where security at the airport was controlled by Qantas security to a situation where Wackenhut, the private company from America, took its place at the airport—and they also, for a time, took over security at our detention centres. We now have SNP and a series of others. But, if you actually look at the way in which they operate, if you go to the bottom of the pyramid, the subcontractors who are working have not been properly investigated. With respect to whoever takes the head contract, you can control the fact that that company is okay, it has its licence and it is all right, but the security industry operates in such a way that you end up with people contracting, subcontracting and further subcontracting until you get the people from my area and elsewhere who are working in there, and they have never been properly vetted, despite the fact that a series of changes have been put in place.

Many years ago—10, 15 or so—my brother worked in one of the freight-forwarding companies. He got a job there. He lasted six to nine months, I suppose. He could not take it anymore in the end, because criminality was completely rife within that company. He was approached. They told him that, if he wanted to keep his head on his shoulders, what he needed to do was simply to turn a blind eye when a truck came in and then went out with contraband to be delivered to other people. The people running that transport organisation, the people doing the work there, had had a settled approach to it. They ran it. They made their money out of it. And that sort of activity has continued virtually untrammelled, because, when someone comes in to inspect just on a part-time basis, people can get away with what should be investigated at a very serious local level by people who know what they are doing, by coppers who are experienced detectives who know what these sorts of characters get up to. That is a fundamental problem.

There is also a much broader area. The first sentence of Minister Vaile’s second reading speech is a bit of a worry. I know his intentions may be good. He said:

Transport security in Australia continues to compare well with benchmark countries.

‘Compare well with benchmark countries’? This government believes in benchmarking and auditing, not in doing things to fix the fundamental problems. Which benchmark countries? The ones that are potentially under attack from terrorists, or a broad basket of countries where security concerns are not that great? So far it has been the case that it is better to have luck than brains in transport security in Australia, because the fundamental work that needs to be done has not been done with the seriousness that is necessary.

What is the most probable thing to affect Australia? It is possible that we could have an attack such as the US had on 11 September 2001. That is possible. It is certainly possible, despite some improvements in securing our ports, that our ports, which are still far more open than they should be, could be used for a major attack using ammonium nitrate or something else. But it is far more probable that the attacks would be like the attacks on Madrid: on our train systems. If you nobbled Sydney’s metropolitan transport system by attacking its most open area then you would basically bring Sydney to a halt. You would bring its economic activity to a halt and you would choke it. All of those people who get on the train at Bankstown every day, travelling to the city—and there are people working in the city in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and the department of taxation who used to have jobs at Bankstown before this government came to power, took those jobs away from them and put them back into the city—have to trust that our transport security is of a high order. I know that the state government has been doing a lot to improve transport security on our train systems, but I also know that we do not have enough concentration on this, because the attacks could come from a wide area.

We already know that we have terrorist cells in Australia. We know that some of the people in those cells have been apprehended. We know some of the things that they have been up to. But it is absolutely certain that there are other cells in operation. We have been in a situation where 88 people were killed in Bali and where some Australians were killed in London. It is almost inevitable, given the nature of the mentality of the people who want to pull our society to pieces and punish us for being a modern, secular society, that they will move people within Australia in order to get them to attack what is here—not just the blokes who have just been arrested in Yemen, who were running guns from Yemen to Somalia.

A great deal of work has been done by our security agencies, and I still do not think that they have been properly resourced in regard to this, because there are not enough Arabic speakers, readers and writers in ASIO. There are not enough people who can understand the mentality of the people who can become part of terrorist cells here in Australia. There is not enough of that. We do not have enough information coming from the community, although our fundamental safety is from people who do speak, read and write Arabic giving information to our intelligence services and being able to feed it in to someone like the Inspector of Transport Security—being able to give that information if there is an apprehension that we will have those kinds of attacks. We know from the amount of explosives in the group taken in some time ago that they had a concerted plan to do great damage.

It is intelligence in the community that we need, but we also need the capacity for someone who is not a one-day-a-week worker—no matter how well qualified they are—to do the complete job that we need on their own, without ministerial direction, as has been suggested by the shadow minister. We need that person to go in and scare the daylights out of the federal Department of Transport and Regional Services and the state entities that are involved in this so as to ensure that our systems are completely shaken up. We need that person to go in and look very closely at what happens at Kingsford Smith airport—at fundamental security holes, at criminality at the airport and at what connection there could be with terrorist activity. Those sorts of activities leave us open and subject to exploitation, and we already have examples of that.

The fundamental concern of our security agencies is of a twinning of that. Going way back to the attacks on the Lakemba police station, we know that terrorist activity and criminality have been entwined in Sydney, as they have been entwined elsewhere. We need a full-time inspector to work on this. I trust that the new Minister for Transport and Regional Services, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, will have a fresh approach, greater intensity and certainly some momentum. It has taken almost three long years simply to get the legislation in place. After two years of inactivity in getting the idea up and running, this issue needs to be prosecuted strongly. I support the amendment moved by Mr Bevis. (Time expired)

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Hotham for counselling the member for Brisbane.

9:38 am

Photo of Mark VaileMark Vaile (Lyne, National Party, Deputy Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all members on both sides for their contributions to this debate on what is, as was pointed out by the member for Blaxland, a very important issue. The Inspector of Transport Security Bill 2006 and the Inspector of Transport Security (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2006 provide for the Minister for Transport and Regional Services to initiate independent, no-blame inquiries into transport security matters. The purpose of an inquiry by the inspector will be to make recommendations, following such inquiries, to improve transport security in Australia.

Just by way of information, given the contribution by members, the role of the inspector is to undertake inquiries in transport security and offshore security matters. Transport or offshore security matters would include a transport or offshore facilities security incident considered by the minister to be a major incident, a series of minor incidents or occurrences that indicate a failure or weakness in security systems that could be considered systemic, or a major incident that occurs outside Australia that the minister believes may provide useful lessons for Australian transport and offshore facilities security. A transport security matter is one that is likely to involve serious breaches of regulatory obligations by regulated parties, security related incidents leading to injury or death, or an event or pattern of events pointing to transport security vulnerabilities.

I am pleased that during the debate the opposition has spoken forcefully in favour of the bill. I am particularly pleased that the opposition specifically supports the strong protections for information gathered in the course of an inquiry. I note that, despite its enthusiasm for the bill, the opposition has proposed a number of amendments.

Firstly, the opposition claims that the inspector is not independent because the inspector cannot self-initiate inquiries. Let me remind the opposition that the purpose of the bill is to provide a legislative framework for inquiries into major transport security incidents or systemic weaknesses in the transport security regime. Thankfully, such incidents or weaknesses are rare, and it is a matter for the Minister for Transport and Regional Services—who is in the best position—to determine when such an inquiry is needed. I reject the assertion that the inspector is not independent. The bill specifically provides that, in undertaking an inquiry, the inspector is not subject to any direction from the minister or the department.

Secondly, the opposition has criticised the bill because it provides that the inspector may be appointed on a part-time basis. This is the case, and I am grateful that there is currently no need to have a full-time position of Inspector of Transport Security. Should the transport security environment deteriorate, the bill allows for the appointment to be full time if required.

Thirdly, the opposition would like to see the Leader of the Opposition consulted on the appointment of the Inspector of Transport Security. In proposing this amendment, the opposition has likened the role of the inspector to that of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. The opposition fails to acknowledge that these roles are significantly different. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security oversights Australia’s intelligence agencies; the Inspector of Transport Security will conduct no-blame investigations, a role that is more akin to that of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which conducts no-blame investigations into safety incidents.

Fourthly, the opposition is seeking access to final reports of the inspector in all situations. The bill already provides that the minister may provide the final report to any person, including the Leader of the Opposition. This judgement will be made on a case by case basis, taking into account the public interest. Our government has always taken the view that the Leader of the Opposition should be briefed on issues of national security and national interest, and that position will continue in relation to this bill.

Lastly, the opposition would like to see all final reports tabled in parliament. I acknowledge the importance of public accountability in relation to the activities of the Inspector of Transport Security; however, I cannot guarantee that in every possible instance it will be appropriate for a final report to be tabled in parliament. Therefore, the public interest test that allows a report to be tabled in parliament and that is already in the bill should remain. In conclusion, the government is not going to support unnecessary amendments to this bill. However, I thank the opposition for their support of this bill and look forward to its passage.

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Brisbane has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.