House debates

Thursday, 11 February 2010

National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 19 November 2009, on motion by Ms Roxon:

That this bill be now read a second time.

12:56 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise not to oppose the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009

Just very quickly, there was one issue of concern that I missed in the previous debate on the Prime Minister’s ministerial statement Closing the gap. It is the issue of regionalised and urbanised Indigenous communities. I, for example, am a coastal representative in a regional community on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. We have about 11 per cent of the Indigenous population of New South Wales. But over the last hour I heard not one single word about regionalised and urbanised or coastal communities and there is an emerging danger as we start to spotlight attention on this issue that a choice emerges between the haves and the have-nots. We start to see politicians wanting to paint the picture that all Aboriginal issues are from dusty outback towns and that the only voice is that of Noel Pearson and Cape York Institute. We do not want to go down the path of developing a have-and-have-not culture as we move towards trying to grapple with closing the gap. The Noel Pearsons of the world do some wonderful work for the Cape York communities, but there are many voices in the Indigenous communities of Australia which have many wants and needs.

Likewise, while there are many challenging and complex issues in the dusty outback towns of the Northern Territory, there are just as complex and just as challenging issues on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. I would have loved to have heard about some of the work the government might or might not be doing but should be doing in communities such as Middleton Street in South Kempsey or Purfleet in Taree. These also should be part of the picture of improving the lot of all Australians. Hopefully, next year we will hear some more talk about some of the regional and urbanised communities and the work that is being done in those as well.

In rising to speak on this bill I do not oppose it. The National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009 seeks to amend the National Health Security Act 2007 to enable the minister to require that the Australian background-checking service of the Attorney-General’s Department, AusCheck, conduct background checking of people who handle or dispose of security sensitive biological agents. I would have thought that it was a no-brainer. It is a sensible change and I would hope it is one that is embraced broadly by all of us in this place. I do not think that background checking can be called an invasion of privacy. It is a sensible and appropriate way of making sure people of credibility and trust hold positions where credibility and trust are needed in their daily work.

The broader point that I continue to make about some of these issues as they have come through this place in my short time here is that, despite not opposing this bill, despite not having a problem with background checking, I do continue to fly the flag for liberty and the concept of individual liberties in this country. We live in a generation where in the Australian community—and I do not know whether it is knowingly or unknowingly—that concept of individual liberty is not being placed on the pedestal it should be, and as a consequence we have seen that challenged over the last decade and so much given up as far as individual rights within the daily life of an ordinary Australian.

For democracy to be strong, for freedom to be present, liberty needs to be protected. I would have hoped that that would be something that everyone would generally endorse. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in our roles as public policy makers in protecting that concept of liberty and making sure that encroachment by governments and executive—in particular over the last decade into territory that starts to challenge some of those individual liberties and therefore challenge the freedoms of this country—is not overstepped. In this case, I do not think it is, but I continue to raise the point that I am here flying the flag for those individual liberties and making sure that the executive is the servant of the people rather than trying to be its master. I do not oppose this bill. I think it is a sensible change, and I look forward to seeing it in practice and delivering some good outcomes through the AusCheck system.

1:02 pm

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to start my contribution to this debate by agreeing with the member for Lyne in that when we do implement legislation we must always be careful that we do not lose more than we gain. I feel that the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009 is vital legislation as it is about ensuring the security of our nation by protecting it from biological weapons. The protection is given by establishing controls for the security of biological agents that could be used as weapons. These are known as security sensitive biological agents, which I will refer to from here on as SSBAs. One of the controls is that the minister may determine by legislative instrument standards for the security and status of persons handling SSBAs, determining the requirements in a standard related to the security status of the person who handles or disposes of the SSBA. In simple terms this means that there will be background checks on the person who is responsible for the SSBA to check whether they have a criminal record. A personal check will also be done on that person.

This legislation has become necessary as a result of a Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry in 2009 which found it to be necessary for the NHS Act to be amended to establish this background-checking scheme. The background-checking scheme will conducted by AusCheck. This has become apparent since the passing of the act in September 2007, and there has been extensive consultation with the stakeholders on the need for background checks of persons who handle or dispose of these materials. Community consultation has been imperative, because it goes to ensuring that all of the stakeholders and interested groups are able to have input into the legislation, are able to ensure that there is proper probity and are able to ensure that we do not lose more than we gain. There were workshops on the draft SSBA standards. A wide range of stakeholders were consulted on the need for background checks, including the Implementation Advisory and Consultative Committee, the Regulation and Standards Working Group and state and territory governments through the National Counter-Terrorism Committee secretariat. The Australian Government Solicitor has advised that the proposed changes will establish the SSBA background checks, which will permit operational details to be set out in the SSBA standards and in the AusCheck regulations.

This legislation will ensure that the minister is able to require personnel who handle or dispose of SSBAs to undergo background checks. This is very important with the very sensitive material that people are involved with handling or disposing. This legislation will require background checks to be conducted specifically under the AusCheck scheme with the right checks and balances in place.

The government has worked on this over the past 18 months with organisations that handle SSBAs and other experts in the field to ensure the smooth implementation of the checks and all aspects of the standards dealing with the security status of the person that is handling or disposing of the SSBAs. The proposed SSBA background-checking scheme has been the subject of extensive consultation. That makes me feel easier about it. I am very happy to support this legislation. I think it is vital legislation and it is legislation that goes to ensuring the security of our nation.

1:08 pm

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to sum up today’s debate on the National Health Security Amendment (Background Checking) Bill 2009. I thank the members for their contributions to the debate on this bill. The bill amends the National Health Security Act 2007 to enhance Australia’s obligations for securing certain biological agents that could be used as weapons, known as security sensitive biological agents or SSBAs. As members have discussed, the bill enables the relevant minister to set standards to require background checking of persons who handle or dispose of SSBAs. The bill strengthens Australia’s security against potential threats and delivers on the Rudd government’s commitment to protect all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.