Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Amendment (Security Plans and Other Measures) Bill 2006

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 6 September, on motion by Senator Abetz:

That this bill be now read a second time.

5:41 pm

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

The Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Amendment (Security Plans and Other Measures) Bill 2006 amends the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Act 2003. The amending legislation seeks to simplify the procedures for making changes to maritime ship and offshore facility security plans. It also seeks to clarify measures relating to the plan approval process, to make a number of technical amendments to clarify the intent of the act, to make amendments to various acts consequential to the enactment of the Legislative Instruments Act 2003 and to make a technical amendment to the Customs Act 1901. There are three schedules to the amendment bill and schedule 1 deals directly with the act.

The main purpose of the amending legislation is to require various ships, ports and offshore facilities to have security plans in place to minimise the danger to them and Australia as a result of terrorism and other acts of violence. Maritime security plans identify security measures to be implemented when different maritime security levels are in force. A maritime security plan means a plan prepared for the purposes of part 3 of the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Act 2003. Such plans must be approved by the Secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services.

An example of the changes to the process of the approval of security plans is that the secretary will now have 60 days to approve a security plan, instead of the current 90 days. However, the secretary will effectively be able to extend this time by a maximum of 145 days when additional information is required in order to make a decision on a security plan. That matter is detailed in the explanatory memorandum on page 1.

Item 1 of the tabled amendments involves the repeal of current section 47(1)(c) of the act. That section requires that maritime security plans include contact details for a responsible maritime security officer. The substitute wording for section 47(1)(c) requires a participant to designate, by name or position, all of the security officers responsible for implementation of a maritime security plan. That is detailed in the explanatory memorandum on page 4. In some respects, that is an improvement. Labor understands that designated security officers may depart employment or be moved to other positions. This amendment allows flexibility by designating a position rather than an individual name, although the ability to identify a responsible person rather than a position may no longer be available because of the discretion to supply the name of a person or a designated position.

It is the opposition’s view that this bill has a tendency to validly upgrade security, but there are still many serious maritime security issues that urgently need attention. Labor has warned the government about the dangers of ammonium nitrate being freighted around our coastline by foreign flag vessels with foreign crews—crews that have not undergone a background check. As Labor understands it, the crews of foreign flag vessels need to be identified by name prior to arrival in Australia, but that is only a name and does not entail a background security check. Labor is concerned about these arrangements, particularly in relation to the carriage of ammonium nitrate as this chemical compound is a high-end explosive when mixed with fuel.

I will give an example to demonstrate the sort of damage that this can cause. When the French freighter Grandcamp, carrying 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, docked in Texas City in Texas in the United States on 16 April 1947, what happened next showed how serious an explosion of that substance can be. When the deck of the Grandcamp caught fire, the ammonium nitrate cargo exploded. The explosion, I am told, was heard as far as away as 150 miles. It produced a mushroom cloud, rising 2,000 feet. Locals thought it was a nuclear explosion. The Grandcamp’s 1.5-tonne anchor was flung two miles and was embedded 10 feet into the ground. Senators would not be surprised to learn that Texas City was devastated and the explosion killed 567 people.

In our view, it is irresponsible that the government, having been warned about this danger, has refused to deal with this danger immediately. Labor has also pointed out that Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah have the skills and opportunities to launch a maritime terrorist attack. Reports from United States intelligence sources indicate that the al-Qaeda group is suspected of owning or having long-term charters on a fleet of between 15 and 18 bulk or general cargo vessels. While it is believed that these vessels are used to generate revenue and to support the group’s logistics network, it is feasible that one of these vessels could be used in a suicide mission, making use of an explosive such as ammonium nitrate. There is, in our view, a real threat of such a ship being used as a weapon in a terrorist strike, just as jet aircraft were used in the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks, the anniversary of which we have just seen pass.

A maritime vessel can be used against a population centre adjacent to port facilities and/or shipping channels to damage port facilities, to sink vessels or just that particular vessel and to block access to a port facility. Labor has been calling for urgent maritime security reforms and, frankly, we get precious little from this government. We do welcome the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Amendment (Security Plans and Other Measures) Bill 2006. However, there are many other urgent reforms that are required to improve Australian maritime security. Under Labor’s plan, a department of homeland security would be organised around its two core responsibilities—border protection and protection against terrorist attacks within the border. That was outlined by Mr Beazley in his Sydney Institute speech on 4 August last year.

Our shadow homeland security ministry would provide a specialist focus on Australian national security. We believe that is necessary because security arrangements need to be tailored to Australia’s needs. The best way for that to be done is by a specific and dedicated department. We believe there is further need for maritime security reform. We think that in providing access to our ports and to vessels in and around our ports, there ought to be full knowledge of the crewing of such vessels.

At a hearing into maritime security, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee was informed that somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 foreign seamen visit our ports each year. Those 200,000 seamen—not Australian seamen but seamen from other countries—are not required to undergo the same level of security checks as our seamen. They do not have a security check at all. Therefore, we certainly will not be in a position to have a complete knowledge of those who visit our ports. It is one thing to talk about how one might ensure that there is an appropriate check on those crews from the time a ship berths if those crew members leave the vessel, but it is another thing to make assumptions about what might occur whilst those crew members are on a vessel approaching a berth or if those crew members do not leave the ship. We have raised those matters on a number of occasions.

Australia is becoming more and more reliant on foreign crewed vessels to provide our own domestic shipping needs rather than visiting our ports as a one-off, delivering goods which are imported into this country or collecting goods which are exported from this country. There are many vessels which are given a permit to trade on our coastline, to pick up domestic cargo, to move cargo between one Australian port and another or, in some cases, to continue to operate on the Australian coast on what is known as a continuing voyage permit—to continue to trade for a specific period and carry any number of cargoes in that period between any number of Australian ports.

Labor has for quite some time held the view that there are times when it is necessary for those foreign crewed vessels to be given the opportunity to carry cargo. That obviously occurs when there is not a suitable vessel available to carry the cargo or when a suitable vessel on the Australian coast is not available to carry that cargo. But what we have seen is a deterioration in the restrictions which have been placed on those vessels, to the point where it is almost a function of the department to determine that, if an Australian vessel does not provide shipping at the same rate or for the same remuneration as a foreign crewed vessel, the foreign crewed vessel is preferred and is given a permit.

That leads to a circumstance where we are seeing, day by day and week by week, the number of Australian crewed vessels working on the Australian coast carrying domestic cargoes between Australian ports declining. We are approaching the point where the domestic shipping industry will fall below a critical mass with which it can operate efficiently. We saw recently on the 7.30 Report an indication from Australian ship owners of the parlous state of Australian shipping brought about by this government’s administration of the permit system which allows foreign crewed vessels onto our coast. In the context of what we see as the deterioration of the state of Australian shipping, brought about by this government’s policy, we believe that the Senate ought to say something further. I move a second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate condemns the Howard Government for its failure to provide necessary maritime security and protect Australians, including:

the Government’s failure to conduct security checks on foreign crews;
the Government’s continued failure to ensure foreign ships provide manifestos of crew and cargo before arriving at an Australian port;
the ready availability of single and multiple voyage permits for foreign flag of convenience ships including the ready availability of permits for foreign flag of convenience ships carrying dangerous materials in Australian waters and ports;
the failure of the Government to examine or x-ray 90 per cent of shipping containers;
the Government’s failure to create a Department of Homeland Security to remove dangerous gaps and to better coordinate security in Australia; and
the Government’s failure to establish an Australian Coastguard to patrol our coastline”.

5:57 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of Labor’s second reading amendment to the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Amendment (Security Plans and Other Measures) Bill 2006. The bill introduces measures in relation to the submission and approval of maritime, ship and offshore security plans. The bill is brief and straightforward and makes a number of small adjustments that Labor supports. While the Labor Party supports this bill as far as it goes, it is clear that the Howard government is not serious about addressing the deficiencies in Australia’s maritime and transport security. I hope that the provisions in this bill are acted on and implemented with greater competence than has characterised this government in its other dealings with maritime security.

I refer to the failure of this government to ensure that, as required by law, all ships advise details of their cargo and crew members 48 hours before they reach an Australian port. The most recent information given to the Senate tells us that just 67 per cent of ships coming to Australian ports actively comply with the requirement to properly advise of their cargo and crew 48 hours before they reach an Australian port. One-third of ships do not comply with the law, and this government is doing nothing about it. In the United States they have a similar requirement that a ship must advise the authorities of crew and cargo 48 hours before the ship berths. If ships do not provide that information 48 hours beforehand, they are required to stand offshore and, if need be, the coastguard will make sure that they do. In Australia we do not require them to stand offshore and we do not have a coastguard to stop them anyway.

Unfortunately, the National Party has been responsible for the transport portfolio ever since this government came to power. Ten long years of National Party mismanagement of the portfolio has left Australia’s maritime security in a parlous state. The current Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the honourable member for Wide Bay, has been busy trying to save his political neck from the ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal. As a result, it seems that the Minister for Transport and Regional Services has given less than his full attention to maritime security. I suspect the reason is that he is anxiously awaiting the report of Mr Justice Cole’s royal commission.

But I am not the only one frustrated by the pathetic performances of the National Party. I must admit that I did enjoy a great laugh over my Weet-Bix yesterday morning when I read a comment from Liberal MP Mr Michael Johnson on the front page of the Australian. According to Mr Johnson:

The National Party is on its last legs ... within the next 10 or 15 years they’ll be a dodo.

From where I sit in the Senate, I think Mr Johnson is 10 or 15 years behind: they are already a dodo.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That has woken them up. Mr Acting Deputy President, through you: welcome to the debate. It is Labor’s view that maritime security matters should be the responsibility of a minister for homeland security. But this government in its wisdom has chosen to leave maritime security to a succession of National Party transport ministers who clearly have other things to worry about: Mr Katter’s ‘beast’ riding a horse of discontent, for example.

Australian seafarers undergo a rigorous and thorough security check by the Australian Federal Police and by ASIO. They also have to have a maritime security identification card, known as the MSIC card. I want to commend the Maritime Union of Australia for the way in which it has willingly and efficiently cooperated with the government in introducing the maritime identification card system and other very important measures that it undertakes are necessary to secure and protect Australia’s maritime trade.

Despite the indifference displayed by the government, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Transport Workers Union, the Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union, the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union forced their way to the table and did their best to save the government from itself and its own ignorance of the maritime, cargo and offshore industries.

The detailed submissions made by these unions show just how important union and worker involvement is in any project to develop and enhance maritime security. To quote Senator O’Brien’s figures and his vast knowledge of this area of Australia’s security, we have 200,000 foreign seafarers coming to our country every year; however, they are not subject to the same rules that apply to Australian seafarers serving on Australian ships. Not only are foreign seafarers denied Australian pay and working conditions; they are not subject to the same security regime as Australian seafarers.

Why aren’t we applying the same standards to foreign crews coming to Australia? If it is good enough for Australians to meet the required tests by the Australian Federal Police and ASIO of being of good character and good background, then surely we should ask the same of those crews coming to Australia, who could cause major terrorism damage to Australia. Why aren’t we prepared to say to foreign crews that we expect them to undergo the same security checks by the Australian Federal Police and ASIO as those which we apply to citizens of Australia? There is no good reason why there should be lesser security checks on foreigners coming into Australia than the security checks we apply to Australian citizens.

We also need to ensure that people who would do harm do not have the opportunity to turn one of those cargo ships into a floating bomb. The Howard government has a record of breaching the navigation regulations and its own ministerial guidelines regulating coastal shipping by failing to establish whether a licensed Australian vessel is available before issuing a single voyage permit to a foreign ship. The government has been quite happy to allow ships of convenience with foreign crews we know nothing about to carry dangerous materials around Australian waters. The Labor Party have made it clear that we think that is wrong.

We have made it clear that ships that come to Australian ports should be obliged to provide the details of their crew and their cargo at least 48 hours before arrival. If they do not, then we should do exactly what the United States does: prevent their entry into our ports.

An independent review of this government’s administration of coastal shipping licences and permits for foreign vessels, undertaken by KPMG for the Department of Transport and Regional Services, provides a damning indictment of just how eager the government is to let these floating coffins move freight in Australian waters. The review found:

One in six permits for foreign vessels were granted without a signed application ... Data relating to one in five permits was incorrect or absent altogether; The Government was in breach of the Navigation Regulations and Ministerial Guidelines on the regulation of coastal shipping by failing to establish if a licensed Australian vessel is available before issuing a permit to a foreign ship.

It is a sad indictment of this government that it has presided over the demise of the Australian coastal trading fleet while giving a leg-up to foreign shipping that uses substandard vessels and engages cheap, foreign labour. I do not think it is enough to just tick off a list that people have put their plans in and rely upon that to secure us, which is what this bill is all about.

We do not know who the crews are on foreign flag of convenience ships. We do not know whether they are subcontracted to al-Qaeda. I reckon we have far more to fear from terrorists than we do from unionised workforces. International maritime security agencies now accept that Osama bin Laden owns a fleet of cargo ships, all flagged under the flag of convenience system. As we know from the Ships of Shame report, this system allows for the evasion of taxation and most other regulated costs. But, more importantly, it provides the beneficial owner with the most effective veil of secrecy available in international trade. In fact, I can hardly think of a way to make Australia more vulnerable to terrorist attack than by permitting foreign ships to sail from port to port without the inconvenience of lodging a signed permit form. As we know from the KPMG audit, that has occurred.

The Howard government’s active undermining of Australia’s shipping industry has been highly successful. Over the last 10 years over half of Australia’s fleet has already been decimated. We are now down to 50 vessels that sail under the Australian flag. Most recently, the chemical carrier MT Stolt was reflagged from Australia to the Cayman Islands and the 18 Australian crew members were sacked and replaced by cheap, foreign seafarers. The owners of the MT Stolt sacked the Australian crew and changed the flag to a flag of convenience, safe in the knowledge that the Howard government hands out single voyage permits like confetti at a wedding. Even though the MT Stolt regularly carries loads of around 9,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid around the Great Barrier Reef, the Howard government is happy to allow the owners to make a few extra bucks profit through the use of cheap, unskilled foreign crew and lower safety requirements.

The result of the Howard government’s continued abuse of the single voyage permit system is that the remaining Australian merchant fleet will be forced to struggle to compete with foreign competition that has lower safety standards and lower wage costs. It is clear from the findings of the audit that the lax administration of foreign ships on the Australian coastal trade places Australia and its citizens at a heightened risk of maritime terrorism.

We have the recent example of the Pancaldo chugging around Australia’s coast loaded with ammonium nitrate. Honourable senators will recognise that ammonium nitrate was the explosive of choice in the Oklahoma bombing. We all remember the horrifying images of the north side of the Murrah Federal Building being torn down by a single car load of ammonium nitrate explosive, with the tragic loss of 168 lives. The Pancaldo was carrying over 3,000 tonnes of the stuff in and out of Australian ports. The Pancaldo sails under the Antiguan flag, which has been listed by the International Transport Workers Federation as a flag of convenience registry where, for a few quiet payments, you can get a ship registered with no questions asked. The MUA were able to discover that most of the crew came from former Soviet republic nations and Eastern European nations. The Australian government had no background knowledge of the crew whatsoever. There were no security checks done on any of the crew.

It is going to take more than this bill and a fridge magnet to fill the gaping holes in our maritime security—but you do not have to take my word for it. In a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Australia’s maritime security, the institute found:

A terrorist attack on Australia’s maritime interests is a credible scenario. Australia still faces major institutional and operational challenges in reducing the risks of maritime terrorism. We haven’t met these challenges fully, and we lack consistency in the response.

According to this authoritative and independent body, the Howard government has failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. The Howard government proudly boasts that it X-rays about 10 per cent of the containers that come off ships. That leaves about 90 per cent of containers going through unchecked. The odds are pretty good if you want to hide something in a container. The government cannot come before the people of Australia or this parliament and say that it is doing its job when it allows 90 per cent of containers to come through our ports without being checked at all.

If we compare the Howard government’s effort with what is occurring in neighbouring countries, we can see just how slack they are. Hong Kong are trialling new systems with new equipment to X-ray 100 per cent of the cargo in two of their nine terminals. Unfortunately, in Australia, the government are asleep at the helm. There are over 20,000 ship arrivals and more than 3½ million movements of loaded containers in Australia each year. If 90 per cent of these containers go unchecked, there is a lot of opportunity for dangerous items to be smuggled into our country.

The centrepiece of Labor’s maritime security policy is the creation of a coastguard. Government ministers come into the chamber to ridicule Labor’s coastguard policy every chance they can get. The Minister for Defence claims that this is an outrageous policy and a slur on the Royal Australian Navy. It is nothing of the kind. If we had a coastguard, maybe we could enforce the laws that the government wanted and the Labor Party supported that require ships to provide notification, 48 hours before they arrive in port, of who their crew are and what their cargo is.

The functions of a coastguard would be to protect Australia’s coastline from all manner of threat—for instance, illegal immigration, illegal fishing and environmental threats such as oil dumping—and, if necessary, to enforce Australian law with regard to shipping. If we had a coastguard, we could enforce our own shipping laws and protect Australian ports while not diverting the Royal Australian Navy from the important tasks that we have the Navy for. If the Howard government do not want to listen to the Labor Party then they should take the lead from the many countries in the world who understand the difference between the role of a coastguard and the role of a navy.

Far from thinking that the coastguard is a waste of money, the US is currently planning a major expansion and re-equipping of their coastguard to meet the new challenges of the times, including the terrorist threat to US ports and shipping lanes. If Jemaah Islamiah were to fill a Panamanian flagged tanker with ammonium nitrate, hire a Ukrainian crew who spoke no English and who had no idea of where they were or what they were carrying and sail the tanker into Dampier, the requirement that they notify the port authorities of the tanker’s cargo would probably not be enforced and, sadly, we would have no capacity to prevent it from coming into port. Does this government really think it is appropriate that the Royal Australian Navy keep its warships tied up in every Australian port to guard against threats of this kind? That is not what the RAN, with its highly specialised ships, equipment and crews, is trained and funded for. That is the role of a coastguard.

The bill before the Senate today is a small step forward, but a lot more needs to be done. We as a nation deserve better when it comes to our national security and the protection of our maritime borders and points of entry. The carriage of highly dangerous goods, like ammonium nitrate, by foreign ships around our coastline must stop now and the transport of high-consequence dangerous goods around Australian coasts must be done by Australian ships crewed by Australian men and women who are subject to appropriate security screening.

The Howard government’s neglect of shipping policy threatens our economy, threatens our national security and threatens our natural environment. Labor supports this bill, but that should not be taken as an endorsement of this lazy government’s failure to act to protect the security of our seafarers and our port communities or even to enforce the laws that this government itself has passed.

In conclusion, under a Labor government, Australia will have a full-time minister for homeland security, a full-time inspector of transport security, and a full-time professional coastguard.

6:14 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Amendment (Security Plans and Other Measures) Bill 2006 amends the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Act 2003. It does so to simplify the procedures for changing maritime offshore facilities security plans and to make various technical amendments to clarify the intent of the 2003 act. As such, it deals with the framework of regulations which safeguard against unlawful interference with maritime transport or offshore facilities.

With the close proximity of this debate to the fifth anniversary of the events of September 2001, this bill may be seen as very appropriate in tightening up our maritime security. Indeed, it is. This bill makes some valid and long overdue improvements to our maritime security and, if we think about it, maritime security is indeed very important. One shudders to think what might happen if maritime security were breached by a boatload of explosives.

In my own electorate in the Northern Territory, one can only imagine the horrendous potential of a security breach with any of the now numerous liquid natural gas ships that load up not far from Darwin city. Just over the harbour, you can sit down and dine on the Darwin wharf with LNG ships loading just over the other side of the harbour at the Bechtel plant on Wickham Point.

So maritime security is essential, and it is not to the government’s credit that there are many areas of maritime security where it has been lacking. The government has been lacking in allowing vessels carrying ammonium nitrate to move around our coast and our ports, as my colleague Senator Sterle so aptly described. These are foreign flagged vessels with foreign crews who are given minimal, if any, security checks. It is indeed ironic to think of these flag of convenience vessels moving around quite freely with holds full of ammonium nitrate and minimal security checks on crews, but heaven help any individual who buys it in bulk without good reason once that cargo is unloaded—ASIO will be on their doorstep in very quick time.

Considering the potential of ammonium nitrate as an explosive agent, this lack of checking on foreign vessels and crews is unforgivable in this day and age. With the international shipping market being wide open, any terrorist group with the funds could, it would seem, charter a vessel from a foreign owner and go wherever it liked—certainly into Australia, with our lack of security checking of crews. Put such a vessel together with a hold full of ammonium nitrate and you have a sailing bomb moving around with minimal checks, all but free to sail into whichever Australian port it decides on.

The Labor Party has long been calling for improvements to our maritime security, but with little or no recognition from this government to date. We therefore welcome this bill, although it falls far short of meeting all of our concerns. With the help and support of Labor, this government was able to enact legislation requiring all ships entering Australian ports to give 48 hours notice about details of their cargo and crew. Despite this, recent information given to the Senate was that only about two-thirds of the vessels entering our ports actually comply with this requirement. So this government has totally failed to enforce compliance with this part of our legislation dealing with maritime security. It seems, like so many other pieces of legislation forced through by this government, these requirements are poorly administered and implemented. My various speeches and comments on Indigenous education in the last 18 months indicate that this is another area that lacks such detail.

In the United States they have a similar requirement of all vessels entering their ports. Any such vessel failing to give details of cargo and crew 48 hours ahead of arrival is simply not allowed in. Instead, it is required to anchor offshore. If need be, the US Coast Guard makes sure the vessel does not get close to port. Here, we do little or nothing and we have no coastguard anyway.

So one-third of ships entering our ports do not comply with the requirement of giving details of cargo and crew. They could be carrying anything, and the crew could be legitimate or illegitimate—indeed, they could be terrorists. One-third of ships have no checks carried out before getting alongside the wharf, and many of the others have minimal crew checks anyway. This is doubly ironic when one considers what checks Australian maritime and port workers have to go through to get their security card in order to work on a ship or in the dockside area. But foreign crews seem to get away with little or no checking. Who knows who is entering our ports, and anyone wishing to do so for illegitimate purposes will do so and may well be away from the ship before their identity is discovered. As was said by my colleague the honourable member for Batman in the debate in the other place, flag of convenience crews are, frankly, floating terrorist opportunities to do serious damage to Australia.

To make things even worse is the fact that when cargo is unloaded, only about 10 per cent is actually X-rayed to check its contents. This must be one of the lowest ratios in the developed world. Again, if I may use figures from my colleague the member for Batman, in Hong Kong, certainly one of the busiest ports in the world, up to 100 per cent of containers unloaded are X-rayed—a major difference between them and us. We can only wonder why an equal proportion could not be X-rayed in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, for example.

But an equally poor failing from the point of view, certainly, of my electorate in the Northern Territory is the government’s failure to properly police and secure our northern waters. The situation in our northern waters has gone from bad to worse over the past couple of years, with more illegal vessels being sighted but a decreasing proportion being stopped or caught.

This government has been very well aware of this worsening situation but has steadfastly refused to consider options such as paying Indigenous marine rangers to do that sort of job or setting up a proper coastguard. Instead, it has consistently claimed that our security is good, that we are detaining boats and illegal fishers. But the truth is that more and more boats are entering our waters, plundering our fishing stocks and often, it seems, landing on Australian soil and seriously threatening our biodiversity and security with quarantine risks.

The truth of the matter is that under this government our coastline has been and remains extremely vulnerable. The government policy that is in place simply is not working efficiently or effectively. Authorities are unable to track illegal vessels or to reach them in time to take any action. Last year alone, 13,000 illegal vessels were sighted in Australian waters, but only 609 of those were apprehended or detained—let alone those that get right in close to our shores, in the mangroves or up the rivers, as we have seen and heard reported time and time again by our Indigenous marine rangers in places such as Maningrida and Groote Eylandt. Any of those vessels could have had people come ashore and enter our country illegally. Most probably, that has happened.

What this government has done is to have the occasional blitz on illegals, catch a group of them and then turn the event into a media stunt, just as it has done with the odd burning of boats and those ceremonies along our northern shores. As reported on the ABC news back on 9 May, Customs caught 12 boats in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the previous fortnight. That was good, and we are sure Customs are doing their best with the resources they have, but how many other boats were in the gulf that were not caught? An average of over 30 a day are spotted across the top—in a fortnight, that could be as many as 500—but only 12 were detained.

I emphasise again that I fully agree with my NT colleague in the other place in saying that both Navy and Customs are doing their very best, in a very professional manner. There has been many a time that I have had a briefing at NORCOM or have been with Coastwatch and had an opportunity to witness the way in which these people work. But they do it with limited resources for the total job on hand and for what is expected by the Australian community.

The government has changed coastal surveillance and now has more aerial surveillance flights with the sophisticated Orion aircraft, but this will just mean that they spot more, not catch more or stop them from coming. Illegal incursions by foreign fishing vessels are at record levels and appear to be on the rise. This threatens not only the NT Fisheries resources but our national security and biodiversity.

The Labor caucus Transport and Maritime Security Taskforce, who have spent some time over the recent months investigating and reporting on this matter, described in their report Maritime security and illegal fishing: a national disgrace the situation where illegal fishing has become a highly organised, sophisticated and criminal activity. Vessels are now being used more and more, and modern ships are equipped with modern technology—they know precisely where they are at all times. They are not innocent traditional fishermen anymore. Evidence given to the caucus task force was that as many as nine out of every 10 illegal fishing trips are in fact successful, so in most incursions into Australian waters these vessels could be up to anything, in addition to the illegal fishing that is occurring.

The real truth is that anyone could be entering our nation via the sea and our coast. They could be doing so on vessels carrying anything from high explosives to rocket launchers, to rabid dogs or other major diseases. And of course all of this has been helped along quite nicely by the Howard government allowing Aussie flagged and crewed vessels to fall by the wayside and to be replaced by these foreign-crewed flag of convenience vessels. This has all been part of this government’s campaign against Aussie workers. These ships have been allowed to replace Aussie ships around our coastline on a regular basis, in the process sacrificing the safety of our sea lanes and ports.

Thank goodness that up to now an exception has been on the LNG vessels working on the North West Shelf. There Australian tankers are crewed by Australians, with a strong commitment to best-practice safety and security procedures. This stands us in good stead not only at home but in the trade of LNG, where we are reputed to be good, safe and reliable carriers of this product. However, we also need to ensure the security of not just the LNG vessels and the Wickham Point gasworks but also, of course, the many oil rigs based off our coast.

If all vessels were forced to report details of cargo and crew 48 hours before entering any port, this might also help to further protect the safety of our offshore rigs. This could be done if only this government would listen and form a coastguard service. We seem to follow so many other things the Americans do; why not this? Maybe because it is a Labor idea, and the government is too strong-headed to adopt this one. The Navy is here to protect our nation from hostile actions, not from illegal fishing and foreign-crewed flag of convenience cargo vessels roaming our shores.

Maybe if we had a coastguard we could enforce these laws. We could ensure that vessels reported details of crew and cargo 48 hours in advance, or we could force them to anchor offshore, as is done by our American allies. We could check out many more of those vessels spotted in our waters, often illegally fishing but also potentially bringing in undesirable illegal entrants. We have a coastline of around 37,000 kilometres. We absolutely rely on maritime transport for most imports and exports. We are indeed a maritime nation.

We support this bill but condemn the government for the many failings it has had in maritime security in ensuring the safety of our vessels, our ports and our people. We can only hope that the government will be better at administering this bill than others in the past.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate the second reading amendment that was moved by Senator O’Brien. We suggest that the Senate, in passing this legislation, condemn the Howard government for its failure to provide necessary maritime security and to protect Australians. The government has not done that, because it has failed to conduct security checks on foreign vessels. It continues to fail to ensure that foreign ships provide manifestos of crew and cargo before arriving at an Australian port. There is the ready availability of single and multiple voyage permits for foreign flag of convenience ships, including the ready availability of permits for foreign flag of convenience ships carrying dangerous materials in Australia’s waters and ports. This government has failed to examine or X-ray 90 per cent of shipping containers. It has failed to create a department of homeland security to remove dangerous gaps and to better coordinate security in Australia. Finally, of course, there is this government’s reticence and failure to establish an Australian coastguard, as suggested by the Labor Party, to patrol our coastline.

6:30 pm

Photo of Sandy MacdonaldSandy Macdonald (NSW, National Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

It is my pleasure to sum up the debate on the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Amendment (Security Plans and Other Measures) Bill 2006 after hearing Labor’s best available big hitters on this occasion, Senators O’Brien, Sterle and Crossin. I will address the bill first and then respond to Labor’s proposed second reading amendment, which the government opposes.

The bill strengthens the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Act 2003 by simplifying procedures for making changes to maritime, ship and offshore facilities security plans; clarifying the processes in place for the establishment of security zones; shortening the time allowed for the Secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services to approve security plans; and clarifying when the security plan approval period commences. There are a number of other technical amendments to a wide range of legislation administered within the Transport and Regional Services portfolio. With a handful of exceptions, they are unrelated to transport security matters.

The bill does not propose to vary any of the policy settings underpinning Australia’s maritime security regime. It is merely a procedural bill. The passage of this bill will assist the maritime industry by providing for a simpler process for making minor variations to security plans without undergoing the full plan revision process. The government also wishes to simplify the administrative process for establishing maritime security zones. Consultation undertaken by the Department of Transport and Regional Services with the maritime industry has assisted in developing these amendments, and this bill has the widespread support of the industry.

The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee has conducted an inquiry into the bill and, in its report tabled on 15 June this year, has recommended that the bill be passed without amendment. The government looks forward to the passage of the bill within the current sittings of parliament to enable maritime industry participants to focus on implementing and maintaining the security measures outlined in their security plans, contributing to the strengthening of Australia’s maritime security arrangements.

I might address some comments to the Labor Party’s second reading amendment as moved by Senator O’Brien on behalf of the opposition. With respect to pre-entry security reporting and crew reporting, I would comment that, despite Labor’s claim to the contrary, every ship seeking entry to Australia is subject to a comprehensive security risk assessment regardless of the flag that it flies. The security risk assessment takes account of all relevant information about the ship, including the nature of the ship’s cargo and operations, and is independent of customs cargo manifest reporting requirements. Ship and crew reports are required 96 hours in advance of arrival. For voyages under 96 hours, reports are required within shorter time frames. For the shortest voyages, reports are required 12 hours prior to entry. These reporting time frames have been in place since October 2005. Ninety-nine per cent of ships entering Australia have been compliant with ship- and crew-reporting requirements.

Furthermore, all foreign crews are checked before they enter Australia. Foreign crews go through stringent immigration processes, with their names checked against alert lists as soon as the crew list is received in accordance with the existing reporting requirements. This is far different from Labor’s claims that ships arrive in Australian ports having failed to meet crew-reporting requirements. That claim is simply not true. If a ship has not met the pre-entry reporting requirements, the government proactively seeks the information from the ship’s master or agent. If information is not reported within required time frames, ships can be subject to control directions. These may include ordering the ship to leave Australian waters, holding the ship in a particular position until further notice or requiring that particular actions are taken on board the ship. As well as 99 per cent compliance with crew-reporting requirements, 99 per cent of foreign ships seeking entry to Australia have been compliant with the maritime security regime that exists.

With respect to the provision of pre-entry cargo manifest reports, the Australian Customs Service is responsible for clearance of all cargo entering and leaving Australia. Ships are required to provide these reports in accordance with specified reporting time frames. Again, Labor have fiddled the figures regarding compliance with cargo manifest reporting time frames. Their claim of 67 per cent of compliance is based on figures 16 months old and only refers to cargo reports that arrive 48 hours or more prior to a ship’s arrival. As with crew-reporting requirements, that time frame decreases with the voyage’s length. In fact, 83 per cent of sea cargo is reported within the legislated time frames. If cargo is not reported until after arrival, the cargo is not released from Customs control until such time as all required information is provided and the cargo has been risk assessed by Customs.

With respect to dangerous goods and coastal voyage permits, I make the following points. Labor is concerned about the carriage of ammonium nitrate between Australian ports by foreign ships. The government provides that a foreign flagged ship may transport domestic cargo between Australian ports where there is no suitable or adequate ship available to undertake the task. The ships undertaking such voyages are subject to a comprehensive risk assessment. This ensures Australian industry has access to the coastal shipping services it needs to compete with imports and maintains its ability to export into competitive global marketplaces.

Labor’s opposition to using foreign ships to transport ammonium nitrate—even though it is clear that there may not be Australian ships suitable or available for the task—will lead to hundreds of semitrailer loads of ammonium nitrate travelling on the already busy highways of Australia’s east coast. This is surely a far more dangerous outcome than shipping ammonium nitrate by sea. Labor’s objections also ignore the fact that the safety arrangements for the shipping of ammonium nitrate are now regulated internationally by the International Maritime Organisation and Australia is fully complaint with the international regulatory regime that is set up under the IMO. Among other things, the regime prohibits the storage of ammonium nitrate with other volatile products—which led to the explosion on the Grandcamp in Texas City, an incident that happened almost 60 years ago.

With respect to Labor’s comments on homeland security, I make the following points. Proposals for a department of homeland security fail to take account of the fact that Australia has a well-practised national counter-terrorism regime which has been developed over many years on a whole-of-government basis. These arrangements worked well in the aftermath of September 11, the two Bali bombings and the Jakarta, Madrid and London bombings. Our counter-terrorism coordination arrangements have been instructed to reflect our federal system of government—and they are complex. State and territory governments and agencies have primary operational responsibility for dealing with a terrorist incident in their jurisdiction. The Australian government would of course provide support to the state or territory involved, as appropriate.

At the top level of government, the National Security Committee of cabinet, the NSC, meet regularly. There is a clear line of direction from the NSC, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Australian government’s operating departments and agencies. The Prime Minister has created a National Security Division within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to take the lead role in counter-terrorism policy coordination on a whole-of-government basis. The system works well.

Finally, with respect to the need for a coastguard, I make the following points in response to the Labor Party amendments. Border protection duties are already carried out in a highly professional and effective manner by the Joint Offshore Protection Command, the Australian Customs Service, the Australian Defence Force and relevant government agencies through a range of strong capabilities. These capabilities are on the beat 24 hours a day, every day of the year. A coastguard would be an expensive duplication of existing capabilities. A coastguard would also create a new and overlapping bureaucracy and divert resources away from the existing tried and tested arrangements. It is simply not needed and not appropriate in the Australian context.

The government does not support the opposition’s second reading amendments, but I do note that the opposition supports the legislation. I commend the legislation to the Senate.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator O’Brien’s) be agreed to.