Question proposed: 
That grievances be noted. 

National Security

House of Representatives
Official Hansard No. 9, 2005

Flash Back - Monday 23rd June 2005

Mr BEAZLEY (Brand—Leader of the Opposition) (4.13 pm)—I rise to speak on a grievance that goes to the heart of a strange mode of behaviour that has marked the entirety of this government’s period in office, and that is a capacity, when confronting a crisis or an issue, to present to the public as the crisis managers par excellence, the people you need to keep in office to see that the job gets effectively done, to get the press releases out and get the initial positioning right—and then forget about it.

It does not matter what happens after that point; the politics have been with the government, and the issue is resolved when the politics are resolved. When the government finds out down the track that something has gone seriously wrong, the tactic is: cover up as desperately as you can and point the finger of blame at somebody else. We know today, after dragging the information out of senior public servants, that for well over three months one of the most senior transport security jobs in this country has been unfilled. Quite simply, there has been no-one doing a job which the government itself describes as essential to—and I quote the Minister for Transport and Regional Services—‘ identifying security vulnerabilities’ and dealing with them. For almost 31/2 months, one of Australia’s most crucial transport security positions has been empty—vacant, unfilled. There has been noone home. It is a story of incompetence and cover-up which began when the transport minister announced, with great fanfare and typical public noise, the establishment of the Office of Transport Security. He spoke about ‘the appointment of an independent Inspector of Transport Security to investigate major transport security incidents’. 

The announcement was made as part of the government’s so-called enhanced aviation security package. Here is the problem, the crisis—and crisis managers are into it. The office carries a total budget of $93 million, and the component for the Inspector of Transport Security is $1.6 million over four years to the 2004-05 budget. On the surface, the appointment of an independent security expert is to be supported in the face of the challenges facing Australia and aviation security. It is an appointment that the minister trumpeted as being essential and an integral part of ‘an enhanced security package’. He identified the inspector’s role as investigating major incidents and systematic transport security weaknesses to ‘ensure security vulnerabilities are identified and addressed’. But now we see yet again this government making an announcement and Monday, 23 May then forgetting about it. In this case, the government made the announcement on 4 December 2003 and then did not appoint an inspector until almost a year later, on 23 November 2004. This is a government that is, ostensibly, taking seriously the protection of Australian airports and travellers in a period of high threat and vulnerability. 

It took the Howard government almost a year to appoint an Inspector of Transport Security, but even when Minister Anderson finally got around to making the appointment he did not bother announcing who it was. It is only now that we learn that it was former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer. But his appointment was not publicly announced and, it appears, no media reference was ever made to Mr Palmer’s dual role as Inspector of Transport Security and, now, head of an immigration detention inquiry. Mr Palmer was an appropriate and well-qualified appointment as Inspector of Transport Security, but it was an appointment that was destined to be very short-lived. He was barely three months into the job when he was obliged to stand down, hijacked by Immigration Minister Vanstone into trying to fix yet another of the Howard government’s gaping political holes, the wrongful detention of Australian resident Cornelia Rau. So, since February, Australia has been without an Inspector of Transport Security— without the independent expert which the government deemed essential to monitoring the handling of systematic transport weaknesses, including apparent flaws in airline baggage-handling systems. While we have been without an Inspector of Transport Security, there have been some glaring and disturbing breaches and allegations relating to aviation security. Just ask yourselves this question: since he is the bloke to inspect these systemic issues, would these things have interested him? Would he have been interested in the alleged involvement of Sydney airport baggage handlers in an international drug-trafficking syndicate. 

The Australian Federal Police claims baggage handlers were key players in a conspiracy to smuggle cocaine worth $15 million into Australia. Do you think he might have had thought about that. There are allegations out there that luggage belonging to Schapelle Corby, who is on trial in Indonesia, was tampered with. Do you think we can give any guarantees it was not? Do you think that an inspector of security might have been able to Do you think that the so-called camel suit incident, where baggage handlers opened a passenger’s luggage, removed his belongings and paraded around the airport, might have been a matter that would have caused the Inspector of Transport Security an occasional palpitation?In the wake of the camel suit incident was the admission by Qantas CEO, Geoff Dixon, that the airline receives 35 complaints a month about alleged baggage tampering. Do you think that might have interested an Inspector of Transport Security.

Then there was the warning just over a week ago from the Transport Workers Union that the federal government had been aware of potential security breaches at Australian airports for at least four years, and the union reaffirmed its call for improving the credentialling of shortterm employees and for the immediate X-ray screening of all baggage and freight. We are not actually going to get the screening of domestic baggage at our airports until 2007.

This government is the slowest-moving government on earth to confront the contemporary international circumstances in which we live. It is just extraordinary. You would have thought that there would have been a bit of interest in making absolutely certain that, the government having set up a protective system, the Australian people were being properly protected while all this was being put in place. Add to this the alarming admission from Chris Brown, the head of peak tourism lobby group TTF, that, because of concerns about baggage handling, he would not check in his bags when travelling to Bali, adding, ‘I will be taking only carry-on baggage.

There is no denying the link between baggage-handling systems at Australia’s airports and aviation security; flaws in baggage handling, including removing and planting material in luggage, increase the risk of the travelling public. John Anderson has failed in his responsibility to maintain secure baggage-handling systems at Australian airports. He has failed to tell the Australian public that a position which he created and described as integral to his enhanced aviation security package has been left vacant for more than three months. There was no announcement that Mr Palmer had stood down in order to clean up the Cornelia Rau debacle, no announcement that Mr Palmer was no longer the Inspector of Transport Security and certainly no announcement of a replacement. In here today, it does not matter; it just rocks on. Instead, Mr Anderson has been caught out by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, which invited Mr Palmer to appear before it at hearings today. 

At first, the Department of Transport and Regional Services offered the excuse that Mr Palmer was too busy to attend, and it only came clean last Thursday, four days ago, when it admitted that Mr Palmer had stood down as inspector while undertaking other duties for the government. So the Inspector of Aviation Security has been stood down since February and absolutely no information has been given to the public about that. Perhaps the public would have liked to think a little about the important role that Mick Palmer was performing when he was plucked out to give the government political cover on the Cornelia Rau incident. The public needs to hear that he is being removed from a job that he would do extremely well, albeit having been appointed to it belatedly— 12 months after the position was created. 

The public might have said, ‘Leave Mick Palmer where he is, doing the job he ought to be doing: protecting us when we travel. Don’t use him politically by dragging him down on top of yourselves to defend you and your reputations, when you have been caught out and ought to be putting in place a proper royal commission, probably with an ex-judge to run it.’ An ex-judge should be inquiring into the matter of Cornelia Rau. Mick Palmer ought to be handling aviation security; that is what he ought to be doing right now. We confront substantial terrorist threats to this nation, both domestically and internationally. We require all inspection processes to be in place and operating all the time. This is not a matter of politics; this is a matter of defending the national interest. The government has undermined the national interest, the security of this population, to defend itself in politics. It has appointed a respectable person to do its work on the Cornelia Rau issue, when he ought to be protecting all of us at our airports. The government ought to be shamed, and this is a genuine grievance. (Time expired)