Radio National Breakfast

Interview

DCI069/2017

03 August 2017

Subjects: Security at Australian airports, Gay marriage plebiscite

Fran Kelly: The alleged terror plot to bring down a packed passenger jet has exposed what aviation experts are saying are big gaps in airport security right across the country. The latest concerns are being raised by the people ultimately responsible for our safety in the air—the pilots. The 5000-strong Australian Airline Pilots Association has pointed out that baggage handlers, cleaners and catering staff are not subjected to the same security screenings as passengers and airline crew.

The union president, Murray Butt, says the system is riddled with inconsistencies.

[Excerpt]

Murray Butt

That has been a gap in the aviation security system, that people that do have access to the aircraft should have the same level of screening as people that come through the terminal. Not everybody is screened. They don't do any explosives detection. Most people don't have to pass through an x-ray.

[End of excerpt]

Fran Kelly: Captain Murray Butt from the pilots union speaking yesterday. Well Darren Chester is the Federal Minister for Transport and so responsible for security at our airports and beyond. I spoke with him earlier.

Darren Chester: Good morning Fran.

Fran Kelly: Minister, pilots and passengers have to go through metal detectors and undergo random explosive residue tests before they can get on a plane. Other ground staff who have access to the aircraft; cleaners, caterers, refuellers, the baggage handlers, they don't. Why such a glaring inconsistency?

Darren Chester: Well firstly Fran, let me reassure the Australian travelling public that we have robust security measures in place to prevent an attack against the aviation system; whether it be through a passenger or through a trusted insider as it's referred to in the security industry. And under Australian transport security regulations the workers with access to large passenger aircraft must hold an aviation security identity card which requires a thorough national security and criminal background check—and we've actually toughened up the regulations around those ASIC cards earlier this year. So we're working with our major airports to further strengthen security around the airport workers entering and within a secure air side environment. And from the pilots union perspective, if they have genuine concerns, I'm very happy to sit down and talk to them and work our way through any concerns they may have. But as you would expect I take my advice from experts in the field of security and they're advising us on our security settings constantly, monitoring, evaluating on a daily basis.

Fran Kelly: Okay, well clearly the pilots do have concerns, because they held a press conference yesterday. And it's all very well to say we have robust security measures in place, but are they not robust enough? I mean isn't that a gap I just pointed out there, that many of these staff, no matter if they've got police checks, don't have to go through the metal detectors or undergo random explosive residue tests. Why not?

Darren Chester: Well the point I was making Fran, is earlier this year new measures were introduced into the Parliament which will include screening of staff entering and within the secure areas, strengthen access controls and additional security awareness training. So as I've indicated we rely on the analysis of our intelligence experts, our counterterrorism people, aviation security experts who work in the airport environment on a daily basis. People understand these issues and are working with them. And I'm quite happy to sit down with the airport's union- sorry, with the pilots union, if that's their desire. If they've got a genuine concern the correct way to do it is to raise it with me or raise it with the experts in the field and it can be analysed and assessed for any risk. Now, it is a difficult and challenging operating environment at the moment. But I must say, the fact that we were able to thwart a genuine threat and the fact that we've been able to detect other incidents in the past—and more than a dozen incidents now—is a good indication that our security personnel, our intelligence people are working collectively well to keep Australians safe in what is a challenging environment.

Fran Kelly: Of course and obviously the intelligence agencies have done a great job. But, what if someone gets through—I don't want to be unnecessarily alarmist here—but aviation experts are saying that behind the scenes staff are the weak link in airport security. Now the pilots are expressing this concern and it's obvious to anybody that it would have been relatively easy for terrorists—let's call them that—with the aid of someone employed at Sydney Airport to smuggle an explosive device hidden in a meat grinder, for example, on board a departing flight. It would have been relatively easy wouldn't it if they're not checked?

Darren Chester: Well, the important point here is that there has not been a flaw or a failure of the security scanning equipment or the devices we have in place. We have …

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] No, but these staff aren't scanned.

Darren Chester: I'm pointing out to you that people who are working have access to the aircraft—whether it's through catering or baggage or that type of work—actually have to have an ASIC card. This is the card I referred to, the aviation security identity check, and we've toughened up the regulations around that and we want Labor to support us in that regard. People are taking this issue as you'd expect very, very seriously in regard to safety as our number one priority.

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Of course and I accept as you say it's not set and forget, and someone's pointed out that in terms of those cards, those ID cards you're talking about, more than 60 organisations and companies can issue those aviation identification cards. There is something like 250,000, a quarter of a million of these ID cards in circulation and can you tell us how many workers have stopped working at airports but failed to hand back the security cards. How many cards have we lost track of? Is this an issue?

Darren Chester: Well the point I was trying to make a little bit earlier, Fran, in relation to the ASIC card is we've endeavoured to toughen up regulations around getting access to those cards, and making sure that people who have access to the airport environment are trusted, and do have the capacity to go about their work, and can be screened at random in the future, in strengthening those access controls with additional security awareness training. So it's been recognised that there are issues around the world in relation to the threat provided by the so called trusted insider, and we need to take measures, and we are taking measures to keep the Australian traveling public safe.

Fran Kelly: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Federal Transport Minister, Darren Chester. Darren Chester, on an issue that is really troubling the Government or distracting the Government at the moment. You are a supporter of same sex marriage. You made that public position some time ago. Do you support the right of likeminded Government MPs to force a vote on the floor of Parliament?

Darren Chester: Well if Bill Shorten and the Labor Party were genuinely in support of same sex marriage; he could resolve this issue today. He wants a free vote for the 226 members and senators, but he won't give a free vote to millions of Australians. Now gay couples would've been on their honeymoons by now if Bill Shorten had let Australians vote in the plebiscite earlier this year. Keep in mind he used to support a plebiscite himself. Now, we have a policy for a national free vote for a plebiscite to resolve the issue once and for all. And the person standing in the road of that is Bill Shorten.

Fran Kelly: Some members within the Liberal Party don't want a plebiscite and they are talking about moving their own procedural motion to bring on a vote—rather than crossing the floor to support a Labor motion, for instance—to allow that vote to happen. Would you support their right to do that?

Darren Chester: Well we have a policy and our policy is to have a free vote—a national plebiscite on the issue—and we took it to the Australian people. Now Bill Shorten says this is too divisive and I think that is a ridiculous position. He has the support of the Labor leader…

Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Well it's not just Bill Shorten saying that though, is it? I mean a lot of the LGBT community have said that very loud and clear; in fact most of them.

Darren Chester: Well let's get fair dinkum about this, Fran. We've got the support of the Labor leader, the support of the Liberal leader and support of the Greens leader. They all say they support same sex marriage, along with some National Party members. They have the biggest and the loudest megaphones in the country to make the case for same sex marriage. They're all speaking in favour of same sex marriage. If we had a national vote—if we had a plebiscite conducted as soon as possible—I think it would receive a national standing ovation. We could resolve the issue once and for all. It would give an extra level of legitimacy, it would give an extra level of vindication to same sex attracted couples and we can get on with the job.

Fran Kelly: Alright, but just back to my original question. Do you support the right of those Liberal MPs who want to try and force a vote on the floor of the Parliament? Do you support their right to do that, or is that a betrayal?

Darren Chester: Well I'm not going to give free advice to the Liberal Party on this issue, because we have a policy to have a national vote on this issue. We took it to the Australian people and we received a mandate to try and introduce that policy. If Bill Shorten and the Labor Party is fair dinkum about supporting same sex marriage, then they would allow Australians to have a vote, let's resolve this issue and get on to those other topics like national security, job creation, economic stability: all those issues that Australians are genuinely concerned about and worried about. Let's go on to those issues. Let's resolve the national vote on the same sex marriage issue and move on.

Fran Kelly: Bill Shorten, the Labor Party and those senators who blocked the idea of a plebiscite first time around, as I say, have the very clear support of the LGBT community. With no prospect of actually holding a plebiscite—because it's unclear the way through for the Parliament to support this at the moment—members readily acknowledge that a postal vote would be a second best option. It would be non-binding, it could be open to legal challenge. If it comes to a postal ballot; won't that just show how farcical the whole Government's handling of this issue's become?

Darren Chester: Well you're going a long way down the path of hypothetical positions now, Fran. We'll have our party meeting next week. I'd expect the National Party will continue to endorse the position of a national plebiscite, a free vote, a compulsory attendance vote by the Australian people. I'm not afraid of the Australian people having a say on this issue and I don't know why Bill Shorten's afraid of it.

Fran Kelly: If it comes to a postal plebiscite—if that's the option—do you support it?

Darren Chester: Well the word you put at the front there was ‘if’ and that's not put in front of me right now. My view is we need to have the national vote, have the plebiscite. The Labor Party says it supports same sex marriage. It's time for Bill Shorten to grow a spine and actually support this issue.

Fran Kelly: Darren Chester, thank you very much for joining us.

Darren Chester: All the best, Fran.

[ENDS]