We’ve all come to accept stringent security procedures at our airports. We wait in line. We take our belts and shoes off when we’re told to.
We know that secure airports are important in the modern world – to protect us from a range of threats. Not just terrorism, but criminal activity like the transportation of drugs and weapons.
So I think most Australians would be shocked to know that hundreds of people working in the most secure areas of our airports and seaports have criminal backgrounds. Serious criminal backgrounds.
It seems unbelievable, but it’s true. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission found in 2019 that 227 people who hold passes for unescorted access to secure areas at our airports and ports are on either the National Criminal Target List or the National Gangs list.
Of these, 167 are actually members or associates of outlaw motorcycle gangs. As we know, organised criminal gangs present a real threat to our way of life – they are purveyors of violence and gateways for drug and weapons trafficking. They create human misery in our families and local communities.
That’s why the great work of the AFP with ‘Operation Ironside’, which made international headlines last week, is so significant. It’s a big deal when we can disrupt and dismantle these networks, and take down hundreds of organised criminal gangs around the world.
The question is: why would we hand these gangs ‘backstage access’ to our airports and ports?
It’s a loophole the Morrison Government has been trying to close for many years.
So why have the Labor party consistently opposed our legislation and voted against it? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact the powerful Transport Workers Union and Maritime Union of Australia oppose it.
The time is well overdue to fix this serious vulnerability. In 2016, we introduced the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill to strengthen identity card eligibility for those who work at our airports, seaports and offshore facilities.
The legislation will ensure those with serious criminal convictions or links to organised crime are not eligible for ASIC and MSIC cards and will therefore not be able to access secure areas of our ports.
Currently, the background check for ASICs and MSICs only examines whether a person may be a threat to aviation or maritime security. It does not consider whether they may use their role in connection with serious crime.
That’s a pretty big loophole, and we know it’s being exploited. Last year an airport baggage handler was caught using their trusted position to bypass border processes to import a significant volume of cocaine through Sydney airport. They abused their trusted access to secure areas to ensure the criminal cargo didn’t pass security checks.
Another baggage handler was arrested as part of Operation Ironside last week.
Our legislation will establish a regulatory framework so that people convicted of serious offences or with known links to serious and organised crime groups, will be ineligible to hold an ASIC or MSIC card.
I should point out that there are more than 200,000 holders of ASIC and MSIC cards in Australia – and the overwhelming majority are hardworking, trustworthy and responsible and no doubt take their duty very seriously. I am not suggesting otherwise.
But this legislation will also protect them and their profession from being tarred with headlines of criminal infiltration of our nation’s critical supply chains. The fact is, even a handful of people in frontline positions can act as a gateway for criminal activity.
Our law enforcement community is working on so many fronts to tackle the problem of organised crime and serious criminal gangs.
We have to close this this loophole access to our airports and seaports.
Those who work in secure areas of our ports must be held to a high personal standard. They are in trusted positions. It’s a pretty basic concept – and one I think Australian people absolutely support.
In fact, I believe the community expects no less.
The government is putting the legislation back before the Senate yet again on Tuesday. We believe there’s a real need to act now.
I’m sure the Australian community hopes, as I do, that common sense prevails and Labor and crossbenchers vote for it so we can close this loophole once and for all.
It’s a critical step in further dismantling criminal gangs and making our communities safer.