Officers at airports could get new powers. Picture: iStock
Officers at airports could get new powers. Picture: iStock

Glaring problem with new airport rules

THE Government has been warned that new rules it wants to implement in Australia's major airports could end up hurting innocent travellers.

Today a parliamentary committee is holding a public hearing as part of its review into proposed amendments to the Crimes Act and Australian Federal Police Act.

The changes would allow police at certain airports across the country to compel people to provide evidence of their identity. They would also empower officers to direct travellers to leave the airport, or not take a flight, for up to 24 hours.

Failure to comply with an ID check could result in a fine of up to $4200.

The affected airports would include Sydney, Melbourne Tullamarine, Brisbane, Perth, Gold Coast, Hobart, Launceston, Alice Springs, Canberra, Darwin and Townsville.

"Australian airports are among the safest in the world. However recent events, including the July 2017 aviation terrorist plot targeting international flights departing Sydney, have identified that more can be done to assist law enforcement officers in the protection of our aviation network," Liberal MP and chair of the committee Andrew Hastie said.

The alleged attempt to blow up an Etihad Airlines flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi last year involved a bomb hidden in a meat grinder inside a passenger's luggage.

Police said the plot was only foiled at the last minute, at the check-in counter, because the bag was deemed too heavy and never made it onto the plane.

Authorities described it as "one of the most sophisticated plots" ever attempted in Australia and admitted we came close to experiencing a "catastrophic event".

The Government's proposed enhancement of officers' powers is, in part, a direct response to that incident.

Today's hearing in front of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will "examine the new powers and look into whether appropriate safeguards are in place," Mr Hastie said.

The committee will hear from the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Federal Police and the Law Council of Australia.

But the latter has identified two big problems with the Government's proposed changes, which are outlined in its submission to the committee - first, that the powers are too broad and could infringe on the rights of innocent travellers; and second, that they aren't subject to judicial review.

The goal of the legislation is to protect "aviation security", a term that is defined to include the "good order and safe operation of: a major airport and its premises; and flights to and from a major airport".

The problem is that the term "good order" is not defined. That ambiguity "creates uncertainty" and could lead to the powers being applied "in an arbitrary and ad hoc manner" according to the Law Council.

"These laws need to be proportionate and directed to matters relating to safety and criminal activity. Providing powers at large to police which are not tempered by these factors could lead to innocent citizens having their rights interfered with, given the broad nature of the discretion given to police," Arthur Moses SC, President-elect of the Law Council, said.

Mr Moses said the new powers "should only be exercised in circumstances to ensure safety or disrupting or preventing criminal activity".

"The intended scope of the exercise of the powers should be unambiguous and key terms should be defined so that they do not inadvertently capture a wide range of benign conduct," he said.

The Law Council also believes the changes - particularly the power to order a person not to take a flight - may have "significant economic implications" for the person in question and will certainly cause them considerable inconvenience.

Therefore, it says, the powers should be subject to "a very specific power of urgent or expedited review" by a judicial officer to determine whether the traveller should receive compensation.

"These powers have the potential to significantly impact on individual rights and freedoms. Allowing for judicial review of these orders does not compromise the objectives of the bill, but rather provides a safeguard to ensure the proposed powers are being exercised in an appropriate manner," Mr Moses said.

When the Government introduced its bill last month, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said it was necessary to keep Australia safe.

"We have seen the incredible fear and heartache caused by terrorists around the world who wish to target the aviation network," Mr Dutton said.

"Police at our airports are highly trained in behavioural analysis and threat assessments. However, they don't currently have the power to check ID unless they can link behaviour to a specific offence."

It isn't just about terrorism. Mr Dutton said the new powers would also help combat organised crime.

"Airports can also be a focal point for illicit drug trafficking and gang-related activity, which provide pathways for serious and organised crime groups to expand their operations and see devastating flow-on effects for our community," he said.

This latest batch of changes follows a raft of new rules recently implemented across Australia's airports.

Earlier this year it was announced that passengers who wear glasses would have to ditch them in new passport photos, to "strengthen the integrity of the Australian passport".

And in June, the Government started to enforce new limits on how much of a powder product - such as baby formula, coffee, detergent or talcum powder - travellers could pack in their carry-on baggage.