Security officers in Parliament House performed a test on potentially deadly white powder sent to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office on Friday wearing disposable painting suits from Bunnings Warehouse.
Security officers with intimate knowledge of security procedure and operations within Parliament House, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity, said staff are under-equipped and not trained to do their job, despite a $126 million security upgrade currently underway.
The white powder was delivered to Malcolm Turnbull’s office in Parliament House in an envelope on Friday. It’s the fourth “powder out of place” incident in parliament since November and has staff raising questions about security in the building.
Turnbull was not in Canberra at the time, as he was delivering the keynote address at the NSW Liberals' federal budget lunch at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth hotel.
A spokesperson for the AFP confirmed there was a suspicious substance incident at Parliament House on Friday May 11. The spokesperson declined to answer any questions from BuzzFeed News about the incident but said the item was subsequently deemed "non-hazardous".
According to a copy of the Parliament House security manual’s “response to white powder detection” section, obtained by BuzzFeed News, an incident involving a “suspect item or security incident where white powder is evident” requires the attendance of the ACT Fire Brigade Hazardous Material (HAZMAT) team. The area is supposed to be cordoned off and isolated until the fire brigade's incident controller gives the all clear or, in the event a hazardous substance is found, "decontamination has been effected and remedial action taken".
The manual also says Parliament House's control room is to shut down the air-conditioning system in the affected zone "to minimise the spread of any airborne contaminants" .
But on Friday, despite “powder out of place” being found in the PM's office, these things did not happen.
Security and Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers failed to cordon off the area. Witnesses say a door to the office was left open and staff were allowed to wander in and out of the potentially contaminated area.
Instead of calling in the ACT Fire Bridge HAZMAT team, a mobile testing device which resides in the basement of Parliament House was brought up to test the powder.
The handheld testing device is called a HazMatID Elite. It's a chemical identifier that can test for explosives, chemical weapon agents, toxic industrial chemicals, and narcotics. Its use is not part of official Parliament House procedure for white powder incidents, according to the security manual. BuzzFeed News understands the machine was intended for use only in the airtight mail sorting room in the loading dock.
In sitting weeks the device is placed outside the House of Representatives chamber during Question Time. BuzzFeed News understands it was first stationed outside Question Time during the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey, as security management wanted to be able to test glitter and other items brought into the chamber by members of the public gallery.
BuzzFeed News has been told the staff who operate the HazMatID Elite have not been trained in how to operate it.
Officers said the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS), which runs the Security Branch (also known as the Department of Security Services, DSS) of uniformed officers in Parliament House, provided them with no formal training in how to use the device.
Instead, they were given the manual and told to read it and teach themselves. They say there is no current plan to conduct training.
“No-one has training in the HazMatID Elite,” one officer said. “The people using it have read the manual, but not received any formal training.”
DPS said it conducts "basic in-house familiarisation training for all loading dock officers based on the manual developed by the equipment manufacturer" of the machine, in answers to Senate Estimates questions on notice. But the dates on which this take place are not recorded.
As of April 6, DPS said 10 officers were "capable" of operating the device.
When officers are called to test powder found in the building, they don plastic “disposable overalls” purchased from Bunnings, which start at $6.94.
According to the manufacturer the suits are lightweight. They are "ideal for wearing over clothes to keep them clean and save on laundering costs". The suits have elastic hood, wrists and ankles but aren’t fully enclosed and don’t have breathing apparatus, meaning if the powder being tested is dangerous, those testing it could be exposed.
“If white powder is found in a public area, the person who responds has no training in how to use the machine, and is wearing a disposable suit from Bunnings that won’t protect them from anything,” one officer said. “They’re doing what they’ve been told; they shouldn’t be put in that position.”
Officers told BuzzFeed News they also have no training in what to do if a powder turns out to be dangerous.
“What if you spill it?" one officer asked. "What’s the training? We don’t have any backup for it, if it is bad.”
In contrast, when the ACT Fire Brigade tests white powder, its HAZMAT team wears personal protection clothing that is regularly tested and maintained, as per the manufacturer’s requirements. This includes a fully sealed suit and breathing apparatus.
Officers are concerned for their safety and for the safety of MPs and staff, as well as anyone who visits Parliament House.
"It's frustrating because it could affect people's lives — officers, staff, and members of the public," an officer said. "Because this is the people's house. There's a lot of people in security that are just really disappointed that no-one gives a rat's arse about it. No-one in DPS cares. It's really concerning that no-one takes it seriously."
One officer told BuzzFeed News that despite not receiving any formal training themselves, the men who operate the HazMatID Elite were invited to train staff from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) on how to operate it, when it purchased a device about 18 months ago.
“The guys down at the dock who use the machine, about 18 months ago they were invited to ASIO in Canberra to train them because ASIO got a machine," the officer said. "So, they trained ASIO even though they didn’t have training."
New security measures were put in place in 2005 after white powder was found in letters delivered to Parliament House and a number of foreign embassies. But staff say security procedures aren’t up-to-date, given the recent nerve agent attack on an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom, and are often ignored by those in charge.
On Wednesday November 22 white powder was located on the first floor balustrade at the rear of the Great Hall in the public area. This incident made headlines after The Guardian revealed that rather than call the AFP, the assistant secretary of the security branch, Graeme Anderson, tasted the white powder and declared it to be sugar.
In answers to Senate questions on notice the AFP said it did not become aware of the November tasting incident until it was reported by The Guardian in January.
White powder was also found on the ground floor corridor near the House of Representatives exit on January 19. It was tested by loading dock security staff in disposable suits, using the HazMatID Elite. They determined it to be a crushed Mylanta antacid tablet, taken for relieving indigestion or heartburn.
On January 29 white powder was discovered on the floor in front of the Senate entrance security desk at 11am. It was again tested by officers in disposable suits with the HazMatID Elite. It was found to be plasterboard powder, most likely brought into the building by a construction worker.
The ACT Fire Brigade was not called in any of these three powder incidents.
Questions over Parliament House procedures come as airport security across Australia has been ramped up, giving police new powers to request identification from anyone they deem suspicious.
Following these white powder incidents and the loss of a confidential 1,000 page security manual last year, officers are calling for a full Senate inquiry into the security protocols of parliament, and the current security branch management.
Labor senator Kimberley Kitching said she was seriously concerned about security management in Parliament House and will question DPS in Senate Estimates next week.
"We know that there have been a number of lapses in security at Parliament House in recent times, all while the government is spending $126 million on security upgrades," Kitching told BuzzFeed News.
"My main concern is that it doesn’t seem that Parliament House security officers have been given the requisite training to operate in the more challenging security environment in which we find ourselves.
"If it is found to be true that the Department of Parliamentary Services’ security officers wear $6 disposable painting [suits] from Bunnings ... then this is an unacceptable development which places Parliament House building occupants and visitors at serious risk, not to mention the security officers themselves."
Kitching said the government needs to explain whether people who visit and work in Parliament House are safe.
DPS declined to answer questions about the specific allegations made by officers in this story, and instead referred BuzzFeed News' questions to the AFP.
“The AFP responded to a suspicious substance incident on Friday as per standard protocol," a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. "For security reasons, response arrangements for incidents such as this are not discussed publicly.”
Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.
Contact Alice Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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