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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 3032

Mr PERRETT (10:28 AM) —I commend the member for Herbert for managing to go for that length of time without ever once mentioning the legislation under debate. It is a commendable effort; I am yet to see one person totally avoid the legislation. I would say, in response to the member for Herbert’s speech that I have a bit of faith in our judicial system Australia-wide, whether it is a Labor state or a coalition state. And I have a bit of faith and trust in our judiciary and lawyers; they do a good job.

I rise to speak in support of the Customs Amendment (Serious Drugs Detection) Bill 2011. This bill delivers on the Gillard government’s commitment to ensure strong protection of our borders. It will help boost the protection of our borders and support our Customs officers in their efforts to eliminate illegal drug trafficking, which could end up on our streets. Drug couriers increasingly take greater risks to avoid detection, some unfortunately concealing drugs and other suspicious substances internally. This obviously poses significant health risks to those couriers as sometimes packages split and drug couriers face serious illness or death as a result.

As a government, we want to do all we can to stop drug importation and protect Australian families from the awful harms caused by drug use. Of course we do as a responsible government, and I am sure all state and local governments are doing their bit to combat this scourge of modern society. That is why it is so important that our Customs officers can easily detect drugs that are being imported inside the bodies of drug couriers.

Drug traffickers face reasonably tough penalties in Australia; they are not as tough as those of some of our neighbours, but obviously we have a much more humane approach. The maximum penalty for importing a marketable quantity of drugs is 25 years in prison and/or a $550,000 fine. These are significant penalties, but some nevertheless still attempt to traffic drugs into Australia. They are desperate people, perhaps, or greedy people, or a combination—I am not sure—but this bill enables Customs officers to perform an internal body scan of people suspected to be internally concealing drugs or other suspicious substances. This is not a random scan that occurs at the airport like the explosives tests that many of us have experienced; this is a scan that is carried out when Customs officers have a reasonable suspicion that someone is carrying drugs internally, and the person must also agree to the scan. Those who refuse the scan would instead undergo the hospital examination, which is the current practice.

I understand that we have already made funding available to purchase these scanners, but we also need to give Customs officers the power to perform the scans. At the moment, if a Customs officer believes a person may be concealing drugs internally, that person is taken to a hospital or a surgery where a medical practitioner is then needed to perform an internal search. Obviously this is costly, time consuming and an unnecessary burden on our hospital emergency departments and on the resources of our Customs officers who have to escort the person there. Also, if the person is concealing and refusing to admit that they are concealing, there is more possibility that the drugs packaging could split and cause serious harm to that person, which has occurred occasionally.

Last year AFP officers spent almost 8,300 hours guarding suspects, including more than 4,600 hours in hospital waiting rooms, rather than policing our airports and other public areas. This common-sense piece of legislation allows a Customs officer, with the consent of the detainee, to perform a non-medical internal X-ray scan which can be done quickly. Customs will be able to use computer images of a person’s insides to determine whether they are in fact concealing substances. If the image shows an officer’s suspicions were misplaced, the person would be released immediately. Obviously we do not want legitimate travellers to face unnecessary delays. However, if the image shows evidence of internal concealment, the person will then be referred to a medical practitioner for an internal examination.

Last financial year Customs referred 205 people to hospital for an internal search; 48 of these were confirmed to be concealing suspicious substances, so basically one in four was found to be doing the wrong thing. The new X-ray scans will reduce the number referred to hospital unnecessarily and ensure that our Customs officials can focus on their job of protecting our borders. With early and accurate identification, we will also reduce the health risk to drug couriers with the drugs packages concealed inside their body that can then, because of stomach acids and the like, break and possibly even kill the person.

The bill strikes the right balance between law enforcement technology and privacy. It must be operated with strict controls that ensure that individual rights are respected. For example, a suspect must give written consent to being subject to body scanning. The body scan will only be conducted by a specially trained Customs officer. The images taken are subject to storage, access and destruction controls. Children, pregnant women and the mentally impaired will not be offered a body scan. This is not the same as the full-body scans that are being used overseas for aviation safety; rather this is a Customs measure which scans only the inside of the body to identify internal concealment of drugs in body cavities. The technology will be trialled for one year and, if it is a success, will then be rolled out to more airports.

I know that people in the room, particularly the member for Fowler, are familiar with the decisions that people make to go and smuggle drugs, because I know that he has a particular connection with the Rush family. Scott Rush’s parents are my constituents, so we know that when people are young or in desperate times they can make crazy decisions. While I can understand why people would make such a decision and think that it is okay to smuggle drugs, obviously we need the full force of the law to come down on those people. In Australia we are a humane nation and this is a part of that humane approach which makes our borders strong but is also a sensible approach. It is an important part of protecting our borders.

As this technology improves, the Gillard Labor government will continue to respond to ensure that our Customs officials have the tools they need to keep Australia safe. I commend the bill to the House.