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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 25841


Senator HUTCHINS (11:40 AM) —I rise to speak on the National Crime Authority Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 [2001], which is the government's version of Labor's National Crime Authority Amendment Bill 2000 introduced in the House as a private member's bill in March last year by the Hon. Duncan Kerr. As my colleagues have already outlined, Labor support the thrust of this bill and readily endorse the majority of the changes the bill will make to the National Crime Authority Act. We support the need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the National Crime Authority. To that end, we support the measures in this bill that will remove the defence of reasonable excuse, remove the derivative use immunity and increase penalties. Again, as my colleagues have already indicated, Labor will not be supporting provisions in the bill that would appear to breach the separation of powers, or those that allow the NCA to employ persons outside the provisions of the Public Service Act.

As I have already indicated, this bill directly adopts a number of provisions that Labor's shadow minister for justice and customs, the Hon. Duncan Kerr, introduced by way of a private member's bill in the House last year. The National Crime Authority Amendment Bill would have, exactly like this bill before us today, amended the National Crime Authority Act to remove the defence of reasonable excuse, to remove the derivative use immunity and to increase penalties. This is not the first time this government have engaged in this sort of policy stealing trickery. It is not the first time that they have run out of ideas, looked for inspiration or simply lost the initiative and looked through the pages and pages of Labor's policy that have been posted on our web site, picked out one they liked and introduced it as a bill.

Apart from this policy, which is now well over a year old for Labor, the government has also recently adopted our scheme for the civil confiscation of assets that are the proceeds of crime. Under this plan, which was again put to the House last year by Duncan Kerr in the form of a private member's bill, allowance would be made for the confiscation of assets on the grounds that, on the balance of probabilities, they are the proceeds of crime. This bill would target those who profit from crime, such as the so-called drug lords, and attack organised crime by striking at the heart of what drives the international criminal industry—that is, the massive financial rewards that can be reaped from illegal activity. Sadly, though, the government rejected Labor's Criminal Assets Recovery Bill 2000. But then what did we see almost a year later in February this year when Kim Beazley introduced his 10-point plan to tackle Australia's drug problem? We saw Minister Ellison, in an attempt to deflect attention from Labor's drugs policy, announce that he would take a proposal to cabinet for a civil confiscation scheme. Then, on 20 April this year, Minister Ellison announced that cabinet had approved our proposal for a civil confiscation scheme, although I must say that we are yet to see the legislation before the chamber.

We have also recently seen the government do tremendous backflips and adopt a series of Labor policies and plans on petrol and beer excise and the business activity statement. Under this government, it is a pretty safe bet that, if a member from the Labor Party introduces a private member's bill, or if a Labor shadow minister announces a plan or a new policy, you will inevitably see it pop up again a year later as a government bill in this chamber. After a year of the government neglecting this important issue, the provisions of this bill finally introduce into law a series of necessary reforms to the way the National Crime Authority operates in its vital task of combating organised crime.

This bill seeks, firstly, to remove the ground of defence of reasonable excuse used by witnesses refusing to answer questions or produce documents in a hearing. This rule can waste the NCA's time and resources, as the NCA is required to obtain a Federal Court order requiring the witness to give an answer when a defence of reasonable excuse is used. The bill replaces the reasonable excuse rule with a series of specific reasonable defence excuses contained within the Criminal Code.

Witnesses have also been able to frustrate investigations by refusing to answer questions or produce a document, on the grounds of self-incrimination, unless the Director of Public Prosecutions gives an undertaking that the answer given or document produced will not be used in evidence against the person in later proceedings. The bill abolishes this derivative use immunity rule, making it harder for witnesses to frustrate the proceedings of NCA hearings. The bill also substantially increases fines for refusing to answer questions, thus providing a proper deterrent to criminals who frustrate NCA investigations. The bill will also ensure proper accountability of the NCA through the Commonwealth Ombudsman, who will have the right to review complaints about the NCA or its members.

As my colleagues have already indicated, Labor wholeheartedly endorses and supports these provisions, considering that these provisions have been part of Labor Party policy for over a year now. In some areas, however, the current bill goes further than Labor's original bill. In our opinion, some of the provisions in the current bill go too far and should be opposed.

In its current form, this bill will enable the NCA to detain persons who interfere with or obstruct a hearing and take them to the Supreme Court to have their conduct dealt with as if it were a contempt of court. Labor will be moving amendments to remove this provision, because we believe it would amount to a serious breach of the separation of powers. Many members of the government, in the conservative tradition of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, have a serious problem getting their head around the constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers. The NCA is not a judicial body. It is an agent of the executive government, and its hearings should not be treated legally like proper judicial hearings.

Labor will also be moving amendments against provisions in the bill that allow for the NCA to employ persons on a short-term basis outside the requirements of the Public Service Act. These provisions, if implemented, will remove the process of public scrutiny provided for under the Public Service Act and thus create the danger that persons might be employed on the basis of nepotism or favouritism. Apart from these two provisions, which we believe are unnecessary and undesirable, Labor will be supporting this bill.

According to the National Crime Authority's annual report 1999-2000, the most commonly investigated offences included drug importation, cultivation, manufacture, trafficking and associated money laundering, theft, fraud, tax evasion, bribery, extortion and violence. Following that, a year ago we put up a policy to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the NCA. That policy is a fundamental tenet of Kim Beazley's overall plan to fight drugs and crime. Senators would know that members of the government have grown very fond of getting up in this and the other chamber and accusing the Labor Party of having no policies. Kim Beazley has, however, released a series of policy initiatives and plans for Australia in the fields of health, education and banking, among others. These policy plans amount to a lot more than John Howard released before the 1996 election and provide to the Australian people a blueprint of what they can expect to happen when Kim Beazley takes the prime ministership later this year. One of the most detailed of these policy initiatives to come from Kim Beazley has been Labor's plan to put forward a national response to crime and drugs in Australia, of which the provisions of this current bill are a part.

Crime is a huge issue in Australia. It presents a daily threat to our personal and national security. Organised crime at both a national and international level affects our standard of living by threatening the peace and stability of our personal lives and our communities. In terms of the size and extent of organised transnational crime, the United Nations has estimated that organised crime earns $US1.1 trillion per year and that the international drug trade exceeds the value of the international oil trade, which eams about $US500 billion per year.

In terms of its impact in Australia, the IMF has estimated that international money laundering costs the world $US500 billion, of which Australia would have a significant share. In Australia, over 100,000 people have used heroin. In 1999, 958 people died of heroin overdose. Therefore, a national approach to fighting crime and drugs is urgently needed. As well as providing plans for many of the provisions contained within this bill to strengthen the National Crime Authority, Labor also has, as I have mentioned, detailed plans for a civil confiscation scheme to deny the profiteers of crime access to their assets. We have also released plans for a national coast guard, to improve Australia's coastal security and protect our borders from criminal activity. Kim Beazley has also outlined a program for establishing community safety zones to stop crime at the source and to work with communities to fight crime at the local level, and he has promised to provide the Federal Police with better funding, to put more of them in the field with the community.

We have also indicated that a Labor government would provide for the national coordination of law enforcement by undertaking a white paper process, similar to the process that is undertaken to determine defence priorities and resources. Labor would also provide national leadership in the fight against drugs by unifying the states and non-government sectors behind a broadly based strategy. The parts of this bill that implement into law the changes proposed last year by Duncan Kerr in his private member's bill are only a small segment of Labor's overall strategy to fight drugs and international crime in Australia. As well as strengthening the NCA, which this bill already does, Labor has, thus, promised to implement a broad strategy against drugs and crime.

In conclusion, Labor supports the thrust of this bill, on the grounds that what we are seeing before the Senate is a rehashing of good Labor policy. There is a real need to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the NCA, as part of a much needed national approach to the fight against crime and against Australia's drug problem. However, a number of new provisions in this bill are both undesirable and unnecessary, and we will be moving amendments to modify and oppose those provisions. Only Labor will provide this national approach and implement further reforms to fight crime and drugs in Australia. To that end, I support this bill, with amendments.