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Thursday, 30 October 2003
Page: 17305

Senator MARK BISHOP (2:49 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Ellison. Does the minister recall his numerous statements and announcements through his media machine over recent years about record seizures of a range of illegal narcotics and other drugs at Australia's entry points? Can the minister confirm that the annual report for Customs shows a decline in the interception of commercial quantities of heroin of 27 per cent in the financial year 2002-03? How does the minister explain this contradiction between his claims and this sharp drop in the quantities of heroin being detected?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —What I have said repeatedly is that there is very good work being done by Commonwealth law enforcement agencies, namely, Customs and the Australian Federal Police. We have seen in particular great work done on the border by the Australian Customs Service in the seizure of illicit drugs. On occasion some have been extremely large quantities and in particular we have seen a growth in relation to amphetamines. In relation to heroin we have seen the results in the reduced supply of heroin on the streets. That has its effect in reducing the number of overdose deaths from heroin. Around this country we have seen a reduction of up to 50 per cent in some cases in the rate of death from heroin overdoses. Why has that resulted? It is because the purity level has dropped. It has gone from around 60 per cent down to 15 per cent. That means a lack of supply of heroin. It means that our law enforcement people are doing a very good job cutting the supply of heroin. That has been an excellent outcome. That is what we look at when we measure the success of our law enforcement people.

We acknowledge only too well that an emerging threat—widely acknowledged to be so—is amphetamine type stimulants and we do not shy away from that challenge one bit. We are out there detecting and intercepting record amounts of amphetamines. It is something that affects many Australians. Very few of us have not been touched by the scourge of drugs. It is a policy of this government that we will see through. It will take not one week or one year to win; it will take some time to win. We will engage in the war on drugs on three fronts: health, education and law enforcement—education, to educate the up-and-coming generation about the scourge of drugs and the havoc they wreak on our society; health, to treat those who have a drug addiction; and of course law enforcement, with a zero tolerance to drugs and a very successful approach at our borders, which has seen a reduction in the supply of heroin. Amphetamines are an issue we are also tackling. I have said repeatedly that our people are doing a very good job at the borders, overseas and domestically in relation to the war against drugs.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister confirm the media statement by a senior Customs official last Tuesday that this reduction can be attributed to a shift in the importation of narcotics to shipping containers and that only five per cent of shipping containers are being inspected? If so, what specifically does the government plan to do to increase inspection rates of shipping containers?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —I can say that I will soon be opening the fourth facility in this country for container X-rays at Fremantle; we already have them in place in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Those are measures that this country has never seen before. All containers coming into Australia are screened and risk assessed. With the facilities we have in place, we are able to X-ray those containers that we believe deserve attention. We cannot X-ray every container that comes into this country—that is just not possible. What we have to do is screen the containers—which we do—and risk assess them by carrying out an X-ray examination. With these new measures we will be able to increase by a factor of 20 the number of containers that can be inspected by Customs. That is a great step forward in border control and in the war against drugs.