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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11720

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Home Affairs) (6:21 PM) —Firstly, I would like to thank members for their contributions to the debate on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Serious and Organised Crime) Bill 2009. I support the comments made by the most recent speaker, the member for Moreton, and also those made by the members for Werriwa, Cowan, Dobell and Newcastle on the significant threat posed by organised crimes.

The member for Farrer raised some concerns about whether the safeguards for the unexplained wealth provisions were sufficient. Checks and balances have been included to ensure that the unexplained wealth measures operate fairly. Law enforcement agencies must satisfy a gatekeeping requirement to trigger the application of the provisions. A preliminary unexplained wealth order cannot be made unless law enforcement agencies satisfy the court that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a person’s total wealth exceeds the value of lawful earnings. Strict affidavit requirements apply so that an officer must set out all the property of the person and the property that is known or is suspected to have been lawfully acquired. We will also require the affidavit to set out the grounds on which unexplained wealth is suspected.

Once a court has made a preliminary order against a person, the person will have the opportunity to apply to the court to have the preliminary order revoked. If a person is unable to demonstrate that the preliminary order should be revoked, they will be required to demonstrate that their wealth was derived from lawful sources. At this point in the process, if a person cannot satisfy the court that their assets were not obtained from criminal offences, the government considers that it is reasonable to require them to account for their wealth. The person is only required to satisfy the court on the balance of probabilities, which is a civil standard of proof rather than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. The government also proposes to amend the bill to enable a court to refuse to make an order where it is satisfied that it is not in the public interest.

The member for Flinders indicated that the opposition would seek further amendments to the proceeds of crime information-sharing provisions. Several safeguards have been included to ensure the information-sharing arrangements operate in a way that strikes an appropriate balance between the public interest in sharing information and an individual’s right to privacy. Information obtained under the Proceeds of Crime Act may only be disclosed when the person disclosing the information believes, on reasonable grounds, that the disclosure would facilitate performance of functions under the Proceeds of Crimes Act; assist in the prevention, investigation or prosecution of criminal activity; or protect public revenue. There are limits on how the information can be used by other agencies. Generally, the information cannot be used against the person who disclosed it in criminal or civil proceedings. The government will also accept the Senate committee recommendation and limit the disclosure of information for the prevention, investigation or prosecution of offences to indictable offences punishable by imprisonment for three years or more.

The government takes very seriously its responsibility for ensuring a safer, more secure Australia, and this bill is a significant achievement towards that goal. As members know and as many members recognised in their contributions to the debate, organised crime inflicts substantial harm on the community, on business and on government. Organised crime networks are extensive, entrepreneurial and adaptive. They are involved in a range of criminal activities, from illicit drug trafficking and money laundering to identity theft and cybercrime. The increasingly aggressive nature of organised crime requires a more aggressive response. It is important that there are strong laws in place to combat this national security threat.

Passage of this bill will represent a significant advance in the tools available to fight serious and organised crime. This bill implements resolutions agreed by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General in April this year for a comprehensive national response to organised crime. Members will recall that, at the meeting, Commonwealth, state and territory governments committed to decisive action to address the threat of organised crime and to ensure that there are no safe havens in Australia for organised criminal groups.

This bill also delivers on the assurance given by the Prime Minister in his inaugural National Security Statement, delivered last year, that the government would act to address the threat posed by organised criminal activity. This bill will combat organised crime by strengthening criminal asset confiscation and targeting unexplained wealth; enhancing police powers to investigate organised crime by implementing model laws for control operations, assumed identities and witness identity protection; addressing the joint commission of criminal offences; and facilitating greater access to telecommunications interception for criminal organisation offences.

While the bill contains strong measures to combat organised crime, it also contains ample safeguards to ensure accountability and natural justice. I have already outlined the safeguards that will apply to the unexplained wealth provisions and the proceeds of crime information-sharing provisions in response to issues raised by the members for Farrer and Flinders. The freezing order provisions contain strict time limits and provide the opportunity for the person affected by the freezing order to apply to a magistrate to have the order varied to meet their living expenses, business expenses or lawful debts. For controlled operations, key safeguards include requiring external authorisation for variations that would extend an operation beyond three months, imposing a maximum total duration for controlled operations and introducing a stronger oversight regime.

I will be moving government amendments that I will outline more comprehensively during the consideration in detail stage of the bill. These amendments will implement recommendations made by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee and address issues raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. It will also incorporate further advice from agencies directly involved in preventing, investigating and prosecuting organised criminal activity, including the Attorney-General’s Department and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

I thank the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for its consideration of the bill. The government carefully considered the Senate committee’s report and has amended the bill to implement most of its recommendations. The government amendments implement eight of the 12 substantive recommendations of the Senate committee. These include changes to the criminal asset confiscation, controlled operations, witness identity protection and telecommunications interception provisions of the bill. The amendments are intended to provide, among other things, clarity and further procedural fairness. The amendments also address issues identified by the Senate committee, the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, the Attorney-General’s Department and other agencies involved in combating organised criminal activity. These changes include removing intelligence agencies from the witness identity protection provisions in the bill. This is necessary because it has become clear that the scheme does not entirely meet their needs. Consideration will be given to developing a separate scheme to meet the specific needs of the intelligence agencies. They also include minor amendments to the proceeds of crime, cross-border investigative powers and telecommunications interception provisions of the bill. These amendments are designed to ensure that they operate as intended, improving the clarity of provisions to aid interpretation and in some instances increase procedural fairness. All of the measures contained in the current bill and the bill as amended are an important part of the government’s commitment to keeping Australia safe and secure. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.