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Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Page: 2826

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Justice and Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information) (7:34 PM) —in reply—Firstly, I present a correction to the explanatory memorandum for the Combating the Financing of People Smuggling and Other Measures Bill 2011. I thank all those who have contributed to this important debate with respect to measures to regulate the remittance sector. This is a very important piece of legislation which, if enacted, will enable the financial intelligence agency of the Commonwealth, AUSTRAC, to provide greater regulation of the remittance sector. It is a very important initiative that was part of a suite of measures the government announced in April last year to combat people smuggling.

As people might recall, on 9 April we announced measures to combat people smuggling by introducing penalties of up to 10 years jail or $110,000 for people who provided material support for people smuggling. That legislation was enacted in budget week last year and complements those arrangements. This is about ensuring the remittance sector is properly regulated and providing AUSTRAC with the power to terminate registration or ensure that those who are involved in the remittance sector are of good character. This is about ensuring greater accountability and transparency in this sector. For that reason, the government is seeking the support of the coalition, Independents and Greens in this matter.

I understand that comments have been made on other matters. It is true to say that if we were to strengthen the regulation of the remittence sector we would have a greater capacity to identify money laundering. The advice I have received is that money laundering is a challenge in this country as it is in countries around the world. This bill will help mitigate those threats. It is also true to say that serious and organised crime will be challenged by these regulations because the stronger the financial regulations of a given sector the greater difficulty serious and organised crime have in engaging in unlawful conduct in the sector. I believe that would be the case as a result of the initiatives enclosed within this bill.

It is unfair to categorise the bill as not directly going to the issues of people smuggling. The government believes that people smuggling is a significant problem in this country. We believe that we need to tackle it in a variety of ways. This is one of many ways the government is seeking to combat this very challenging area. We do so by engaging with law enforcement agencies in the region. We do so by working closely with our neighbours in the region, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. They dedicate resources, like we do, in order to target people smugglers. This is very important because, in the end, we are seeing people reap profits as a result of acting unlawfully, as a result of luring people onto unseaworthy vessels and taking people, in many cases, on journeys where they perish. For those reasons it seems absolutely critical that we do everything we can to reduce the likelihood of people profiting from the crimes and to reduce the likelihood of, in many cases, desperate people being encouraged to get onto such vessels. We do not want to see another disaster like that which occurred on Christmas Island on 15 December last year, where approximately 50 people perished. We do not want to see people profiting from people-smuggling offences. This bill will assist in that regard. Therefore I reject out of hand the assertions made by the shadow minister for justice in his contribution to the debate and those on the other side who suggest that this bill is inappropriately titled. I understand some organisations raised this issue during the review of this legislation before the parliamentary committee.

But, in the context of the government announcing increased prison sentences for people who provide material support, along with a better form of regulation to the remittance sector, it is quite appropriate that this bill indicate that, along with other measures, the government is targeting people smuggling, as outlined by its title. I do not accept the proposition that it is misdescribed or that the purpose of the bill is in some way not properly reflected. For that reason I do not accept the notion that we would accede to an amendment that would change the description of the bill. The facts are that there is sufficient information for us to conclude that these measures and these forms of regulation within the remittance sector are required. I would be therefore very surprised if the coalition were not to support the substance of these provisions. I understand there have been a number of other amendments foreshadowed. In the end we will discuss these issues with the coalition and other members who may have an interest, but I believe the bill has the right balance between ensuring that the remittance sector provides greater accountability for its oversight of its clients, its customers, and at the same time provides them with sufficient security. In the end this is about not only targeting crimes but also preventing the sector’s reputation being brought into disrepute.

There was evidence to suggest that the remittance sector is not a place where people-smuggling activities occur. I would strongly oppose that position. Indeed, the parliamentary report into the matter cites a departmental officer who gave evidence on the matter. In that evidence he said:

… enforcement agencies are aware that the remittance sector is being used to finance serious criminal activity, including people smuggling …

Certainly there was evidence provided to the committee that that was the case.

The other issue I would raise is that I understand there was a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology suggesting that cash transfer services provided by remittance deals have been used to pay the organisers of people-smuggling ventures. It goes on to say, however, there were not many documented instances of this. I say to that, and I say in respect of the assertions made by the AIC, that, yes, they were right; that there was indeed evidence of people-smuggling activities when we looked closely at the remittance sector. But I also suggest that the AIC and other bodies, and, indeed, those that have contributed to the debate, should understand that the intelligence the government receives on these matters goes beyond the public comments made in respect of these matters. I want to inform the House that the government thought long and hard about taking this approach. It did so on the advice of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which are concerned that the remittance sector is used for improper purposes.

This legislation complements, as I said, the legislation that was enacted last year. It is an important step to ensure a greater likelihood that the remitting of money for improper purposes will be detected and people will be prosecuted as a result. This is of course going to assist us with serious and organised criminal matters—money laundering from the proceeds of drug trafficking, for example—but among those things the people-smuggling matter is front and centre in the government’s concerns about tackling this issue; that is, dealing with this very complex matter. I therefore suggest that those members who have suggested that there are concerns with the construction of the bill rethink their view. This has been properly considered by the parliamentary committee, and I support the majority decision of that committee. I ask the parliament to understand the importance of this legislation, ensure that it is supported and ensure that we have as robust a regime as possible in the remittance sector to prevent people smugglers profiting from that terrible crime.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.