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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 200


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (13:30): This bill makes a number of amendments to the Customs Act 1901 that relate to the import of restricted goods, customs controlled areas, cargo reporting and importing vessels, among other measures. Most of them are relatively technical, although there is a new offence that has been created through this act. I first want to put this bill in some context in relation to the way the government has treated the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service since the government changed in 2007. It is a sad fact that with Customs we have an agency that is being asked to bear the brunt of two very significant failures of the Labor government: firstly, the failure to protect our borders and, secondly, the failure to run fiscal policy properly and the astonishing waste of money that we have seen under this government since they came to office in 2007.

On border protection, I think 2012 was definitely the year when things went completely and utterly off the rails. That was the year the Labor Party embraced many different policies for their border protection regime, none of which have worked and all of which have resulted in further failure. In 2012, we saw 274 boats arrive illegally in Australia. They carried a record 17,270 people, which was more people in that one year—2012—than arrived under the whole term of the Howard government. That is the equivalent of 47 people a day arriving illegally on Labor's watch. I will put that into some context by mentioning other advanced democracies and the way they have responded to these issues. When 10 Chinese asylum seekers arrived in Darwin in March last year on their way to New Zealand to claim asylum, the response of the New Zealand government was to create a temporary protection visa category similar to what we previously had in this country before it was abolished by the Labor Party when they came to office. So we had a boat that did not even arrive in New Zealand—just the intent to get to New Zealand was enough to make the Key government change policy. The Harper government in Canada made similar changes to stop the flow of illegal boats arriving on their shores. The catalyst for that was the arrival of one boat containing asylum seekers from Sri Lanka that had come an enormous way, from Sri Lanka through to British Columbia. That boat—

Mr Sidebottom: Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order about relevance. I am sorry to interrupt the debate, but this is not very relevant to the legislation and I ask the shadow minister to direct his comments to the legislation.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): I thank the member for Braddon for his intervention. I know it is a Customs Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill. I am sure the member for Stirling is aware of that and I ask him to make sure his remarks are relevant to the bill before the chamber.

Mr KEENAN: I think that for a bill which deals with Customs it makes perfect sense to provide a little bit of context regarding the way Customs has been treated by the Labor Party. The examples I am giving are of the two ways Customs has suffered very significantly for the Labor Party's failures. Those two failures are the border protection failure and the failure to manage our budget. Customs has borne the brunt of those two. I was talking about the way Canada responded to just one boat of illegal arrivals within its waters. When that boat arrived, it went off like a bomb within Canadian policy circles. I know this because I visited Canada a few years ago. They certainly took that arrival as a catalyst to change their policies. After that event they said that you could not apply for permanent residency status in Canada for up to five years, regardless of whether your refugee application was accepted or not. This contrasts with the situation we have in this country, where Labor has essentially granted permanent visas to the vast majority of people who have arrived illegally in our waters. Considering that comparable countries such as New Zealand and Canada have managed to implement sensible policies to curb similar problems, it is astonishing that this Labor government—

Mr Stephen Jones: Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order regarding relevance. To be relevant to the legislation you would have to do more than say the word 'Customs', you would have to direct your comments to the bill before the House. Mr Deputy Speaker, quite simply, the member is defying your ruling.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I thank the member for Throsby. I have had an opportunity to read the explanatory memorandum, the minister's speech and the second reading speech. It does talk about controlled areas as an important part of customs border control mechanisms at airports and ports in the second reading speech.

Mr KEENAN: The point I am making—and I appreciate that the House has given me some latitude to do so—is that Customs has suffered significantly because of the failures of this government to protect our borders and their failure to control the budget. The reason I am making these points is that it has affected the ability of Customs to do the job that the Australian people expect of it, and that is to protect us from contraband, such as weapons and drugs, flying into our country. The fact that they have been so diverted by the crisis that has been created—a self-induced crisis caused by this government—on our borders is hindering their ability to do that. That is the reason I was highlighting the fact that we have had over 32,000 people arrive here illegally under Labor's watch. This happened as a direct result of the policy changes that they have pursued since coming to office, changes which unwound the successful border protection regime they inherited from the Howard government.

As I have said, this is detracting from the ability of Customs to do the job we expect of them. Also detracting from the ability of Customs to do the job is the fact that they have borne the brunt of Labor's budget cuts. Those cuts have been made not because of the difficult fiscal circumstances the government has found itself in—because we have never had so much revenue—but because the government needs to make up for the fact that so much money has been wasted by the Labor Party since it came to office.

It is law and order agencies such as Customs, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission that have been forced to cut their staff and cut their budgets because of that wasted money. In the case of Customs, 750 staff have been cut from the agency since the Labor Party came to office, and that has significantly weakened it. It has allowed organised criminal syndicates to penetrate it. We have seen examples of that at Sydney Airport recently.

Two very broad areas that have suffered because of these Customs cuts are the ability of Customs to inspect cargo when it comes into Australia and the ability of Customs to screen passengers when they arrive in our country. These are two areas of Customs that have been hit very significantly by the Labor Party's budget cuts—cuts, I remind you, that never would have needed to happen except that the Labor Party cannot manage Australia's finances and have wasted literally billions of dollars since they came to office. The capacity of Customs has been reduced because of that inability of Labor.

Labor, when they came to office, astonishingly cut the budget that Customs has for cargo inspections by $58.1 million. That occurred in the 2008-09 budget. The ability of Customs to screen cargo has not recovered since. Under the Howard government, 60 per cent of air cargo was inspected when it came into Australia. Under this government, less than 10 per cent of air cargo is inspected when it arrives in our country. Less than five per cent of sea cargo is inspected.

Mr Lyons: More than you did!

Mr KEENAN: There was an interjection from one of the members saying, 'More than you did when you were in government.' He clearly was not listening. I will repeat that: 60 per cent of cargo was inspected when it arrived at our airports under the Howard government and less than 10 per cent is now inspected when it arrives in Australia—because of the savage cuts that have been made to Customs by the Labor Party. This means that criminals have a better chance of bringing in drugs, guns and other things that we do not want to see enter our country.

These cuts have happened in a climate where the volume of cargo entering Australia has increased significantly. This sort of failure is evident when we see crimes being committed such as the one that was uncovered at the Sylvania Waters post office by the New South Wales Police Force—not by federal law enforcement authorities—when 220 Glock pistols were imported from Germany. As the New South Wales Premier pointed out yesterday, the New South Wales police were the agency that exposed these embarrassing gaps as a result of the cuts that have been made by the Labor Party. He said:

… we have a federal government that seems to look the other way with the illegal importation of guns into this country.

At a time when we see escalating gun violence throughout the community, the Labor Party has been slashing funding and personnel from the very agencies that we expect to help protect Australians from being the victim of such crime. If an agency is not funded properly and not staffed properly then it is left vulnerable to penetration by criminal syndicates. As I said, we have seen that in the extensive revelations of corruption at Sydney Airport.

These are some of the failures that have led the Australian people to rightly conclude that Labor cannot be trusted to protect our borders. If they cannot stop the boats then they certainly cannot stop the guns or the drugs or the other things that we want to see kept from our communities and kept off our streets.

Further to the budgetary cuts that I outlined for cargo inspection, Labor has cut staff and budget from passenger facilitation. This means that Customs has been hit with a $34 million cut to its passenger facilitation program. Labor has axed a further $10.4 million from the program at a time when passenger numbers are expected to increase from approximately 32 million to 38 million over just four years. This significant hit that Customs has taken has led to a reduction of 70 staff across the primary lines at our eight major international airports in the past financial year alone. This further funding cut will only serve to make waiting times at our major airports worse, and of course it makes it more difficult for Customs to intercept the people whom it should be intercepting before they leave our airports and go into the community.

The Australian Airports Association wrote, in their Customs and border protection discussion paper 2011, that Labor's cuts have resulted in an increase of up to 24 minutes for inbound processing at Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth at peak times. Estimates by Customs show that international visitors to Australia will increase by more than 150 per cent and international departures will increase by more than 500 per cent over the next two decades, yet Customs staff and resources have not been increased in line with these passenger numbers. Indeed, as I have outlined, they have actually been cut. This puts further pressure on Customs and is causing frustration for the travelling public.

I wanted to outline those very significant challenges that have been faced by Customs, not by the circumstances they find themselves in but by the deliberate policies that have been pursued by the Labor Party since they have come to office. We welcome this bill. It generally just enhances the administration of Customs by making amendments to the Customs Act 1901, but it also brings in a new offence—that of bringing into Australia a new category of goods known as restricted goods. These goods will be proscribed by regulation and will be prohibited imports. According to the bill's explanatory memorandum, initially this new category will be limited to child pornography and child abuse material, but in future this could be extended to give effect to international agreements or to address matters of international concern.

It is important to note that there is a caveat within the legislation that goods of this type can be imported into Australia with the written permission of the minister if they are to be used for law enforcement purposes. An example of that would be child abuse material contained on a computer overseas; if the Australian Federal Police would like to import that hard drive then the minister can rightly give them permission to do so for it to be used in prosecutions of the person who had committed that offence.

The bill also makes a series of technical amendments that enhance the ability of Customs to do its job, and those amendments are welcomed by the opposition. Sadly, over their term in office, the federal Labor Party have demonstrated that they cannot manage the budget, and Customs have been a significant victim of that. It is unfortunate that the hardworking men and women of Customs and Border Protection, Australia's premier border protection agency, have been on the chopping block at budget time—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! It being 1.45 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the honourable member for Stirling will have leave to continue his remarks.