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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1501


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(11.09) —The Senate is debating the Customs Administration Bill 1985 and the Customs Administration (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 1985. A very significant proposal is before the Senate on this occasion which affects the Australian Customs Service. I would simply like to say that the proposal is important because the Australian Customs Service is important. The significant role that Customs plays is acknowledged by the Government in the second reading speech of the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) and it is certainly acknowledged by the Opposition. In the second reading speech the Minister pointed out that the Australian Constitution gives this Parliament the exclusive power to impose duties of customs and of excise and to grant bounties on the production or export of goods and that the administration of that major power has traditionally been performed by Customs.

The Minister mentioned something which I think is regarded as pretty important by many Australians in 1985. He said that in addition to its role in administering these industry assistance measures, Customs is charged with enforcing measures to control the import and export of goods and, on behalf of other agencies, the movement of people, ships and aircraft into and out of Australia. In this regard, it has a significant role in the Government's overall strategy against illicit drug trafficking and illegal drug importation. They are obviously matters which are significant and which are important to the community, and of course, that makes the Australian Customs Service of great importance to us all.

There is perhaps a less obvious function, although I suppose everyone who pays customs duty is at times painfully aware of it, and that is that the Customs Service plays a very significant role in raising revenue. If one looks at the 1984-85 Budget Papers one sees that Customs is committed to the collection of an estimated $10.8 billion. It is an extremely significant sum of money; something over $10,000m. That is another reason why the shape and the condition of the Customs Service are of signficance to us all. The last point I mention in emphasising the significance of the Customs Service is that it employs something like 5,000 people, so it is a quite major agency in that respect also.

Having said that the Customs Service is important to us, I do not think that anyone would claim-including the officers of the Service, from what has been seen in published form anyway-that the present situation of the Customs Service is satisfactory. The difficulties the Service faces are evident in part and they have been touched upon by various inquiries. I do not suggest that all these inquiries have focused on the Customs Service but they certainly have brought out certain aspects of the administration of Customs and some of its difficulties. The most recent was, of course, a highly political one in a direct sense, the Black Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Making of a Customs Declaration on 5 July 1984, in respect of the problems of the Special Minister of State (Mr Young). There was also the Senate inquiry into pornography, the Stewart Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking, the Royal Commission into the Australian Meat Industry, and the Mahony Review of Customs Administration and Procedures, which arose out of the difficulties of a Liberal Minister. Their reports all suggest that there are difficulties of administration which need attention.

I do not wish to prolong this debate by lengthy reference to some of the reports and to the references that have been made to Customs. I will just mention a couple of points. For example, one finds disturbing allegations-I do not say that they are any more than allegations-in the Stewart Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking report of February 1983, where at page 185 it was pointed out that one witness had said that he believed that the organisation's couriers were protected because of information leaks. There is then a quotation:

As far as information is concerned I was also aware that when one of their ladies was doing a body run through Customs they always knew whether or not she was on a hot list.

I am not quite sure what all that means, but I think it is suggested that there was some corruption of the Service, or at least some leakage of information which enabled people who were seeking to evade customs to benefit. The report goes on:

A number of other witnesses claimed that Clark had a corrupt source capable of obtaining information from the Bureau of Customs' PASS (Passenger Automatic Selection System) computer. They said that because of this, the organisation would know if the name of any courier was on the alert system.

Later in the report there is a passage at page 200 about the use of false-bottomed suitcases to import drugs. There is a passage on page 201 where it is suggested that one of the witnesses there 'also thought that the group had a Customs officer on the payroll'. In quoting that report I do not want it to be thought that I am suggesting that there is widespread corruption of Customs. What I am suggesting is that there have been significant allegations which have certainly given rise to concern and which I know are of deep concern to the thousands of Customs officers who are seeking to uphold the law. There has been no shortage of inquiries. There was the Review of Customs Administration and Procedures in New South Wales in 1983 which was commissioned by the previous Government. Again, I do not wish to quote from that at length, but it is disturbing to find in that report the attitude put forward by the Customs Officers Association of Australia. At pages 52, 53, 54 and so on of that report we find the COA submission, some of which certainly was not accepted by the inquiry but which I think needs to be adverted to, not necessarily because one would wish to embrace all of the things that were said but simply to say that this is an association which is made up of Customs officers and they are putting forward some extremely critical views about the state of the Service, both about the administration of the Service and about the possibility of corruption in some places.

What one finds is that here is a very important institution in Australia, an institution that touches on issues of money, an institution that has a very difficult role with respect to an area of deep concern to us all, namely, the question of the illegal importation of drugs, and a general sense that things are not as we would wish them to be. I do not seek to make a speech which scores political points. I am not saying that the present Government is to be condemned because it has not got the Customs Service absolutely right. Indeed, the reports from which I have quoted refer to the situation that applied either at the very beginning of this Government or before this Government came to office. I am not raising matters that are matters of ancient history. If one looks at recent media reports one sees a continuation of the same sorts of concerns. I do not normally take as a reference the publication People, but my attention was drawn to the fact that on 15 April this year that magazine published a very critical article containing extensive allegations made by Mr Bob Spanswick, the General Secretary of the Customs Officers Association of Australia. Again we have an official of a union which is made up of Customs officers making statements that must cause a great deal of concern. I quote what he said without adopting it and I simply quote it as being public allegations currently being made. He said:

. . . there are people high up in the Department who make sure that we do not have an effective customs service.

That is the sort of thing which all of us find hard to regard as credible, but I simply quote it as an indicator of the sort of concerns that are abroad. He goes on to deal with a great number of concerns. There is a very severe criticism of the handling of a prosecution where he says that it was handed over to the Director of Public Prosecutions and he declined to prosecute. Serious allegations are made in a no doubt widely circulated magazine, and that in turn must affect the attitude people have to this very important organisation. More recently, on 4 May there was a substantial article in the Sydney Morning Herald. I quote from the section headlined 'Bad morale lets drug in, claim Customs officers', where the article states:

Senior Customs officers are concerned at a drop in morale and job satisfaction since the introduction of the regular rotation of officers two years ago.

A general lack of enthusiasm among officers inexperience within specialised areas is allowing drugs to walk out into the street.

Again that is within a matter of days of this Bill coming on for debate in the Senate. The only other matter I wish to quote is a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 May from a named person who identified himself as a Customs Officer. I quote from his letter dated 28 April. It states:

. . . I have watched a once efficient force degenerate into a farce.

He also says:

There have been a number of occasions when highly efficient groups within Customs have been disbanded for no apparent or logical reason.

Members of the public would be very impressed and be able to sleep soundly in their beds at night comforted by the fact that 1,600 Customs officers in NSW are monitoring air and sea imports.

He goes on to say that that simply is not the case. Mr T. N. Cavanagh concludes his letter by saying:

I am so impressed by the new order within Customs and the lack of public support for an inquiry in the Australian Customs Service that I have reached a stage where I am in the process of seeking employment elsewhere, out of total frustration.

I make all of those comments to underline the fact that we are dealing with legislation which affects a significant organisation and about which it is said there are very significant problems. In that context we have to examine what the Government has put before us. What we have is the Customs Administration Bill, which is a Bill to establish what is described by the Minister in his second reading speech on the consequential legislation as 'an independent Australian Customs Service'. The Bill creates the office of Comptroller-General of Customs as the controlling officer of the Australian Customs Service and gives him the status of a Secretary to a department. The Service is constituted of people who are employed under the Public Service Act 1922.

I think one has to look at the Bill quite hard before one really can establish what sort of body is, in fact, being created. The expression 'an independent Australian Customs Service' suggests something which has a statutory life of its own but it is not being established, in fact, as a statutory corporation. It seems to me that what is being established is a separate department of Customs with a departmental head who is in addition a statutory officer with a term of seven years. So it is basically a departmental structure, but a structure which has some differences from that of the normal department and which, in particular, has a departmental head who is a statutory officer. Therefore he is in a more secure and slightly more independent position than a normal departmental head. The actual wording of the Bill makes it clear that there is still responsibility to a Minister. Clause 4, sub-clause (2), provides:

There shall be a Comptroller-General of Customs, who shall, under the Minister, control the Australian Customs Service.

We have something which is effectively a bit of a hybrid. It ensures that there is an independent Customs Service in the sense that there is a separate entity. It has its own head but a head who is under a Minister. We have the situation in which Senator Button has indicated that there will not be a separate Minister. The service will simply go on being administered by him as the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce. The companion Bill, the Customs Administration (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill, proposes to give to the Comptroller-General many of the roles which are presently assigned to the Minister under the Customs legislation. The Comptroller-General is given general administration of bounty and subsidy schemes, the Customs Act and the Excise Act.

I should make it clear that the Opposition considers that, in light of the present situation and the history of this matter, the creation of an independent Customs Service is desirable. We can see advantages flowing to the Service in having it as a separate entity, but we are concerned that the way it is being done and the actual justification have not really been dealt with in any serious way by the Government in putting this very important proposition forward. Neither the legislation nor the second reading speech describe the practical impact of the change and what advantages are supposed to flow from the proposal. Whilst we support the general intent of this legislation, we believe that there has been a quite inadequate explanation of what is being done, how it is being done and why it is being done.

It is quite unclear where the legislation really leaves the role and responsibility of the Minister, who, although he is relieved of the direct responsibility for administration, remains involved as the Comptroller-General is described as being under him. The specific ministerial powers are being transferred to the Comptroller-General in the various bounty and subsidy provisions and so on, but just how the system is to work and what the interaction between the two will be is certainly not in any way spelt out.

It also appears on the face of it and from the second reading speech that there will be additional administrative costs. There is no attempt to spell those out in any detail. Indeed, there is no attempt at all to spell out the administrative benefits either. The legislation in no way addresses any changes which might be required in the actual administration of Customs. I think it would be fair to say that if there are any benefits to users of the Service-the clients-they are not evident from what has been put before the Parliament. The policy which has been adopted by the Liberal and National parties provides that we will:

. . . undertake a modernisation of the whole Customs Act to bring it more into line with current international and Australian commercial and trading practices, legal concepts and judicial systems.

Clearly this legislation does not attempt to do any of that. It may well be that the Government sees it as the forerunner of that being done, but the legislation does not really touch on that undertaking which we have given and which I had hoped would have been the intention and wish of the Government as well. The Opposition is concerned that the financial impact of what is being done has not been spelt out in any serious way. We think that the financial impact statement which is dealt with so briefly in the second reading speech is of little value to the Parliament. It tells us very little. Indeed, it is not until one gets to about the second last paragraph of the second reading speech that one gets any attempt by the Government to justify why it is making this change. I do believe that the matter is so important that to suggest that one can simply deal with it in the off-handed way that it is dealt with in the second reading speech is really quite wrong.

That brings me to another apparent defect. The Minister in his second reading speech concedes the importance of the close co-operation between the industry policy area of the Department and Customs. The Minister foreshadowed the preparation of a document detailing the working relationship between the Department and the Australian Customs Service and undertook to have it tabled 'when appropriate'. I am not sure what the Minister's view is on when something might be appropriate, but I point out at this stage that this is of no assistance to the Parliament in assessing the merits of this legislation. I suggest to the Senate that we should approach this matter as being analogous to one where the Government has set about to establish a new authority. I have conceded that the Government is not establishing a new statutory authority; it is establishing a new statutory position of Comptroller-General. But it is simply establishing a department in a slightly different category or sense to other departments.

I would like to refer to the report on statutory authorities of the Commonwealth by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. I think it gives one some guidance to the approach which we should adopt with respect to this legislation. I am fortified by the fact that Senator Button in an earlier debate today used the Administrative Review Council to develop arguments by way of analogy. I simply say that on this occasion I am doing the same thing. The Senate Committee's report, which has largely been adopted, incidentally, by the Australian Labor Party as the basis for its policy on statutory authorities, makes a couple of comments which I think are particularly pertinent. Paragraph 3.5 states:

Basically, our approach in formulating the guidelines has been that the creation of a new authority needs to be justified.

I believe that the creation of this new arrangement in exactly the same way needs to be justified. The Committee, at paragraph 3.37, went on to state:

. . . that a statement expressing specific reasons for preferring a statutory authority be tabled with the legislation.

Since this independent Customs Service for Australia is really a new arrangement, I think that in the same way we need a statement which really does set out the specific reasons for going down the track the Government has chosen. The Committee went on to recommend:

If such a statement is not tabled, or if the reasons given in the statement are not persuasive, the Committee will request that the Senate refer the legislation to the Committee-

that is, the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations-

for investigation and report on the necessity for the creation of an authority.

It is with that sort of view in mind that the Opposition, after examining this Bill and seeing the paucity of explanation and justification, seeing that the important question of the linkage between the existing Department and the Service is something to be dealt with at a later date when the Minister thinks it appropriate to table a statement, and noting that so little attempt is made to explain in practical terms what is happening, what is being done and what it will cost, believes that this is a classic situation where an examination by one of the Senate standing committees would be of assistance to this Parliament and, ultimately, to the public and to the Service itself. For that reason I move as an amendment to the motion that the Bills be now read a second time:

Leave out all words after 'That', insert:

'these Bills be referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations for investigation and report on the necessity for the creation of an independent Customs Service and, without limiting the generality of the reference, for report on-

(a) the practical impact of the changes on the Service, the Minister, customs agents and the general public;

(b) what advantages flow from the proposed changes;

(c) the extent to which the changes add to or reduce the accountability of the Australian Customs Service;

(d) how the changes affect the role and responsibility of the Minister; and

(e) the cost of the changes.'

I emphasise that the amendment is being moved not because the Opposition wishes unduly to delay the passage of this legislation. If it is asserted that to answer those questions would take time and create difficulty, I can only say that this legislation should not be before the Senate. If the Government has not addressed its mind to the point referred to in the amendment, then the Government has put forward this measure after inadequate preparation. I do not think it is possible to argue that the Government should endeavour to legislate in the way it has if it has not considered the practical impact of the changes on the Service, on the Minister himself-I suspect that the work burden and the role of the Minister have been important factors in all this-and on the Customs agents and the general public who have to use the Service or who are subject to it.

It is unthinkable that the Government has not attempted to sort out what advantages flow from the proposed changes. It is unthinkable that it has not considered the question of accountability and how the changes affect the role and responsibility of the Minister. I would have hoped that it would be unthinkable that the Government would make these changes without a careful assessment of the cost. The Opposition asks the Government-rather than trying to deal with a significant measure in a quite complex area, rather than trying to deal with the matter totally by on-the-feet debate of the sort we can have in this chamber-to take the opportunity to enable one of the Senate standing committees to examine these propositions and to report back to us. I would have thought that job could be undertaken quite rapidly if the Government is properly prepared for this legislation.

The only other thing I want to say about the Committee reference is that of course the Government has a majority on the Committee. One of the members of the Committee is also a member of the Australian Democrats. Only two of the six Committee members are members of the Opposition in a formal sense. Therefore, there could be no suggestion that we are sending the matter off to a committee which could in any sense, even if the Opposition wished to do so, deal with the Bill in an obstructive way. I am sorry that I need to make that last point, but until we use the Senate standing committees on a more regular basis, I believe there will always be at the level of government some concern that a committee might be used other than for the overt and technical reasons a committee looks at a Bill.

I assure the Government that our objective is not to thwart or frustrate the creation of an independent Customs Service. We see the fundamental logic of that move, but believe that the matter is so important, considering that there have been so many inquiries and questions raised and so little justification for the measures which are put forward, that a sober, committee examination of this matter would be the most appropriate parliamentary way of dealing with it. I commend that course to the Senate and hope that it will have the support not just of the Australian Democrats but also of the Government itself.