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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1505

Senator JACK EVANS(11.35) —I wish to speak briefly on the Customs Administration Bill 1985. Although this is vital legislation which will have an impact on all Australians in a variety of ways, I believe that the direct and major impact will be on the organisation, its structure and the effectiveness and efficiency of our Customs services. The establishment of the Australian Customs Service is a leap forward for this country. The very perception of our Customs organisation as an attachment, a part of an omnibus department under the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, made it evident to the world that Customs was not regarded as a vital ingredient in carrying out the policies of the Government in ensuring that the laws of the land were implemented and rigidly policed.

The difficulty any government will have in making this major change is that it will not be able to predict its impact and its effect. It will have to feel its way and modify as it goes along some of the changes which will be implemented as a result of this Bill. But there is no doubt in the minds, I suspect, of us all-not only those indulging in this debate but anybody else with an interest in the operations of Customs-that there is an urgent need to modernise Australia's Customs procedures and practices. There is also not much doubt in the minds of most of us that there is currently a substantial loss of revenue to this country as a result of the inefficiency of the existing service. I do not blame the officers for that inefficiency. I blame the structure and the organisation and the perception of the role of the Customs Service for the bulk of the inefficiency. The impact of all of that is that we probably have a Customs Service whose morale is at its lowest ebb and which is in desperate need of being seen to be given wholehearted support in its operation by this Parliament and the Government itself.

The creation of the office of Comptroller-General of Customs, although not a new position, comes out of this Bill and re-establishes a position which is urgently needed again. We need a director whose sole responsibility is to ensure that our Customs laws are properly implemented. The fact that the appointment will be for a term of seven years gives that degree of security to the Comptroller-General. It will ensure that there will be no brooking of ministerial interference in those areas for which the Comptroller-General is responsible to this Parliament. He will control the whole of the Australian Customs Service, and that covers a tremendous range of activities. I will not go into all those activities but simply highlight a couple that are of great concern to members of this Parliament and, I believe, to many members of the community. The first and probably the major one is the illicit drug trafficking and the illegal importation of drugs into this country. We need a focus of attention on that problem which, one can assume, will come from the separation of this organisation.

We need the total concentration of a Comptroller-General, officers and staff, down the line, to get rid of the plague of this decade-the drugs plague. We will not achieve that if we allow the old fashioned organisation and methods to continue and wane, thus giving the control of drug importation to the drug traffickers. We have to have the sorts of controls that will flow from this Bill. We have to have them today, if possible, or tomorrow at the vary latest-not next week, next month or next year, because that sort of delay is playing into the hands of the drug traffickers and importers.

For that reason I have great concern about the amendment put forward by Senator Chaney to have this matter referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. I am conscious of the role of that Committee. I am equally conscious of the major inquiries that it is currently engaged in and the fact that this will be one of a number of references to that Committee, all of which need urgent attention. The thing that bothers me about this referral is the terms of reference. They need to be as broad as outlined in the amendment to have any significance at all. But their very breadth will almost guarantee that the Finance and Government Operations Committee will spend months, if not years, carrying out the sort of inquiry that would be required by this Parliament to get a worthwhile and meaningful report from the Committee. The terms of reference include a report on the practical impact of the changes on the Customs Service, the Minister, Customs agents, and the general public.

Senator Chaney —Don't you think the Government should have considered that already? Don't you think it would have?

Senator JACK EVANS —I will come to that point in a moment. The Finance and Government Operations Committee, with its limited time and resources, would take months and, I repeat, could well take more than a year to make that inquiry. The advantages that may flow from the proposed changes-one assumes that that means the advantages to the Government and to the people of Australia-could prompt a limitless inquiry because one would expect those advantages to be both macro and micro throughout the whole community. A full scale inquiry into the existing Customs operations would be necessary to bring out the extent to which changes add to or reduce the accountability of the Service. Paragraph (d) reads: 'How the changes affect the role and responsibility of the Minister'. I am not sure that that would take a major part of the inquiry's time. The last item is the cost of the changes. One would expect an inquiry into all these items to have been carried out by the Minister and his Department long before this Bill was ever put into its present form .

I accept the point made by the Leader of the Opposition that there is inadequate evidence, in either the explanation of the Bill or the second reading speech, that the inquiry has been carried out and that the Minister is satisfied that all of the points raised in the amendment proposing the inquiry by the Finance and Government Operations Committee have been met to his satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the Department, because I think one needs to consider also the feasibility of the application of those points. One would expect the responsible Minister to make reference to that. He will have that opportunity. I will be listening very keenly to the Minister's response in the debate today to find out just what inquiries were conducted before the Bill was produced, what the results of those inquiries were and what considerations were taken into account in the conduct of those inquiries-not just the recommendations of the Department itself but also the potential impact on others affected by this Bill, what sort of input was received from others affected by the Bill, and what consideration was given to that input. All these matters need to be answered by the Minister in his response.

I do not want to make any further comments, except to pose a question to the Minister. In a sense I am wearing another hat here as a member of the Finance and Government Operations Committee. In September 1982 that Committee, before I had the honour to be appointed to it, presented its fifth report to the Senate in which it set our guidelines for the creation of statutory authorities. That should have been the base on which this new authority was established. My understanding is that the Committee, having done its ground work and set out the guidelines for the creation of authorities, should now be able to rest assured that Ministers and departments will, in the establishment of authorities, ensure that those guidelines are rigidly adhered to.

I would like an assurance from the Minister, in his response in the second reading debate, that those guidelines have been taken into account, that they have been implemented in the creation of this authority, and that there is no need for the Finance and Government Operations Committee to do the work that the Minister's own Department was required by this report to do before the creation of the authority. Given that that has been done, I believe that the amendment moved by the Opposition would be redundant and that the Parliament should be allowed now to authorise officers, through the Minister, to get on rapidly with the job of restructuring the Customs administration and then to look at the results of that restructuring, organisation and operation of the Customs Service as the new systems are implemented under the new organisation. Given that we have those assurances, the Australian Democrats will wish the Minister and the new Australian Customs Service and its Comptroller-General every possible success in its reorganisation and in the implementation of this new Bill.