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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1512


Senator SHORT(12.17) —The two Bills we are debating cognately, the Customs Administration Bill and the Customs Administration (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill, which seek to establish the Australian Customs Service as a separate identity, fall within the portfolio of Industry, Technology and Commerce. The Customs Administration Bill is a very important Bill, although on the face of it a machinery Bill. It has very important consequences because it deals with the organisation and therefore the role of a very important part of government structure in Australia, namely, the Australian Customs Service. Senator Chaney, Senator Puplick and other senators have discussed that role and its significance in their comments earlier in the debate. I do not propose to go over those in detail other than to point out that Customs plays a very significant role in terms of government revenue collections. At the moment the figure is almost $11 billion a year. Customs has a very fundamental role in the policing of drug trafficking in this country, as well as having other important functions.

As Senator Chaney said, the Opposition welcomes steps the Government might take to strengthen the role of the Customs Service in Australia to make it more efficient and able to keep up with a rapidly changing world in the variety of areas in which it operates. We as an Opposition support the Government's intent of improving the capacity of the Customs Service to perform these very important roles not only on behalf of the Government but, more importantly, on behalf of the community as a whole. In broad terms we accept the desirability of the principle that the Customs Service be a separate identity, standing in its own right. However, various matters are of concern to the Opposition, largely because the Government in the second reading speech and in the Bill itself gave an inadequate explanation of some of the reasons for the proposed change. It is not clear on the face of it why this Bill would automatically or necessarily make the Customs Service a better service. The simple act of hiving off the Customs Service into its own area of operations, giving it greater independence, does not necessarily mean that it will be able to perform a better role, although in principle we would agree that that would probably be the case. But there are other elements for consideration as well.

The Minister in his second reading speech referred to the importance of the Customs Service in terms of its inter-relationship with other areas of government, in particular the Minister's portfolio of Industry, Technology and Commerce, which is responsible for the development and implementation of the Government's range of proposals to strengthen and develop Australian industry. I think it is valid to ask how the separation of the Customs Service from that part of the Minister's responsibilities will affect the working relationship which would occur, and which necessarily must occur, between those two bodies if the thrust of the Government's machinery to implement and develop industry policy is to be most effectively carried out. That is a subject on which we have had several debates in this chamber over recent months. It will obviously be an ongoing and very important consideration for this Parliament and, therefore, for the future of industry in Australia generally.

The working relationship has not been addressed in the Minister's second reading speech. Indeed, the curious statement is made that at an appropriate time a document will be produced dealing with this relationship. I think it is very valid to ask why, if that document has not already been prepared, did the Government go ahead with the proposal to establish a separate Customs Service when it did so. If the document has been prepared-I assume the Minister would have thought about the implications of this-why is it not available to the Senate? It appears from the second reading speech that it has not yet been prepared, and that raises some questions in itself.

There are various other aspects of the legislation and the proposal which are still not clear. As I said, no serious attempt has been made in this chamber to justify the creation of an independent service, although, as I say, in principle on the face of it we would accept that proposal. There is a question which I think the legislation leaves unclear as to what the Minister's role will be in relation to the Service. Wide powers of delegation are being given to the holder of the new statutory position of Comptroller-General. It is not clear to me where that leaves the position of the Minister. Specific ministerial powers are being transferred in various important areas.

The second reading speech also states that the measures contained in the Bill will have no direct financial implications, even though it is accepted that the proposals may involve the creation of new positions within both the existing Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and the new body. As it is also said that the Department and the ACS will have separate management services and other support services-that is contained in the second reading speech-there must be financial implications and important staffing and administrative arrangements. Again, those are not spelt out. In fact, the second reading speech states that details in this regard have not yet been finalised.

Other elements are also unclear. Without going into detail, I was interested to read clause 16 of the Bill, which deals with the disclosure of information by the Comptroller-General to other agencies on certain strict conditions. There is provision in that clause, for example, for the Comptroller-General to be able to pass information to the Government or an authority of a foreign country. That has significant implications, for example, in terms of how the future treatment of that information would be handled on a confidentiality basis once it is in the hands of a foreign country. Again, there is little or no explanation of that point.

As Senator Chaney said, we accept that the body that is proposed is not technically a new statutory authority, although it does seem to have some hybrid characteristics which make it difficult to categorise adequately. The statutory nature of the appointment of the Comptroller-General does put it in the broad category of statutory authorities. In that context, as has already been raised, I refer to the report-a report which, as I understand it, the Senate accepted some considerable time ago-of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations on statutory authorities of the Commonwealth, which established guidelines for the establishment of statutory authorities. Those guidelines made the main point that the creation of a new authority needs to be justified. The Finance and Government Operations Committee recommended that a statement expressing specific reasons for preferring a statutory authority should be tabled with legislation. It recommended:

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

That is part of the background thinking behind the amendment to the motion for the second reading that Senator Chaney has moved and the reason why we believe that the Bill should be referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations.

In a broader context, I regret that the Government has not taken the opportunity, having made a significant administrative proposal in relation to the Customs Service, to have a wider look at the whole area of Customs and Customs administration. As we have said, the Customs Service performs a very vital service for Australia in relation to a wide range of activities-commercial activities, legal activities, and social activities as well. I refer, for example, to its role in policing the pernicious trafficking in drugs. Perhaps of all services of government the Customs Service operates in the most rapidly changing environment. The legislative and administrative framework must respond to this rapidly changing environment, otherwise it will not be able to carry out its tasks in the way in which the Government wishes and in the way in which the community demands. The Bills that we are considering today do not seem to me to go very far down this path.

The main purpose of the Bills is to hive off the Customs Service into a separate body. Although we agree with that proposal in broad terms, I think there are grounds for some concern that the reasons for the change have not been adequately spelt out. As I also said, the proposals in many ways could be considered not to go far enough along the lines of looking at what sort of modernisation of the Customs Service we need to take account of the increasing complexity, difficulties and rapidly changing circumstances within the environment in which it works.

It is a key part of the coalition parties' policies for industry and trade in Australia that a modernisation of the Customs Service and the framework in which it operates is essential to bring the Customs Act more into line with current international and Australian commercial and trading practices, legal concepts and judicial systems. I think it is a pity that the Government itself has not taken an opportunity to look at some of those wider aspects at the same time as introducing the change that it has now introduced. Perhaps the Minister will comment in his response to this debate on any undertaking or intention that the Government might have to examine with some urgency the steps that are being taken and that need to be taken to move further down the path of modernisation of the whole Customs Act.

There are other matters that one could raise in relation to the legislation and the proposal before the Senate, but I will not take the time of the chamber on those at the moment. In summary, the Opposition does not oppose the general thrust of the Bills but, as Senator Chaney has so well explained, we are concerned that there are important elements on which further information is required. For that reason I fully support the amendment proposed by Senator Chaney that the Bills be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations for consideration and report back to the Senate. I propose to move the following amendment to Senator Chaney's proposed amendment:

After paragraph (e), add the following new paragraph:

'(f) the extent to which these questions were addressed and answered by the Government prior to introducing this legislation'.

I must say that I was amazed and extremely disappointed by the view expressed by Senator Jack Evans in his earlier comments that the Australian Democrats do not propose to accept Senator Chaney's amendment. Like Senator Evans, I am a member of the Finance and Government Operations Committee. I could not agree with Senator Evans that that Committee would take months or years, as he said, to examine the proposals contained in Senator Chaney's amendment. I think most of the information contained in the paragraphs of the amendment, the terms of reference to the Senate Standing Committee, should already be available. Presumably, the Government considered those aspects before it made the proposal to establish a separate Customs Service in the first place. They are the normal sorts of considerations that any government would take into account and examine before taking its decision. Therefore, assuming that that is the case, the work of the Finance and Government Operations Committee would, in my view, be a fairly speedy task because it would be receiving information at very short notice, presumably from the Minister, to enable it to conduct the examination that is being proposed for it so that it can report back to the Senate and give the Senate a more informed base on which to frame its judgment on the Bills as a whole, Bills-I repeat Senator Chaney's comment-the general thrust of which we support.

I think there is an important point here, that being the role of this Parliament in seriously considering significant proposals which come before it in relation to the role of the Executive and the machinery that makes up the Executive. In my view we do not as a parliament have sufficient evidence and information in front of us. I am sure that the Minister has thought these things through. We are asking for the information which he has brought to bear in the proposal that he has put to the Parliament to be made available to the Senate so that the Senate can exercise its parliamentary and democratic responsibility to take a decision on a fully eyes-open basis. That, I think, is really the crux of Senator Chaney's amendment and the reason why he has moved it and why I propose the addition of paragraph (f) to it.

To the Democrats, I say that if they are true to their name as a party, if they really believe in democracy and parliamentary democracy, they would want to see this chamber examine legislation on a fully eyes-open and informed basis. I do not think we can say that that is the case with the legislation before us at the moment. I hope the Democrats will rethink their opposition to the amendment and I hope that the Government will view the amendment sympathetically. It is offered in good spirit and I therefore hope that proper and appropriate consideration will be given to it.