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Monday, 13 May 1985
Page: 1860

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(9.43) —The Senate is debating the Customs Administration Bill 1985 and a related measure. Since it is some days since we debated the legislation-a delay not occasioned by the previous debate-I think it is worth observing that we have had a substantial amount of second reading debate which has involved my moving an amendment. Subsequently Senator James Short, a Liberal senator from Victoria, announced his intention to move an amendment to my amendment. I do not intend to speak at great length this evening, but in light of the fact that we have yet to deal with my amendment I would like simply to remind the Senate of the issues which are before us. It is not an issue in this debate, as far as I know, that the establishment of an independent Customs service is desirable. The Opposition regards that as likely to be in the interests of both the Australian Customs Service and Australia.

The issue which does arise is whether the Government has adopted the most suitable means of going about that. We have before us two Bills with relatively little explanation of the advantages which are supposedly to flow from the changes which the Government seeks to institute. What the Government is proposing to do is to establish what is in effect a separate government department headed by a statutory officer who will have all of the powers and authorities of a departmental head. In addition, a vast number of discretions and powers which are currently vested in the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) are to be vested in the new statutory officer, the Comptroller-General of Customs. The concern which the Opposition has I think can best be explained by simply referring to the second last paragraph of the second reading speech which sets out, as far as one is going to find in the second reading speech, the advantages that flow from the change. The speech states:

The creation of the office of Comptroller-General of Customs and the establishment of the Australian Customs Service will provide a number of benefits including relieving the Minister and Secretary of the Department of the routine of Customs administration with greater opportunity, in consequence, for both to concentrate on the major and complex issues facing industry in this country.

The Opposition is not satisfied from the second reading speech and from the debate so far, which has not included any contribution, I might say, from Government senators, that the Government has examined this matter with the particularity which is required. The amendment which I have moved simply seeks to refer the main Bill to the Senate 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 the practical impact of the changes on the Service, the Minister, Customs agents and the general public; to report on what advantages flow from the proposed changes; to report on the extent to which the changes add to or reduce the accountability of the Australian Customs Service; to report on how the changes affect the role and the responsibility of the Minister, and to report on the cost of the changes. Senator Short seeks to add to that that there also be a report from the Committee on the extent to which these questions were addressed and answered by the Government prior to introducing this legislation.

The concern which has been expressed by the Australian Democrats about the amendment which has been moved by the Opposition is that the reference to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations might in some way delay the reorganisation of the Customs Service. They are concerned that the Customs Service should be able to get on with the job. I think that is a fair summary of the sorts of concerns which Senator Jack Evans expressed. The point which I have made and which I make very briefly again in response to that concern is that it is inconceivable, in my view, that the Government could have brought this Bill forward without considering those questions. It would be quite extraordinary if the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce suggested to the Government that this sort of change be made if no assessment had been made of the practical impact of the changes on the Service itself and on the general public. It would be inconceivable that he would bring this forward without having made some assessment of what advantages flow from the changes and so on.

Therefore, it is really just a matter of the Government exposing rather better than it has in this general debate what it is about before the legislature puts its imprimatur on the changes which are sought. I would have thought that was a matter which would require an investigation taking days rather than the months which was the concern of Senator Evans. Indeed, it was the sort of concern which was expressed by Senator Evans which I am sure led Senator Short to suggest that the Committee also check on the extent to which these questions were addressed and answered by the Government prior to introducing the legislation.

I have no wish to prolong unnecessarily the consideration of this legislation. I would ask the Government, in the interests of proper consideration of the legislation, to agree to the amendment that has been moved by the Opposition. I remind the Government that the Committee to which the Bill would be referred is a committee that has three Government senators, including one with a casting vote. There is a Government majority on the Committee. An Australian Democrat and only two members of the Opposition are also on the Committee. It certainly cannot be suggest that we are trying to send the Bill for examination to a committee which is controlled by the Opposition, which the Opposition could use other than for the purpose for which we desire to send the legislation before it, namely, to ensure that there is effective parliamentary scrutiny of what is a very important measure.

As I said in my speech in the second reading debate, this measure is important. The Customs Service is responsible for the collection of nearly $11m of Commonwealth revenue in a year. It is responsible for a great deal of the surveillance against the importation of drugs. It is a body which has some 5,000 employees; it is a body which successive inquiries have suggested has very significant difficulties and problems, and public statements from serving officers in recent days confirm that there is a great deal of discontent.

I commend the amendment, and the further amendment moved by Senator Short, to honourable senators. I hope that this Bill will be given some Committee scrutiny. I am sure that the Bill is in the long term interests of the Customs Service, the Government and Australia.