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Monday, 13 May 1985
Page: 1863

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(9.57) —I thank honourable senators for their general support of the Customs Administration Bill. We have had a long debate which has included the moving of an amendment which was probably out of order and a couple of speeches based on that amendment. The extraordinary point about the debate is how discursive it has been. It has been so discursive that it is very difficult to divine the Opposition's point from all the sound and fury-it does not signify very much-which has come forth from honourable senators on the other side of the chamber.

Senator Macklin —I think that was stolen. I recognise it.

Senator BUTTON —Of course it is stolen but only a person of the honourable senator's erudition would recognise that. I am very glad that he and, perhaps Senator Aulich, are here. As I have said, it has been a very wide-ranging debate and in the course of it honourable senators have drawn attention to the importance which they attach, and which the Government attaches, to the functions of customs, the rapidly changing responsibilities of the Australian Customs Service-they are very much in the public eye-the additional duties which are imposed on the Customs Service in the current situation and the general importance of the Service. Quite a few comments were made about the morale of the Customs Service. The point was made that it needs a greater level of resources. Included was an expression of concern about the modernisation of the Customs Service.

The first point I make is that the Customs Service has been much inquired into. In spite of that, in the course of this debate there have been numerous readings from Press reports of one kind or another about alleged morale and other problems within the Customs Service. Each of the major items of criticism raised examined the very nature and existence of the Customs Service. I make the point that the Customs Service, by virtue of what it does and by virtue of what its functions are, is fair game for the kind of criticism which was raised in the Senate by Senator Chaney, Senator Short and others, largely by way of readings from Press cuttings. In fact, this matter was dealt with by the Mahony Review of Customs Administration and Procedures (in New South Wales).

Senator Chaney —I quoted from a royal commission.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney may have quoted from some royal commissions. Senator Chaney quoted from a lot of Press cuttings too and it is that scuttlebutt to which I was referring.

Senator Chaney —A typical Buttonian response. Actually, I quoted from several royal commissions.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney quoted from a lot of Press cuttings, and he should not come in here blimping away about this. Senator Chaney quoted from a lot of Press cuttings and that is the issue with which I am dealing. Senator Chaney may not like it, but he is going to have to lump it in the next couple of minutes. I inform Senator Chaney about the nature of these Press allegations. I am referring to the Mahony inquiry and what it had to say about the source of some of these allegations.

Senator Chaney —Which I referred to.

Senator BUTTON —It was very smart of Senator Chaney to refer to it. Senator Chaney is a smart lad from Western Australia. I just wish he would grow up. The section of the Mahony report to which I refer is that section which talked about Press cuttings about officers of the Customs Officers Association who had made allegations about the Customs Service. In dealing with that Association and its officers in the course of his inquiry, Mr Mahony said:

The COA representatives, in public hearing, stated that unsubstantiated allegations of corruption had been made to the media--

by the Customs Officers Association--

for the purpose of gaining public support for the objectives of the Association. My view is that this practice tends to mislead the public, damages the credibility of the COA and reflects adversely on the whole Customs organisation.

I make the point that in the course of this debate there were a number of unsubstantiated allegations from newspaper cuttings referred to by senators in this chamber-unsubstantiated-which are, of course, damaging to the Customs organisation. It is in that context and the context of discussions about the morale of the Customs officers that I raise that quotation from the Mahony report because I think it is important to realise that that has been part of a course of conduct which has been going on for a number of years. It is unfortunate that it was reflected here in the way in which it was.

I said that there had been a number of discursive elements in this debate of that kind. There is one very important point that Senator Chaney made, and I quote:

The coalition policy is for modernisation of the Customs Act.

I agree with that. I think that is an excellent policy. It does not say very much but I think we all agree that we should be in favour of modernisation of the Customs Act and, indeed, as some senators said, we should be in favour of modernisation of the Customs Service. I am in favour of that. I believe that the Customs Service has to be assisted considerably in terms of resources, and particularly resources such as additional computer services. Of course, whether one can do it that is a matter for judgment by government, given the overall demands on resource allocation. With respect, it is a matter for judgment by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. It is a matter for judgment by Government because the allocation of resources is part of the Government's responsibilities.

I share the Opposition's view that, in an ideal world, the Customs Service should be given a great deal more resources than it currently has, particularly technological resources. Customs is a very important organisation. Its functions are changing and, as I said, there is a need for a modern, efficient service with good resources including equipment, perhaps better trained staff and perhaps better facilities for staff development. The Customs Service has been through a period of staff training and development which I believe will greatly improve its efficiency. It has been a very difficult exercise for the Service to embark upon in terms of personnel, but it has undertaken that exercise.

I turn now to the Opposition's amendment. The Government cannot accept the Opposition's amendment. In fact, the Government thinks it is totally misconceived. In our view it is important to proceed quickly with the establishment of a separate and independent Customs office if the benefits of such a step are to be realised. I invite senators to have a closer look at what this Bill actually does than I suggest they did prior to their speaking in this debate. All the Bill does is to establish an independent Customs Service with a Comptroller-General who is separate in identity from the Secretary to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce. That is all it does. A lot of the second reading debate has been concerned with the operations of the Customs Service in its wider sense rather than the provisions of this Bill.

While I understand that it would have been good to have had a debate about the Customs Service-we certainly had a discussion about the Customs Service and that was welcome-I make it quite clear that the Government, in presenting this Bill, is not saying that it is in any way an answer to all of the criticisms and problems that have been raised by senators and which would undoubtedly be raised by senators on the Senate Committee on Finance and Government Operations if the matter were referred to that Committee. A lot of things raised in the debate as being important to senators were not matters which are subject to the terms of the amendment or any- thing like that; they go far wider than that. They may well be construed as being within the terms of reference if a reference were made based on the Opposition's amendment. I make it quite clear that the Bill does not create a new authority; it creates the statutory position of Comptroller-General of Customs.

The reasons for the change lay in a concern to streamline the operations of the Customs Service and the development of industry policy. They are the twin basic reasons for the change. As I said, it is a first step in a series of steps which the Government will be taking in relation to the Customs Service. Formerly, the Secretary to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce was also the Comptroller-General of Customs. This placed an intolerable burden on the occupant of that position and it did not allow a clear identity to emerge for the Customs Service.

I will be quite frank about one example. Some honourable senators will remember the Paddington bear affair, as it was called, and other honourable senators will seek to forget the colour television affair. However, let us for a moment be objective about it and remember both of those incidents. They both involved a considerable period of inquiry into a particular incident for the Customs Service. The Secretary to the Department of Industry and Commerce, as it was at that time, on each of those occasions was lost, as it were, to the Department while he dealt with the peculiarly Customs administrative problem for a period of several weeks. In contradistinction, the Secretary to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce cannot exercise his function, as the present legislation stands, as Comptroller-General of Customs with the diligence which is required in the sort of service which everybody in this Senate has talked about-that is to say, a modern, progressive, efficient Customs Service. The head man in that Service does not have the time to devote to the administration of that Service the time which it is necessary to devote if it is to be truly efficient and a properly functioning Customs organisation. There is no secret about that. It is a matter of concern which apparently has not bothered other governments that a man should be required to fill two positions, both of which are of very great importance, particularly the position of Comptroller-General of Customs, it being a position of growing importance.

The Comptroller-General of Customs and the Customs Service are more and more in the public eye with each development in illegal imports of one kind or another, particularly drugs and so on, and the new role which inevitably and regrettably the Customs Service has to exercise. As I said, the reasons for the changes lay in the concern to streamline and improve the efficiency of the operations of Customs. Of course, the Government recognises that in that process a whole range of other things have to be done. But we have to start somewhere, and it is necessary to start that process with a person who will devote his full managerial and directing energies to it. Therefore, we need an independent Comptroller-General of Customs not burdened with a range of very onerous functions of another kind. An intolerable burden was placed on the person who filled the position of Secretary to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and also the position of Comptroller-General of Customs. There was a confusion of identity, as it were between the two positions. The reason for the legislation to break the nexus between the Secretary and the Comptroller-General was to create a separate statutory position of Comptroller-General.

The creation of an independent Australian Customs Service will have a tremendously important effect on the morale of the Service as well as providing it with a permanent base and a permanent identity. Some honourable senators who know a lot about the Customs Service will tell us that. The worst thing that could be done for the morale of the Customs Service would be for this legislation to be delayed on the basis of the spurious arguments that were put in the Senate late last week. I make the point that the Customs Service has until now been transferred six times to various departments in different guises, shuffled around from one department to another with different roles, functions and arrangements. This is the first time that the Customs Service has, in a sense, been given that separate identity which I believe Customs officers sincerely want. Because the Australian Customs Service has important administrative links with industry policy-particularly in this process of disengagement from the policies of the past-it is intended that the Service will remain within the portfolio of Industry, Technology and Commerce. It is the Government's view that the creation of a separate service, a separate office, will be an important step in improving the operation of Customs and its potential for co-operation with the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce.

The cost of the changes are not considerable at all. All they involve is the provision of some additional management support for the Australian Customs Service as a result of its split from the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce. That matter is currently being determined by an interdepartmental committee or in bilateral discussions between the Department of Finance, the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and the Customs Service. One would have thought that, as those bodies have responsibility for the allocation of resources, that committee could be appropriate to determine those matters. As soon as those matters are determined the precise cost figure will be available. It will be a very small cost.

As I said earlier a number of other points, which I will refer to only in passing, are dealt with in the Opposition's proposed amendment to the Government's legislation. We have, in the Opposition's amendment moved by Senator Chaney, a series of interrogatories which the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations is invited to investigate. The appropriateness of the interrogatories can be seen by a simple examination of what they say. Firstly, in part (a) the Committee is asked to report on the practical impact of the changes on the Service. The practical impact of the changes on the Service will be absolutely minimal in a sense. As I have said, the Government recognises that a number of changes have to be made to the Customs Service. It is just a question of how we start to bring those changes about and which authority implements them. Is the authority to be a split personality public servant devoting half his energies to the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce, or do we take the Customs Service more seriously than that and say that it should effectively have its own Comptroller-General who will be responsible for developing these changes in conjunction with the Government?

The Committee would then be asked to consider the practical impact on the Minister. I do not know that there is much practical impact on me except that we have to debate this legislation. I believe that there would be no impact on Customs agents and I believe that, given a great deal of time and without the assistance of any Senate committee, great benefits will accrue to the general public in respect of this matter.

A number of advantages will eventually flow from the proposed changes. The first will be the capacity of a full time Comptroller-General to get on with the business which all honourable senators who have spoken in this debate have said is needed-directing attention to modernising and improving the efficiency of the Customs Service, and monitoring the extent to which changes add to or reduce the accountability of the Customs Service and so on and how they affect the role and responsibility of the Minister. We have already indicated in the second reading speech that a working document is being prepared in consultation between my Department and the Customs Service on the relationships between the Department and the Service. I am quite happy to indicate that as soon as that document is prepared and finalised-I think it will be in a week or so-it will be made available to the Senate and all honourable senators can read it if they wish. I give the undertaking that as soon as the document is prepared it will be made available.

It was suggested that the Committee should also investigate the costs of the changes. I said that they will be very small. The Government is determined that they will be very small. In terms of these changes, the real costs of improving the efficiency of the Customs Service will come later. They will involve a whole range of questions such as better computer equipment, perhaps additional staffing, better staff training and better staff development than the Customs Service has had in the past. That is where the costs will lie, not in the changes represented by this Bill.

We are then asked in the amendment, which is a Claytons amendment in the sense that it may not be an amendment at all, to see to what extent these questions were addressed and answered by the Government prior to introducing this legislation. These matters were addressed by the Government and we are very concerned to take a series of steps in relation to the Customs Service in respect of which this Bill and its associated Bill represent only the beginning. We say that it is a very modest and small beginning, but a step in the right direction.

There is one other matter with which I wanted to deal. Senator Jack Evans asked in the course of the debate what account the Government, in arriving at its decision, had taken of the Fifth Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. In respect of that matter-as a matter of courtesy to Senator Evans, I have already discussed this issue with him-I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard a brief document which sets out the matters of which the Government took account.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows-



The Government has considered the comments made by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations in the Committee's Fifth Report.

In addition, the Government has paid particular attention to the Committee's remarks set out in Chapter 3 of their report.

In paragraph 3.37, the Committee recommends that if legislation is presented which proposes the establishment of an authority in the categories listed in paragraph 3.36, a statement expressing specific reasons for preferring a statutory authority be tabled.

The wide range of functions to be carried out by the proposed Australian Customs Service straddle a number of the categories adopted by the Committee in paragraph 3.34 and 3.46 of its Report. Many of those functions are as a matter of course integrated in the normal Customs operational structure.

Of the Committee's categories, Customs functions particularly cover the categories of executive Authorisation (3A), Regulatory Authorities (3B) and Adjudicator/ Licensing Authorities (3G).

The Committee considers that categories 3B and 3G are functions which it is appropriate to perform through a statutory authority rather than through a Ministerial Department (paragraph 3.34). Also, the Government notes that the Committee does not see the need to relieve Ministers of responsibility as being sufficient in itself to require the creation of a statutory authority. The Committee also recognises the Office of Comptroller-General of Customs as a statutory office under the Customs Act. The measures contained in this legislation merely extend the operation of that office to a body to be called the Australian Customs Service.

The functions of the Customs are as the Committee notes in its first Report on December 1978 in a Statutory Authority. At paragraph 1.10 of that report the Committee noted:

'In the case of the Customs Act, the normal ministerial powers of direction were seen as appropriate in respect of policy and priorities, while control over the details of Customs administration was vested in the Comptroller-General'.

The Committee went on to say:

'As demonstrated in the instance of the Comptroller-General of Customs, it was not seen as impossible, nor even inappropriate, for the Permanent Head of a Ministerial Department to be accountable to the Minister for some aspects of his administration and directly to Parliament for other aspects'.

The Government considers that there will be distinct advantages that will flow from the proposed arrangement, not the least being that it is expected to be more efficient. The Second Reading Speech on the Customs Administration Bill 1985 mentioned that a benefit of the creation of the Australian Customs Service will be the relieving of the Minister and Secretary of the Department of the routine Customs administration with greater opportunity, in consequence, for both to concentrate on the major and complex issues facing industry in this country.

At present, the Comptroller-General of Customs and the Secretary of the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce, are, by virtue of the Public Service Reform Act, recognised as the same person. This has posed an intolerable burden on the holder of that office, and has meant that important industry policy matters and Customs administration issues have not been able to be given the attention that they deserve. Quite obviously, the separation of the Secretary and the Comptroller-General of Customs will alleviate this to a major degree.

The Government maintains that Australia needs a readily identifiable Customs body which will be able to give undivided attention to its major role of revenue collection and law enforcement. Revenue collections in excess of $10 billion are involved.

This legislation proposes an independent body within the industry portfolio that is closely associated to that portfolio and responsible to the same Minister.

The Second Reading Speech mentioned that the powers that are not already proposed to be transferred to the Comptroller-General are being reviewed to determine those which should be transferred from the Minister to the Comptroller-General. This will not, however, reduce the accountability of the Australian Customs Service to the Parliament. The Comptroller-General will regularly report to the Minister, and there will be an annual report required each year. This Report will be tabled in the normal way.

Senator BUTTON —I commend the Bills to the Senate.

Question put:

That the words proposed be left out (Senator Chaney's amendment) be left out.