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Tuesday, 14 May 1985
Page: 1885

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.13) —I had commenced my comments in relation to clause 4 at the time when consideration was interrupted last night. Clause 4 is the clause which establishes an Australian Customs Service as an independent entity and establishes the Comptroller-General of Customs as a statutory officer. In the course of my preliminary comments I wanted to mention the misrepresentation of the second reading debate which was made by the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, Senator Button, in his response. Senator Button last night referred to criticism raised in the Senate by me and others as being 'largely by way of readings from Press cuttings'. He went on to say; 'In fact, this matter was dealt with by the Mahony Review of Customs Administration and Procedures'.

I do not know whether the Minister was proceeding by way of misrepresentation or inadvertence. I simply remind him that in the second reading debate, after talking about the importance of Customs and so on, I drew attention to the fact that there had been a series of problems with respect to the organisation of Customs. I referred to a series of inquiries which had been undertaken-the Black Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Making of a Customs Declaration, 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 I specifically pointed out arose out of the difficulties involving a Liberal Minister. It therefore was quite incorrect for Senator Button to suggest that this was done largely by way of readings from Press cuttings. In fact, in my own speech, after a number of references to extracts from the reports, including a reference to the Customs Officers Association submission to the Mahony inquiry, I proceeded to point out that all of these dealt with past history and that there were more recent complaints which had been evidenced in the newspapers. I quoted from the Sydney Morning Herald and from a report from an officer of the Customs Officers Association which was contained in the magazine People.

I also remind the Minister that I pointed out that the Customs Officers Association's submission to the Mahony inquiry was not fully accepted by that inquiry. Some of the criticisms were read out by Senator Button in his reply. However, I pointed out that some of that was certainly not accepted by the inquiry. I went on to say that it 'needs to be adverted to, not because one would wish to embrace all of the things that were said but simply to say that it 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'. I take this opportunity to respond to Senator Button simply because I do not believe that the misrepresentation of the approach which was taken by the Opposition to this legislation is proper. I believe that that misrepresentation should be corrected.

As far as the Opposition's attitude to this legislation is concerned, we have made it clear that we believe that we should support the creation of an independent Customs Service. What we did was to raise in our amendment the possibility of referring this matter to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations for investigation and report. We specified a number of matters which we thought could be properly reported on to this Senate before the Senate dealt with the legislation. That was not acceptable to the Government and it is not supported by the Australian Democrats. It has already been determined that that will not happen. In fact, the Minister in his response to the second reading debate went to some greater pains than he went to in his second reading speech to deal with the justifications for the creation of the Service in the way that this is being done. The Opposition, however, does not regard any of the explanations as adequate. It still believes that more complete explanations would have been appropriate before the passage of this legislation.

It is fascinating, for example, that the Minister in his reply referred to the fact that the Committee would be asked to consider the practical impact on the Minister. He said:

I do not know that there is much practical impact on me except that we have to debate this legislation.

That is a very strange remark coming from the Minister, given that one of these Bills in fact transfers a very great number of functions from the Minister to the Comptroller-General of Customs. I would have expected the Minister to have indicated that the possible benefit of this legislation would be not merely to enable the Comptroller-General to get on with the job of administering Customs without being distracted by the other departmental responsibilities and for the head of his Department to get on with the business of developing industry policy and administering the affairs of the Department without being distracted by the significant problems of Customs, but also that there was something of a deck-clearing operation for the Minister himself and that that might in turn be beneficial both to Customs and to the Minister. However, the explanation that has been given by the Leader of the Government in the Senate stands as part of the record and I can only say that it increases my puzzlement about some aspects of what the Government is doing.

With respect to the Minister's attempt to respond on the costs of the changes, we are given the typed definition that the costs of the changes-I again use the Ministers' words-'are not considerable at all'. He said:

All they involve is the provision of some additional management support for the Australian Customs Services as a result of its split from the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce.

He went on to say:

As soon as those matters are determined the precise cost figure will be available.

I hope that the Minister will make that available to the Senate. No doubt, if he does not, that can be obtained from him during the Budget session later this year.

I also thought that the Minister gave a rather limp reply when he commented on the suggestion of the Opposition that the Committee be asked to report on the practical impact of the changes on the Service. The Minister said:

The practical impact of the changes on the Service will be absolutely minimal in a sense . . . 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.

One is left with the feeling that the Government has decided that this is a step that can be taken, that it will be a deck-clearing operation and that the Government has not thought the matter through or gone into detail on the sorts of matters raised by the Opposition. The view taken is that it will all be to the good and the Comptroller-General of Customs can get on with the job once this Bill is passed. On behalf of the Opposition I express the hope that that will be the outcome of this legislation and that the Service will find its new status and the changed legal status of the Comptroller-General and his changed administrative responsibilities of assistance in meeting the problems which have existed in the past. It seems clear that we have had as much explanation from the Government as we are likely to get during the passage of this legislation. That being the case, with some regret that we have not had the examination sought by the Opposition, I think the legislation should be passed so that we may see what practical effects flow from these two Bills.