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Tuesday, 14 May 1985
Page: 1887

Senator GEORGES(3.22) —I did not have the opportunity to participate in the second reading debate on the Customs Administration Bill and its allied Bill, but I am prompted to speak following the comments of the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney). He should be aware that the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and the Customs Service have been under scrutiny by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts. If he reads the recommendations of that Committee he will see that considerable support was given to the principle of separating out the Customs function from the Department to enable it to be far more effective than has been the case. The problem is that when an activity of that sort is contained within a department, it has to compete within that department for the resources it needs to carry out its functions. By this Bill it will now be possible for Customs to be able to rearrange its own resources without having to refer to the head of the department who comes under the Minister's responsibility. The Public Accounts Committee examined the problems of the Customs Service and the supervision of many of its functions. One related to the petroleum equalisation subsidy, and we were told of the difficulty experienced by the Department in applying resources to that area in order to recover revenue that was being diverted in a variety of ways. We found that the Department was limited by the number of people it could put into the field. It was fairly clear to us that Customs was unable to obtain quickly, or apply quickly, the resources that were needed because it had to go through rather tortuous procedures within the Department to obtain them.

There was a terrible imbalance in functions. This very important government revenue function within a department was combined with other responsibilities. I assure the Leader of the Opposition that it will now be much easier for the Customs authority to concentrate on gathering revenue and to ensure that supervision in the excise area in particular is made more effective. It will also be possible for the Customs Service to seek outside assistance by way of consultancy and perhaps other support, which it is not easy for the Service to do when it remains within a major department. I thought that the Opposition would have supported this Bill without question.

Senator Chaney —We have supported it, but not without question.

Senator GEORGES —The Opposition has questioned it and reached the same conclusion as was reached by the Public Accounts Committee. One knows that there are difficulties in respect of certain functions of the Foreign Affairs Department; some areas of that Department are separate from the Department itself. For example, the Australian Development Assistance Bureau functioned independently of the Department but it was brought within the Department. It was found that because of that limitation it could not carry out its responsibilities effectively. It was always subject to the considerations of the head of the Department and also the ministerial considerations. This is a very limiting process.

One has to appreciate that Customs is, apart from the Australian Taxation Office, one of the most effective revenue gatherers we have. Customs ought not to be limited in any way in the manner in which it carries out its duties, especially when it comes to resources. Customs ought not to be competing within a department for the resources it needs. I think that with the passage of this Bill it will be possible for Customs not so much to avoid that but not to have to be concerned with that. I make those remarks because I believe that the Leader of the Opposition was not quite so charitable as he normally is.