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Tuesday, 24 March 1987
Page: 1204

Senator DURACK(3.12) —The Special Minister of State (Senator Tate) has tabled a statement relating to the 1985-86 annual report of the National Crime Authority. The Minister recognises in his lengthy and interesting statement that the National Crime Authority has presented a number of interesting details of its operations. He acknowledges, and I certainly would acknowledge, that the National Crime Authority has fully justified the support that this Parliament gave to its establishment some 2 1/2 years ago. There certainly was a good deal of debate in this chamber when the legislation concerning the Authority was dealt with. Indeed, the legislation was examined in great detail by a committee of the Senate before the legislation to create the Authority was finally passed.

The Opposition had and still has some major concerns about the inadequacy of the Authority's powers. However, it seems from this report and from what is set out in the tabling statement that the Authority has been able to overcome these deficiencies. It is recommending to the Inter-Governmental Committee of Federal and State Ministers that references should be given where it sees that course as being necessary. Apparently the Authority is succeeding in getting references where it thinks such references are necessary.

The Opposition's view was and remains that an effective crime fighting body operating throughout Australia, such as the National Crime Authority, should be able within its charter to initiate its own full investigations and have full powers. It should not have to go cap in hand to a group of Ministers to seek their authority to take the action which it believes is required. I believe that Senator Tate understands these matters. In fact, he chaired the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs which looked at this legislation. I hope that now that he has new ministerial responsibilities, he will see the wisdom of giving this Authority greater freedom of action. We are not suggesting, of course, that this Authority should be able to roam widely over any field of criminal activity in Australia. It was not set up for that purpose. There is ample provision in the legislation which determines its purpose to prevent it from going outside its major task of investigating and preparing briefs for the prosecution of organised crime and organised criminals. But within that general objective and those general restrictions, it is the Opposition's view that this body should not be required to get permission from any Minister before proceeding. I know that there are problems in getting the States to accept that view. We certainly have had great problems in getting the present Government to accept that view. However, I hope that Senator Tate will be able to persuade his colleagues otherwise. Certainly, on return to government we will expand the powers of the Authority to enable it to act of its own initiative against organised crime.

I note that up to February of this year the Authority has been responsible for the charging of 150 persons with a total of 386 offences, of which 244 offences are drug-related. Although that does emphasise the fact, not unexpectedly, that the work of the Crime Authority is mainly directed at drug trafficking-and organised crime is particularly evident in that sphere of criminal activity-nevertheless, it also emphasises the fact that there is a wide range of other organised criminal activity which is unrelated to drugs. We should bear in mind that although we tend to think in terms of the National Crime Authority as being concerned mainly with drug related crime-and that is certainly its major task-nevertheless, it has other very important tasks as well. As this legislation has already recognised, organised crime may be operating in the tax evasion, fraud or other areas where there is very serious criminal conduct and where there are great sums of money involved.

The Authority has also set in train action for the recovery of some $17m or $18m from the proceeds of criminal activity through other powers which it has. I must say that I am a little disappointed, and in fact a little surprised, that the recovery figure is not higher. We would have thought, from the number of people that have been charged in this area and with the very large sums of money involved, that a greater recovery would have been possible. One of the problems-and one of the reasons why that is not so is set out by the Authority in its report-concerns the legislation which the Government has been working on for some time, its `proceeds of crime' legislation. The Minister says:

This legislation will widen considerably the opportunities for tracing and seizing the assets gained by criminals as a result of their illegal activities.

But I must express very considerable disappointment that the Government has not proceeded earlier with this important legislation. The report deals at some length with its views on what form that legislation should take. I hope that the Minister will be giving very serious consideration to the Authority's comments about that legislation.

The time delay is serious. That reform was one of the major recommendations of the report of the Costigan Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. That report was given to the Government in October 1984, just before the 1984 election. The Government has now had that recommendation from Mr Costigan for 2 1/2 years and it was one of the major points of the report. Following the money trail and seizing the ill-gotten gains were major features of the Costigan report and the Government is still talking about bringing down legislation to give effect to that. The Crime Authority has certainly had some powers in that direction and it has put in train the recovery of some $17m or $18m-it apparently has not actually recovered it as yet-but a much greater effort is required. A delay of this type, 2 1/2 years, does indicate the concern which the Opposition has always had-that this Hawke Labor Government has never really had a strong commitment to attacking organised crime. We said that throughout the whole of the debates in 1983 and 1984.

The way in which this National Crime Authority has been hobbled by the bureaucracy, by the legislation and by the cumbersome methods that have to be entered into for it to get references that it sees are needed, are all evidence of this. We now have this delay so the legislation has not yet been brought in-2 1/2 years after it was recommended by Mr Costigan. I hope that the Government and the Minister will be giving very high priority to getting the legislation before this Parliament so that it can be dealt with. It is certainly something the Opposition has been calling for. We adopted that Costigan recommendation as a policy and had we been in government we would have given it the highest priority but that has not been done by this Government.

Another major point for comment is the relationship between the Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority and the Authority itself. That Committee, in its reports, sought greater powers in relation to its role of monitoring the Authority. Indeed, last year quite a stand-off developed between the Authority and the Committee. The Committee wanted detailed briefings of the operations of the Authority and, apparently, of particular investigations. In my view, that was quite absurd. Apparently, the Committee has now come to some accommodation with the Authority under the chairmanship of the former Special Minister of State, Mr Young. I am very glad to see that that has been achieved and that we have not had to resort to legislation to resolve that matter. Basically it seemed a foolish conflict and one which should never have occurred. The Authority was clearly right in making its stand about the sensitivity of its investigations and the possibility of information getting out in sensitive situations. It may be a different matter for the Committee to be briefed about operations which have passed, but for it to seek briefings about operations which are actually taking place or being contemplated is ridiculous. Nevertheless, the Committee in doing its work obviously has to have as much information given to it as is consistent with the requirements of the Authority's operations and that matter appears to have been resolved.

I understand that the Committee is about to embark, or has embarked, upon a general review of the operations and achievements or failings of the National Crime Authority because the Authority is under a sunset clause. Under the present legislation it will go out of existence on 30 June 1989. It was established in 1984 with a five-year life. This has led to the problems which the Opposition again pointed out when the legislation was before the Parliament. For instance, the Chairman of the Authority, Mr Justice Stewart, was appointed until only 30 June 1988. So although the Authority has a life until 1989, the Chairman's term expires in just over 12 months. The term of another member, Mr Bingham, expires in about 10 months. The term of the third original member of the Authority, Mr Dwyer, has already expired, or he has retired-I cannot recall which-and he has only been able to be replaced by an acting member. I think it is still the case that Mr Greenwood's appointment is only in an acting capacity.

Senator Jessop —He is not alone there now. There is another one.

Senator DURACK —He is replacing Mr Greenwood in an acting capacity?

Senator Tate —He is not in an acting capacity.

Senator DURACK —Has a third member been appointed?

Senator Tate —Yes. Mr Peter Dwyer of the Melbourne Bar.

Senator DURACK —Until the expiration of the Authority?

Senator Tate —Yes.

Senator DURACK —In all events, this has been a most unsatisfactory situation. Just that little interchange indicates how unsatisfactory the situation is concerning the development of efficient operations by members of the Authority. What will happen? Mr Justice Stewart's term expires after four years and the Authority has one year to go. There will have to be a new Chairman. How will that person be able to fit in? Mr Bingham will have gone by then and it has already been proved very difficult for the Government to replace the original Mr Dwyer. Apparently another Mr Dwyer has been appointed. The original third member was a Mr Dwyer. He lasted only 18 months. The Government has had the greatest difficulty getting replacements. The main reason why it has had this difficulty is the limit on the life of the Authority and on the terms of members of the Authority.

The Opposition's view is that this sunset clause should be removed here and now. My colleague Senator Archer, who unfortunately was not available today to speak in response to the report and the statement by the Minister, has introduced a Bill into the Senate to remove the sunset clause. It is quite clear from this report that the National Crime Authority is fully justified and is doing a very important job successfully, even considering the impediments that are placed upon it by this legislation-placed upon it simply by the intransigence of this Government when the legislation passed through the chamber. In these circumstances, why should we not make it quite clear as soon as possible that this Authority should continue? The Government still shows coyness in relation to the future of the Authority. I do not know why the Government still does not seem to be too sure whether it wants to have the Authority. Senator Tate shakes his head. In that event, he should support Senator Archer's Bill. We will bring it on as quickly as we can if the honourable senator will support it. We want to see this Authority established on a solid, long term, secure basis so that people working for it will know where they stand. Members of the Authority particularly will know where they stand and will not be subject to these very short term and acting appointments which seem to have characterised the situation to date.

In conclusion, I commend the Authority for the work it has done. I commend Mr Justice Stewart for the leadership he has shown in this matter. Certainly, the Authority should be given adequate powers, which it still needs. There is one further power that it needs; that is, in relation to the interception of telephone conversations. The Government brought in legislation on that and then sent it off to a committee. Apparently it is now going to amend the legislation. This has gone on for a year or so, and goodness knows how much longer it will continue. This Authority needs better and clearer powers. It needs greater moral support, from the Government in particular, than it has received. To put the Authority on its full footing, the legislation certainly needs to be changed. It needs the powers that I have indicated in the course of these remarks. I hope that the new Minister will give high priority to fixing all these deficiencies as soon as possible.