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Wednesday, 4 May 1994
Page: 227

Senator SCHACHT (Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction) (5.03 p.m.) —After discussion earlier today, Senator Coulter said that he would not proceed with these amendments, but that he wanted to explain the purpose of them and get some comment from the government. I want to put on the record that clauses 50, 52, 53, 54 and 55 which were to be amended by the Australian Democrats are enforcement provisions relating to powers of authorised officers under the proposed bounty scheme to have persons answer questions and produce documents. The proposed amendments are not accepted; these are powers consistent with similar powers in all other bounty legislation. I do not consider it appropriate to change such powers unless it is done in a precise and complete manner.

  I can give the Democrats and the Senate a guarantee that officers of the Australian Customs Service, in consultation with the Attorney-General's Department, will conduct a review of all current bounty legislation to examine whether the common enforcement provisions should be consistent with those to be contained in the new customs legislation arising from the Australian Law Reform Commission report on customs and excise legislation. There is a reform process now under way in Customs which I announced only two weeks ago.

  I announced in the decisions endorsed by Cabinet that one of the major changes to customs legislation will be to change the seizure powers of customs officers—other than at the barrier to prevent, for quarantine reasons, the importation of drugs and prohibited goods. Once inside the country, in areas dealing with the administration of tariffs, tariff concession orders and goods in the commercial area, the government will change the seizure power so that customs officers cannot seize commercial goods unless they receive a warrant from an appropriate judicial officer—a magistrate or a judge—beforehand. We believe this is probably one of the most significant changes to the operation of the Customs Act to bring it into line with the latter part of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. So it is quite appropriate that the similar powers that operate in the bounty act be reviewed.

  My view, and that of the government, is that these seizure powers which go with it, which were adopted way back at the beginning of the Federation, are no longer appropriate. I suspect they really come from the colonial period when Great Britain was dealing with old-style smuggling across the English Channel and seizure powers were made available to customs officers to stop that.

  My own view is that they are not powers appropriate for the Customs Service. Customs has to be industry sensitive and, in many of these areas, if there is a dispute it is a commercial dispute. I do not believe customs officers should have the power to seize goods in a commercial dispute. There may be a dispute, quite genuinely, over what amount of customs tariff is to be paid, or the amount of bounty to be paid or received. Often these cases are first dealt with in the courts. I do not think goods should be seized before a court or an appropriate tribunal has dealt with the matter and made a determination.

  State police forces in Australia work under the provision that they cannot enter premises and seize goods unless some sort of warrant for a search is granted by a magistrate. I think it is only appropriate that similar provisions should apply in this area. Therefore, I can certainly give an undertaking that we will review the operation of the bounty act.

  I draw the attention of honourable senators to the Australian Law Reform Commission review which took three years to look at the Customs Act. I suspect that in some areas I may have gone even further with reform than the commission suggested, although some of aspects come from the Conroy review itself. I draw attention to that report because, by the end of this year, I hope to bring into the parliament a major rewrite of the Customs Act. It will be a very comprehensive review of the act and of DEET. We will have to deal with a massive piece of legislation, but I think it is appropriate to do that so that Australian customs operations work with an act designed for the latter part of this century and the early part of the twenty-first century.

  I suspect it will be a major workload for the Senate. It may even be referred to one of our interminable committees, but I do not object to that. As a result of the Midford experience, in particular, I think everybody agrees that these reviews and redraftings of the act are long overdue. We need to ensure that customs administration is appropriate for the twenty-first century in Australia and not for the seventeenth century in Great Britain.