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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6682

Senator McGAURAN (10:11 AM) —The Senate is debating the important Australian Crime Commission Establishment Bill 2002. It is important as it not only restructures Australia's main organised crime fighting body, the National Crime Authority, and gives it a new name—the Australian Crime Commission—but also significantly enhances the government's Tough on Drugs policy, a program that philosophically has at its heart the need to take the fight right up to the peddlers of menace and sorrow in our society. We have had to battle critics of this policy—critics of the government's rejection of safe injecting rooms or rejection of the legalisation of heroin—but it is one that the government are committed to.

The Tough on Drugs program has an integrated three-pronged approach. Firstly, funds are provided for the implementation of the government's schools drug strategy to educate the community, especially the young, about the dangers of drug taking; secondly, there is funding for the establishment of national treatment and rehabilitation centres; and, thirdly, there is the law enforcement aspect aimed specifically at the drug pushers and drug barons, and that is what this bill deals with today: enhancing the law enforcement capacity to take on the drug barons and the drug syndicates.

It has been the job of the NCA to carry on this important work since 1984. It is true that it was established with caution because of the need to balance concerns about civil liberties with the legitimate pursuit of organised crime and the illegal drug trade. In 1984 the focus was more on civil liberties. In many ways, the National Crime Authority was handicapped in its ability to properly investigate organised crime and the drug trade in this country. It was new in Australia to set up a single-minded police force, and there were initial concerns. However, progressively over the 17 years, the NCA has been able to win the parliament's and the public's confidence, primarily through spectacular success and dedication to its mission statement. Admittedly, there have been moments best forgotten, but they are not specifically related to drug investigations or to any of the NCA's work. You have to say that every organisation has its ups and downs, and the NCA is no different. Overall, the NCA, as previous speakers have said, has been a dynamically successful organisation since its establishment in 1984.

A big leap forward in organised crime fighting in this country was through the introduction of the National Crime Authority Legislation Amendment Bill 2000. That was the second big leap forward following the establishment of the NCA in 1984. It was a bill that gave full powers, sorely needed at the time, to the National Crime Authority. It was an important stage in the drug war. While the bill was very legalistic, in a nutshell it gave the full powers of investigation and interrogation to our major organised crime fighting authority, the NCA. Previous to this the NCA was handicapped in its ability to interrogate the drug lords or any of their associates, because the syndicates and the drug barons had been able to use their very expensive lawyers to avoid questioning and investigation. The amendments in that bill stopped that. For example, the bill increased to a term of imprisonment the penalty for not answering questions and it removed the defence of reasonable excuse— which was the greatest delaying tactic of all used by the drug barons—and codified it. The powers of surveillance were also increased. That was an important piece of legislation at the time. I cannot stress enough the importance of that reform legislation when it was introduced and the effect that it has had, in that short time of two years, on the fight against major crime. That successful structure is something this country really should be proud of and it is something in which governments of both sides of politics have been involved.

The government now seeks to take the next very bold step to maintain the necessary vigilance in the war on drugs and major crime. It was timely to assess whether an improved structure would meet our future needs, particularly as we had been working off a structure first formed in 1984. Now we have the added effect of transnational terrorism where often the money trails of terrorist groups cross over the trails of organised crime or drug syndicates. The Australian Crime Commission originates from this investigation and from an agreement between the states and the Commonwealth.

While the powers of the NCA will be transferred to the new ACC, there will be one fundamental difference, which has been mentioned by previous speakers, between the new structure and the NCA, and that is the controlling board. The NCA was controlled by three: a chairman and two commissioners. Usually they had legal backgrounds. The new ACC board will take on a completely different complexion and will consist of 13 voting members and a chief executive officer as a non-voting member. The chair of the board will be the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. The voting members of the board will be eight state and territory police commissioners and five Commonwealth agency heads: the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, the Director-General of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, the chairperson of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the CEO of the Australian Customs Service and the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department. That differs from the three people in control of the NCA.

The concerns about this new structure are that it represents the `blueing' of the NCA; that is, that the new organisation will be controlled by a body the majority of whom will be law enforcement officers. The critics ask: will the balance between the operational requirements and strategic priorities be skewed towards what could be termed `police priorities' because of the number of police on the board? Further, there were concerns that, with the police predominantly running the show, the powers of investigation and interrogation that I referred to earlier—that the NCA had, by the way—could now, in the hands of the police, be misused, aggressively used or misdirected. That is a fair concern, but I have to say that this was more a lawyers' argument than anything else: that the police may not be trusted to administer such unbridled interrogation powers. Remember that the NCA was fundamentally run by lawyers, and they did a good job; there is no question about that. But the ACC will be predominantly run by the police.

That is the nub of the argument that the joint parliamentary committee, of which I am a member, heard. And that is the nub of the argument put to the Senate by previous speakers. As I said, it is a worthy concern but one which, nevertheless, on balance, I reject. In fact, this new board structure will progress the fight against crime, not just because the police commissioners from each state, who are specialists in their fields, will know better how to administer investigations but because there are so many more specialist authorities—such as the Customs officers and the ASIO officers—on the board to make it a new and formidable organisation.

Equally, the other members on the board are a good check and balance on the dominance of the police commissioners. In the end this is a matter of balance between the fears that the civil libertarians have and the will to pursue major crime, in particular the drug syndicates. The problem of attacking organised crime does present legitimate concerns to those of us who are defenders of civil liberties. All of us in this parliament would be defenders of civil liberties, but just to different degrees. Yet it must be remembered that the civil liberties of Australians are affected by the directions of the crime bosses.

Both the United States of America and Italy have realised that a drastic problem requires a drastic solution. Both have taken legislative and common law measures to preserve the credibility and sanctity of their social, economic and political systems which are under threat from the mafia in those countries—the organised crime, the drug syndicates and the major crime syndicates. The United States government has taken extraordinary steps in electronic surveillance in order to untangle the web of serious crime. Australia can proudly say that, in regard to surveillance and interrogation powers, we are not far behind them. The success in both of those countries should not be underestimated, just as the success in Australia should not be underestimated.

I support this legislation as it stands. The fight against organised crime and the drug syndicates requires vigilance today or that fight will be lost tomorrow. It is a never-ending fight and it requires all the power that we can enhance our police forces with. The establishment of the ACC, with the amendments the government are introducing, should be supported and hopefully will be successful. I say that with more confidence: I believe they will be successful. But it should be noted that there will be continual monitoring of this new body. I believe that within three years there will be a full investigation to see how it works. Just as the NCA was put under scrutiny, so will the ACC be. We know the powers that this new body will be getting. We know that the fight that they have before them has many traps and is open to corruption and open to influence by these very wealthy syndicates. That is why this parliament will maintain a monitoring role over the ACC. We should get started by supporting this legislation.

Debate (on motion by Senator Ian Campbell) adjourned.