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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 4


Senator LUDWIG (9:34 AM) —There are a number of issues I will deal with before going to the substance of the Customs Amendment Bill 2004. This bill has been included for debate in the last week on the basis that it is an urgent bill, which enabled it to be exempt from the cut-off motion. The government was able to indicate the reasons for that sufficiently persuasively enough to convince the opposition to support it. The caveat that the opposition sought and that was conceded by the government was that this bill operate for 12 months and a more comprehensive bill be provided in due course. The government has conceded that that bill should be referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee. That committee will examine that bill to ensure that it is appropriate and deals with the issues in a comprehensive way. In the interim, this bill will deal with the issue of having sufficient penalty options available to the judiciary in respect of criminals and commercial quantities of drugs.

The bill before us is an important piece of legislation that seeks to enhance sentencing options available to judges in cases where individuals are caught smuggling commercial quantities of dangerous drugs as defined under schedule VI. As it stands, the Customs Act includes 130 dangerous substances that are prohibited. These substances include dangerous drugs we are all familiar with, like cocaine, opium and heroin. Of course schedule VI also contains drugs that will be familiar to ordinary Australians as pharmaceutical products, like codeine, morphine and methadone. The importation of these drugs is restricted because they can be dangerous if taken in large quantities. A third set of drugs, which most senators may not know of, is legal drugs which may be used as ingredients in the manufacture of other drugs. We need to take strong measures to ensure they are not illegally imported as well. This bill tidies up the provisions of the Customs Act to ensure that that does not happen.

The bill will not affect the legal and proper import of drugs for medicinal purposes, as authorised by the Minister for Health and Ageing. Each of the 130 substances listed in schedule VI of the act has a trafficable quantity assigned to it. Anyone in possession of a trafficable quantity can be charged under provisions that prevent low-level drug dealing. Of these 130 substances, only 21 currently specify a commercial quantity. So schedule VI provides trafficable quantities for all of those and some commercial quantities, which are significant increases on the trafficable amount. We have seen in recent times huge imports of illegal substances that have been caught either by Customs, by the AFP or by both in combined operations. This demonstrates in some instances the tenacity of people to continue to attempt to import quite large quantities of illegal dugs.

The intention of differentiating between trafficable and commercial quantities is a good idea, and in retrospect the determination of commercial quantities probably should have been done at that time. But, by and large, I think it was considered at the time that some of these were unlikely to be imported at that amount or were unlikely to be considered as being of sufficient interest for those elements that would pursue these crimes to require the listing of commercial quantities. With the effluxion of time and the changing patterns across the world and across the drug markets there are now clearly instances of people seeking to bring not only trafficable quantities of drugs but also commercial quantities of drugs across our borders. I respect the fact that legislators at the time did not have the benefit of a crystal ball to tell them that drugs like MDMA, also known as ecstasy, would eventually cause the harm they are now inflicting upon our community. I am certainly pleased that Labor can contribute to tightening the provisions for the other 109 substances listed in schedule VI.

It may be worth mentioning the effect of the legislation in relation to sentencing. By defining a commercial quantity for these substances, we add a sentencing option for judges that includes life imprisonment. The maximum current penalty available for the illegal importation of these substances is 25 years, because that is the maximum penalty for importation of trafficable quantities. By spelling out the commercial quantities, as we do in this bill, we will allow judges to impose more severe or appropriate sentences for the Mr Bigs and others who seek to import dangerous substances into our country.

Labor is concerned about the importation of illegal drugs into this country and fully supports the excellent work of Australian Customs and the Australian Federal Police in their recent successes against drug importers. The amount of MDMA that has been detected by Customs has almost doubled over the last two years. That is excellent work, but we do not know the quantity of drugs which are getting through our borders. A number of people have been doing studies to work out what impact the current Tough on Drugs strategy is having on drug importation. We are certainly now detecting greater quantities of MDMA, but whether we are creating a dint in that market is another question that perhaps I can leave for the minister to answer. Labor is keen to ensure that there are sentencing options available for judges to ensure that they can at least deal in an appropriate way with the offences that are committed.

In truth, I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe these seizures have put a stop to the availability of illegal drugs in the community, as recent reports in the media show. If I can use figures from the Parliamentary Library and from Customs for senators' interest, it is clear that more ecstasy is being imported into Australia. As recently as 1993, there were few seizures of ecstasy at the customs barrier. In 1994, 2.9 kilograms were seized. However, in the period January to August 1996, 29.9 kilograms were seized. In 2003-04 that figure was 873 kilograms. That is a frightening increase in the detection of MDMA.

There is some evidence to suggest that Australia could again be the target of drug lords who wish to import heroin. Senators may be interested to know that, since the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, opium poppies have returned to the fields as an acceptable cash crop for farmers. More heroin coming onto the market may well make Australia an increased target for heroin imports over the coming few years. Labor will be monitoring this situation closely and will be holding the government to account for any increased availability of this most insidious drug.

Labor has taken a number of steps to satisfy itself that this bill will not have an unjust effect. Firstly, the bill will not be retrospective. Secondly, as far as our resources have been able to check, the bill has been examined and it has been found that it does not make any attempt to modify or vary the existing commercial quantities specified for the schedule VI drugs. We can ensure that the government will at least put on the record that that is not the case. Thirdly, we will move an amendment to the bill to include a sunset clause. That will give the parliament a chance to review the effects and operation of the bill once it is enacted. There is also a commitment, as I said earlier, for a new bill that is to be introduced into the parliament next year to go to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee. I suspect that will include a range of other matters as well.

In short, this bill will have the effect of making additional penalties available to the courts in the very serious area of illicit drug importation in commercial quantities. It is an issue that Labor is able to support. It is also one of those areas where it is not just a case of ensuring that there are mandatory sentencing laws available. These are maximum sentences so the range of sentencing under the Crimes Act is available, and I am sure the minister can assure the parliament that that is the case. Therefore, I commend the bill to the Senate.