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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4632

Mr HAYES (7:21 PM) —I rise to support the Customs Amendment (Strengthening Border Controls) Bill 2008, which strengthens the enforcement powers of Customs officers. Customs plays an absolutely vital role in protecting the borders of this country against illegal entry of persons and harmful goods et cetera. We tend to take for granted the role played by many of our law enforcement agencies, particularly Customs. Customs is Australia’s primary border protection agency and provides a sense of security for the community as a whole. Quite frankly it is largely responsible for our safe environment. Customs remains focused on intercepting illegal drugs and other items that are potentially harmful to our community. This bill will give additional powers to those who go out and detect the unlawful movement of these goods to our shores. This bill contains provisions for strengthening the border enforcement powers of Customs officers and for implementing three regimes to allow Customs greater flexibility in dealing with the importation of prohibited goods.

Customs officers have always had the ability under the existing act to board vessels and detain persons. But this act gives additional search powers. It is all very well to board a vessel only to find that the contraband or the substance that is being looked for has been jettisoned or that weapons have one way or another been dismissed from the search. This bill allows our Customs officers to conduct an immediate search. There is the provision under the existing act for them to initiate a detailed search of an aircraft or a vessel of some description where the Customs officer has first formed a reasonable view or held a reasonable suspicion that either there was contraband on the vessel or the vessel was engaged in what is often referred to as the commissioning of an offence. That reasonable view will be tested by the lawyers in the courts, so this goes to the admissibility of the evidence that is collected in those activities by Customs. This bill seeks to strengthen powers not just to detain people but to obtain necessary evidence to effect prosecutions in Australian courts. It strengthens powers to initiate the search immediately. The Customs officer will no longer need to demonstrate to a court that there was reasonable suspicion—at least in his mind—to initiate the search.

On the one hand, people might think that this is pedantic but, on the other hand, in terms of defending a prosecution, this is something about which much is made by people who are apprehended by many law enforcement officers, including Customs. As my friend the member for Forrest said, the bill also makes it possible for officers to immediately, upon boarding a vessel, search for, take possession of and detain weapons, persons trying to escape and evidence of the commission of the relevant offence. These are things which I think everybody would support. Most people would probably take them for granted, but I do commend the minister for bringing this matter forward.

In addition to strengthening the powers of Customs officers in terms of initiating searches, the bill also provides additional powers for Customs officers to deal effectively with prohibited imports that are of low value and low risk. Currently, Customs only has the power to seize prohibited imports, which is a time-consuming activity and an intensive process. This will allow more discretion to Customs officers in dealing with contraband or prohibited items. It allows a person to be able to surrender to Customs proscribed prohibited imports. Should those items be surrendered, they can be treated as condemned items and be forfeited to the Crown; and, as a consequence, that person will not be subject to a residual prosecution.

The bill also amends the Customs Act to give Customs the option to allow a person to apply for post-importation permission to apply to import what would otherwise be prohibited goods that have not been concealed, rather than having the goods seized. That is not automatic but it is a discretion to be exercised by the Customs officer. If permission is granted, the goods are no longer regarded as prohibited goods. The amendment also gives Customs the option to issue infringement notices for certain imports. In that instance, the goods are treated as condemned and are forfeited but the person is not subject to any ongoing prosecution. This is only in relation to goods that are of low risk and low value, and at all times Customs does retain the ability to seize goods which are prohibited imports.

This is a good piece of legislation. It strengthens the law enforcement capability of the Australian Customs Service which, as I said at the outset, we probably take for granted and yet it is our premier law enforcement organisation protecting our shores from foreign contraband. I commend the bill to the House.