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Tuesday, 7 March 2000
Page: 14048


Mrs IRWIN (5:02 PM) —Customs have been around for a long time. It is one of those enduring pillars of civilisation that is attractive to governments because it is an earner. It is attractive to the community because it stands in the way of criminal trade and, more recently, defends our borders against drugs. International events and the greater globalisation of the drug trade, however, mean we have no time to lose if we are to have any sense of controlling this traffic.

I think all of us cheer when a major cargo is intercepted, but we all ask ourselves just how much is actually getting through. Every publicised bust only serves to emphasise the magnitude of the trafficking taking place. So I have a great deal of respect for Customs. We do not know how successful they are and they can only keep trying. They have been in the business a long time. I notice that last year they put up eight bills, although most were about tariffs. They run a staff of around 4,000, and I would suggest, with respect, that they are pushing it uphill. They will be under a lot of strain with the Olympics. There is no doubt that illegal imports will rise with the expected heavier processing demands. There is no doubt that there will be increased smuggling of firearms, pornography, knives, dangerous toys and chemicals as consignments in the luggage of arrivals at airports.

Labor supports the general measures for reducing illegal imports, but it concerns me that this legislation is being promoted as being really and truly tough on drugs. It certainly is at airports, but that is where very little makes the crossing. Last financial year, Customs intercepted a little over half a tonne of heroin and, in the year before that, 138 kilograms. About 36 kilograms came from airports, cargo and the mail in 1998-99. Sea passengers and crew are lumped in with the more independent smuggling operations with their own transport.

It is obvious that the traffic is crossing our coastline at places other than by coming in at airports on economy class with a stomach full of condoms. I am interested in these import preferences because a lot of the heroin coming into the country ends up in my electorate of Fowler, on the streets of Cabramatta and in the low rental housing units around Liverpool and Warwick Farm. The heroin that is crossing our border ends up in the arms or lungs of increasing numbers of young people in my electorate. Customs are charged with a major responsibility in the war against drugs. I feel for them. Every reasonable person working in the field believes it is a war that has already been lost. The secret war is against HIV and hepatitis. It is against the harm drugs do, the crime they cause and the damaged lives of addicts and their families. It is time to attend to the casualties; it is time to accept that drugs with anti-social consequences have been around for longer than Customs and will probably outlasteven that ancient institution.

The international prohibition of drugs does not mean we should not revisit the issue of victimless crimes before we become likethe United States, where mandatory sentences and zero tolerance are filling their prison system so that today's prison population has had a 100 per cent increase over the past decade. The vigilance we have so unsuccessfully applied to illicit drugs we now apply to potential stick injuries to our children and ourselves. Not all parents can drive their kids to school to avoid the hazard and, in any case, a number of night-time schoolyards in my electorate are used by addicts. The consequence of prohibition is higher prices, but I am concerned that this government seems more intent on the public relations side of the battle—knowing that it is superficial—without attending to the problem at hand.

The phrase, `This sends the wrong message to our young people,' only betrays the appalling lack of understanding of the Howard policy department. It shows how unlike their thinking is when compared to younger Australians. The pulpit thumping not only is hypocritical but reinforces the worst community attitudes. It promotes ignorance. It fails by any test to impart any wisdom about the risks. As Catherine Lumby said in last week's Bulletin, `You've got the congregation fidgeting in the pews.'

We should be vigilant at the customs barriers, but the drugs intercepted at airports are fractional compared to the boats and the planes. People who try to bring in drugs with their luggage or concealed on or in their bodies are fools. The quantities can be marketable and a lot of little couriers can make up a large quantity, but they are all dupes of bigger criminals. You can jail them, you can deport them and you can fine them huge sums of money like the $250,000 this legislation proposes. You can convict them of serious criminal offences. You can do what you like with them, and someone else will be stupid enough to take their place. They are not the Mr Bigs: they are dispensable or they are pathetic users bringing in enough to tide them over until they get to a supply line.

Kevin, a drug counsellor at the South West Alternative Program in Cabramatta, has got over 144 clients on his books. He tells me that heroin at $20 a cap from a street dealer is better value than marijuana—and it is more affordable for younger users. He is most worried about the under-16s and the problems in getting them onto a methadone program. The word `despair' sums it up. The plummeting price of heroin—from about $8,000 an ounce only a couple of years back to something a little over $4,000 today—means your average street dealer has to move more of it just to keep up with his or her own habit. It is pyramid distribution. It is market economics.

Competition is at work in the drug economy, and the good news for dealers and addicts is that it will be GST free. Can you believe it! That means there will be more goods, more distributors and lower prices. But the trouble is that there is more and more and more; prices are going down and down and down. The wreckage which Kevin deals with is going up and up—and they are the motivated ones, the ones who want to be free. We are not doing enough to liberate these suffering fellow human beings. Places like the South West Alternative Program are not confident their clientele will decline in the foreseeable future. The point is that we need more effective measures to counter what is happening and, frankly, sticking a $250,000 or 10-year criminal penalty on illegally bringing through customs more than 100 grams of marijuana is just plain weird.

Rock-and-roll has done much, but who are we serving when some bunch of headbangers with very loud instruments and shocking lyrics comes into the country with drugs like marijuana or worse for personal use and we spray it over the papers that we caught them? I will tell you whom we are serving: it is the recording companies. The bad boys need more than a parental advisory sticker on the CD. They want to get sprung for bringing illicit substances into the country. It is counterproductive and we have to be careful unless they are seriously running drugs. At the same time, we need to give fair warning to all visitors that we are in line with most other countries at the barriers. It is only fair to do so.

Customs circulates some snappy little press items. They show the sorts of drug related interceptions that take place when dealing with international arrivals. For instance:

The attention that customs officers at Sydney Airport paid to an arriving American woman was increased when a passive alert detector dog reacted. Passive alert dogs are trained to locate drugs being carried by people. In this case, a subsequent body search of the woman revealed cannabis and valium hidden inside a sanitary napkin. The Australian Federal Police arrested her on drug offences.

And they will in future, no doubt, be collecting the 10 per cent GST on the particular tampon. Another example is as follows:

A male traveller who arrived at Brisbane Airport with what he claimed was a rock in his sock was found to be carrying hashish. Two customs drug detector dogs, Dillon and Derry, displayed an interest in the traveller's feet. The man volunteered to have his shoes and socks searched. The traveller said that a lump discovered in the toe of one sock must have been a rock. However, it turned out to be cannabis resin. Both the passenger and the rock were handed over to the Federal Police.

There is another about a man arriving from the UK at Perth and becoming agitated when getting a bit of Customs attention. It is another dog story. When his bag was being checked, he grabbed an aspirin packet from it and emptied some white tablets onto his hand. He then tried to run out of the Customs area, putting the pills into his mouth as he went. After a short chase, five tablets which later tested positive as ecstasy were found on the floor near the absconder. There was one ecstasy tablet still in the aspirin box. In addition, the man said he thought he had swallowed about five tablets of the designer drug. He was taken to the Royal Perth Hospital for emergency treatment and later charged over the illegal importation. Like heroin prices, lower airfares are attracting all sorts of people into the country. We have expanded the market, but that does not guarantee a similar expansion of the IQ of some tourists. If anything, we need to protect these people from themselves.

The increase in penalties on importation of chemicals which are used in the production of other illegal drugs I am sure begs wider consultation. We could be talking about Sudafed here. These precursor chemicals could be anything. They could also be in the possession of a perfectly innocent person with proper reasons for having them. So we must be very careful, especially as we are a tourist destination hosting the Olympics. Under this legislation, commercial trafficking of narcotics attracts a maximum penalty of $750,000. Drug couriers are often desperate and pathetic risk takers with habits of their own. They will always be with us. I agree that the penalty should be steep, but no-one seriously believes the penalty will be a deterrent. Even the threat of death does not seem to deter them and, while $750,000 is a long way short of the death penalty, it is just as unlikely to stop these medically unwell people from trying. That is the nature of a heavy addiction.

What comes in through the barriers surely pales into insignificance compared with the major shipments. Customs intercepted 115 kilograms of cocaine disguised as black soil and concealed in air freight only last month. And that was only days after the record catch of 500 kilos of cocaine off the coast north of Sydney. Cocaine is not the drug of choice in Cabramatta. It is more for the corporate types, the law-abiding wealth builders of our nation using half a gram or even a gram a day. They might have a raging habit but they can afford it without breaking into homes and sleeping rough. There is a lot of hypocrisy when society judges between the two. They could both be presenting at the customs barrier. Both are criminals. So it is the irrelevance of the penalties that most disturbs me. I understand Customs took advice from Attorney-General's on this. What are they on about? This legislation has been put together to give some effect to our commitment to a drug free Olympics, but this bill has tougher sanctions on marijuana than it does on really serious sports drugs being brought in to win gold at our drug free Olympics.

Where is Minister Kelly? What has she got to say about this? If I were her, I would be setting Senator Vanstone to rights about this little inconsistency. Minister Kelly came back from maternity leave to talk to cabinet about the airport, but obviously this is not quite as important an issue to her. So this is an omnibus bill with tough measures on the illicit drugs front. The minister herself considers drugs a major issue only when it suits the government to whip up a bit of media attention focusing on how we are winning the war against drugs. That is plain hypocrisy. It is also dishonest.

In the last three months of last year, the minister issued 62 press releases. That is quite a flurry. Those on the subject of illicit drugs numbered nine: two in October, six in November and one in December. That is how important the drug issue is—one-seventh of a short attention span. Of the 62 press releases, two were spent on condemning Labor for delaying this very legislation by calling for parliamentary scrutiny. Minister Vanstone said, `Australia has taken the lead on restricting the illegal use of sports drugs, and now the ALP wants to leave the floodgates open right up until the Games have almost begun. This is a shocking message to be sending the rest of the world at this time.' Here we are with messages again. If we are not sending messages to our children over drugs, we are sending messages to the world that Labor has opened the floodgates to drugs in sport. But it was this government which introduced this bill just before Christmas, when you could have taken some action a couple of years ago. And you thought you could give urgency to the other measures by tacking the Olympic flag on it and sending out press releases condemning proper parliamentary process.

The floodgates are already open for narcotics coming across the borders. The government has not noticed that we have got an epidemic in this country. And what has this government done? It has cut Federal Police numbers at a time when we really need to get serious about border protection. Last year Australian customs vessels undertook three search and rescue operations as part of a total of 44 tactical responses. There were 252 strategic taskings for other federal and state agencies, and they spent so much unplanned maintenance time there was a greater reliance on the Navy's Fremantle class patrol boats. Those boats are coming to the end of their productive life. We need faster boats to adequately respond to the illegal activities, the drug and people smuggling which is escalating. It is time our coastal security ceased being shared around.

We need to have an Australian coastguard with modern, Australian built vessels to enforce and maintain the integrity of our border. This is an opportunity for this government to create a single entity charged with coastal surveillance and protection. Instead of shooting their guns in the air to frighten off drug smugglers and to reassure our citizens, it is time to take to the boats and systematically stop the large and illegal shipments of drugs coming over the border and ending up in my electorate of Fowler, which takes in Cabramatta. And in Cabramatta those very drugs are fuelling a younger and younger culture of sons and daughters who get more dependent and sicker and older before their time. And time is something we can no longer afford in saving those lives.