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Tuesday, 7 March 2000
Page: 14051


Mr BAIRD (5:22 PM) —It is my pleasure to rise to support the Customs Legislation Amendment (Criminal Sanctions and Other Measures) Bill 1999. It is an important piece of legislation. The member for Fowler made many interesting points about the threat that drugs represent to our society. I think every member of this House would be concerned about that threat and the implications it has for our young people. However, the member for Fowler has missed some legislation that went through the Main Committee. She may have a preference for appearing in this House, but there was some significant legislation which came through under Minister Kelly's guidance and dealt specifically with drug use at the Olympics, providing access to Customs officers to facilitate the checking that is required and to exchange information between sporting officials both internationally and within Australia. It was directed specifically at lifting the bar in terms of how tough it would be during the Olympics. I agree with the member for Fowler that we certainly want to ensure that the Olympics are as drug free as possible. There is nothing worse than some of the images that we saw during the last Olympics when there was clearly a drug cheat involved in the swimming who simply got away with it. I was actually in Atlanta sitting among the parents of some of the swimmers who were very concerned about what was happening. They all suspected that this swimmer was taking drugs, but they were not able to catch her. How heartbreaking it was for those young kids who did it the hard way, day in day out, year after year, doing their training and being cheated out of their medals by someone who resorted to drugs. I agree with the sentiments of the member for Fowler but say that she should refer to the bills that Minister Kelly introduced into the Main Committee which were discussed and did much to address that environment.

The Australian Olympic Committee, the IOC executives and SOCOG are involved in addressing that as much as possible. They are not saying that there are things we should be doing which we are not doing. This is one attempt by way of further legislation and penalties. I heard the comments about the penalties. They are appropriate. It is about the introduction of drugs into this country. Clearly, there needs to be appropriate penalties. However, I am sure that the member's main sentiments related to the drug problem which she experiences in her electorate and which is a blight on our society.

It is important that we address some of these issues because of the Olympics coming to Australia. Also, it is important for tourism in this country—which I know, Madam Deputy Speaker Gash, you have been involved in in a significant way—that we do as much as we can to create the right image internationally. Some of the provisions in this bill will enable Customs officers to examine packages coming into Australia for drugs and guns which may be brought in illegally by those who believe they can cheat on the system. It gives greater access to Customs officers to check what is being brought into the country. The bill provides for increased penalties for a range of import and export offences under the Customs Act. The bill is in four parts: firstly, amending the Customs Act and the Australian Postal Corporations Act to enhance Customs' powers to detect illicit drugs; secondly, to increase penalties; thirdly, for videotaping strip searches for evidence, including the protection of the searcher and the searched; and, fourthly, amending the Customs Administration Act in relation to the appointment of the chief executive. It is the first three aspects on which we are concentrating today.

Concerning the amendment of the Customs Act and the Australian Postal Corporation Act to enhance Customs' powers to detect illicit drugs, I understand that there has been some comment and criticism in the Senate that they are not sure of these powers and that Customs officers would simply be able to undertake their own checks without an Australia Post officer being present. The reason for this is simply that in the past there has been evidence of Australia Post officers being involved in some drug smuggling activities. It is not surprising that this might exist, given the number of employees at Australia Post and given the financial incentives out there in the marketplace, and the size of the drug trade. This is one of the reasons why it was wished that these provisions be provided—to enable Customs officers to search parcels and packages without Australia Post officers being aware of this being undertaken.

Last year some 600,000 articles were opened, resulting in two complaints, neither of which were found to have been made on good grounds. So, in terms of Customs' record, there is little doubt that as an agency it can be trusted to operate in a reliable and accountable manner. Put simply, if Australia Post is informed that there is suspect activity which is being investigated by Customs, it requires the Australia Post officers involved to cease their illegal operations. I think this is an appropriate way to go—to allow for these provisions and to provide greater searching ability for Customs officers who clearly have this as their primary responsibility.

The second part relates to the amendment of the Customs Act to provide for increased penalties for a range of import and export offences, including custodial sentences. The bill lifts the maximum civil penalty for non-narcotic offences from $50,000 to $100,000 and, at the same time, creates new criminal non-narcotic offences with custodial sentences. In other words, where you do not have drugs involved but you have other items brought into the country—and guns would be included in that provision—under this legislation you have the ability to take action. It is appropriate to recognise, especially given the regime in which we operate, that as far as possible we want a gun-free environment, except for those guns which are clearly approved—those used by sporting clubs and those who use them in their occupation. It is appropriate that we do all that we can to provide these measures and the penalties involved.

The bill also introduces criminal penalties for import-export offences for the first time. The new civil penalty maximum of $100,000 will apply to all prohibited import and export offences. It is clear, however, that some offences by their nature, or the circumstances that led to the offence, require more serious deterrents. For example, serious offences involving prescribed quantities of precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of narcotics and other drugs would carry a maximum penalty of $100,000, and the legislation would also allow courts to impose a sentence of up to five years imprisonment. The same penalty would also apply to offences involving prescribed levels of substances that illicitly enhance performance in sport. So significant penalties are involved and there are provisions that relate specifically to sport. It is a moveable feast for those looking at the drugs in sport process. There are myriad new drugs that are masked in the detection process, so to be able to apply these penalties to those drugs is significant. The maximum penalty of $100,000 and up to five years imprisonment is a very significant inducement for people to cease drug trafficking.

Let me give an example of how diligent Customs is. In a club I am involved in there is a young boxer from my electorate. He bought some drugs in the United States, which are sold over the counter there. Their status is being questioned here and they are not freely available, but they are not on the restricted list. He brought them back into the country. He was apprehended at the airport and searched. They found these drugs on him. They were taken off him and all types of questions were asked. He came to see me about the problems he was having. The drugs are for his own use as a boxer. After an extensive search, it was found that they were not on the prohibited items list, and we have an ongoing dialogue as to when they are going to be released by Customs. I think it illustrates the vigilance of the people at Sydney airport. They were on the case. It may not have fitted specifically into the category that they were looking at, which is prescribed under these provisions here, but it does show that officers at the airport are being vigilant.

The more serious offences, such as those involving weapons or child pornography, will attract a penalty of $250,000 and/or 10 years imprisonment. The Commonwealth's prosecution policy, implemented by the Director of Public Prosecutions, will form the basis of all decisions for the new criminal offences. So we have gradations in penalties, from $50,000 to $100,000 for offences involving prohibited substances which are used in mixing drugs, to $100,000 and the possibility of five years in jail for more serious offences. For offences involving firearms and child pornography, there are increased penalties of up to $250,000 and the possibility of 10 years imprisonment. I am sure that you will agree with me, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is nothing more significant that we should be concerned about in our society than drugs, guns and child pornography. Immense havoc is created in our society by child pornography rings and the effect they have on their victims. In my electorate, I was involved in the launch of a society in Sutherland for young people who had been abused as children. Child pornography fuels paedophilia. Whatever we can do as adults to restrict this trade is significant. To me, 10 years imprisonment is an appropriate penalty. The member for Fowler has said that these penalties are not hard enough. It is always a fine balance, but this bill significantly increases the penalties involved. Nowhere is the increase in penalties more significant than for drug, child pornography and weapons offences. There are fines from $4,000 to $250,000 for cannabis trafficking and from $100,000 to $500,000 for other narcotics offences. A new monetary penalty of $750,000 for the commercial trafficking of narcotics has also been introduced into the Customs Act.

Another issue is the framework being set up for the videotaping of strip searches for evidence, which is to be used for the protection of the searcher and the searched. The bill introduces two elements: technology can be used or, if the individual apprehended at the airport or the port does not want to use the scanning technology, they can opt for a physical strip search. If required, the videotaping can show publicly what took place. It is a protection for all those involved. It is obviously a clear record of the apprehension, and it is a good record if there are drugs or illicit substances found on that individual. Customs currently has strict operating procedures that are designed to reflect a reasonable balance between preserving a person's dignity and liberty and the protection of the community as a whole. I do not think that there is any excuse for saying, `My civil liberties are being infringed, I do not want to undertake this.' If they do not want to remove their clothes for the strip search, under this legislation they can use the scanning technology. If they wish to use the normal procedure, then there will be videotaping.

Emerging technologies are widely used in various parts of the world, and it is good to see that Customs is ahead of the game by implementing new technologies such as body scan X-rays, particle detectors, thermal imaging and swabbing kits. Following expert examination of the technology, the government has decided to include a provision in this bill to allow new technology to be used, which will have widespread use throughout Australia.

The provisions in this bill cover not only the penalties involved—which are throughout the legislation—but also the ability for Customs officers to search postal items that are brought into the country without the need to have a postal officer involved. The bill also allows new technology to be used as an alternative to strip searching and for videotaping when strip searching takes place. Finally, there are provisions in the bill in relation to the appointment of the chief executive for a period of up to five years. Of course, that is a technical aspect as well.

This is about several things. It is about establishing a drug-free environment as far as possible within Australia. It is about being on the case. No-one has all the answers, but certainly the punitive provisions, the preventative aspects, the penalties involved, the technology that will be able to be deployed for searches and the fact that the bill will allow Customs officers to search postal items themselves are significant measures. Especially in this year when we have so many tourists coming from overseas, we have a great opportunity to show ourselves to the world. Some 350,000 international visitors will come to this country during the 14 days of the Olympic Games—or 16 days if you count the opening and closing ceremonies. It is certainly an opportunity to showcase ourselves but, at the same time, with some 15,000 press coming from around the world, it is a time when we could be exposed in terms of drugs being used in sport. If extensive checks are made and we find that teams bring into the country drugs which are clearly prohibited or narcotic drugs, the measures in this bill will allow Customs officers to take effective action if necessary.

While there have been some criticisms from opposition members that we have not gone far enough—why didn't we do this—it is clear that this bill relates to the other bills that were brought in by Minister Kelly which will ensure drug testing for those taking part in sport and will provide the ability for various agencies to work together and allow the swapping of information between the Customs officers and sporting officials in various parts of the country and internationally. I think those measures, combined with the new technology and other measures in this bill, are a significant step forward. We all hope and trust that the Olympics in Australia will be outstanding. Being drug free is one of our highest priorities as a country. I believe there are significant measures included in this bill and I commend the bill to the House.