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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14930


Mr KERR (5:11 PM) —I am delighted that the government has come forward with the amendments which it places before the House now. I am very grateful that the government has expressed its concern about its responsiveness to the issues raised by the opposition in relation to the House of Representatives debate. My impression was, during the debate in the House, that both the parliamentary secretary and the Attorney-General, who spoke in relation to these matters, were displaying a mite of intransigence in relation to the opposition's very principled objection to the fact that a single undersupervised Customs officer would be entitled under the government's proposals to open the mail coming into this country of any citizen, in a way which we thought raised very significant civil liberties concerns.

Fortunately, the Democrats happened to also share those concerns. I find it a remarkable coincidence that the government's enthusiastic reconsideration of the priority to be accorded to civil liberties coincided with a phone call from the Democrats saying that they would be supporting Labor's position in relation to this legislation. I thank my friends the Democrats in the Senate for having played some small part in the minister's getting of wisdom. Nonetheless, the wisdom has been got, and the government has put forward these amendments. They do not reflect precisely the safeguards that Labor proposed to include in the legislation, but they do the task and they do it well. It will mean that ordinary postal items—that is, items that weigh less than 25 grams, and that is the ordinary course of post that comes in—will not be able to be opened by Customs. If they suspect that an article contains some illicit substance, they have to take it to an Australia Post official who will open it for them, and that will occur in a way which means that there is always a second party present and the process is supervised.

Because of the government's concerns regarding the inconvenience of that process in relation to the parcel post—where we concede that there are lesser issues of civil liberties as people usually do not express substantial personal communication in parcel post and larger quantities of drugs may be involved in parcel post—we have consented to the government's proposal that Customs need not take those particular items to Australia Post for opening but can open them themselves. But we are not going to allow—and the government now agrees that it is not going to allow—a single Customs officer to open those items. If, for example, a sniffer dog or an X-ray machine detects something that is believed to be suspicious, the person who finds that item has to take it to a superior Customs officer who then opens it in the presence of a third officer to make certain that there is a check on the kinds of possible abuses that we had averted to.

Obviously, we alone in this parliament saw the necessity for these safeguards to be inserted. I am surprised that the government brought upon itself some odium for seeking to persist with quite an unprincipled approach to this matter for so long. I did express some surprise to the Attorney-General that he found himself in a position where he was defending the indefensible. I am glad that, whether or not prompted by the fact that the Democrats were going to agree with us, a change of heart has been obtained. Whatever motivates the souls of men in this place, a good outcome is what matters. I am pleased that for once the good guys get a win and that we can be confident that both the law enforcement objectives of this legislation and the civil liberties and privacy objectives of the people of Australia are adequately properly protected. It is one for the Labor Party, one down for the government—a good outcome all round.

Question resolved in the affirmative.