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Thursday, 20 September 2001
Page: 31206

Mr BAIRD (11:50 AM) —It is my pleasure to rise to support the Measures to Combat Serious and Organised Crime Bill 2001 today, and I commend the previous speaker, the shadow minister, for his comments and for the bipartisan way in which this legislation has been approached. Most people externally do not appreciate that much of the legislation is worked through and that there is bipartisan support, even though on some of the small details there may be differences.

In relation to this bill, I think it is interesting to see the perceptions that are occurring in our community in regard to crime. I was actually startled that in my own electorate crime has now hit the top of the polls in terms of issues that people are concerned about. It is not an issue for which the federal government is seen as predominantly responsible, but certainly the concern about crime has more than doubled since three years ago when I was looking, for obvious reasons, at issues in my electorate.

I think a number of factors contributed to that, not the least of which being that in New South Wales there is a feeling of a lack of confidence in the senior echelons of the police service. We have a police commissioner who was brought in at $450,000 a year from the UK. There has been a loss of support in him from the community; there has been a loss of support from his troops. If you speak to the average policeman in New South Wales, they will quickly tell you the morale problems that exist within the police force in New South Wales, the extent of officers that are on leave, stress leave and the relationship problems within the police itself.

At the same time, we have evidence of gangs operating in various parts of the city, including my own electorate—and I had the experience in my electorate of two gangs firing guns at one another in the main street of Cronulla, with bullet holes in the windows of the railway station. When I spoke to the superintendent at the police station, he said, `We do not have a serious problem here with crime in regard to other areas.' I said, `So you mean to say that having gangs fire guns at one another across the main street of Cronulla, which is after all a tourist destination, is not a problem?' I think that is what it is about: there is a deception in terms of the figures but a real concern about what is happening in relation to crime and about people's attitudes to crime.

I am pleased to say that this government is taking crime seriously and this government is bringing in measures which are going to assist with the pursuit of those that are involved in criminal activities and to look at some of the major perpetrators, particularly as they relate to drug offences. It would seem apparent to me that the great escalation in offences comes back to the greater use of drugs within our community and all its incredible and alarming side effects in terms of impacts on households, the level of youth suicides, the level of debt that people run into and families being disrupted. A couple of weeks ago I watched somebody smash a window of a car in Elizabeth Street and take a bag out of the car—undoubtedly to sustain a drug habit.

This bill will assist our law enforcement agencies to cope with modern criminal procedures, and this is what we want to see. It is not about having a harsh and repressive police state—none of us would want that. But we want to get to those who are involved in organising crime, who are responsible in distribution of drugs, who are involved in child pornography and who are involved in whatever major illegal criminal activities around the country. Being the Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Crime Authority, I am aware from my discussions with Gary Crooke of the various ways in which the NCA go about their work, and this bill will assist the National Crime Authority in carrying out their role. The way they go about it is not the traditional method of having the constable out on the beat saying, `Hello, hello, what is happening here?'

Rather, as the shadow minister said, there are fairly sophisticated techniques and methods as well as the controlled operations. Those techniques and methods, and the parameters surrounding them, have been mentioned in this bill. They include technical surveillance equipment, which has reached new levels in a wide range of activities, and we have legislation in this House to assist this. The Joint Standing Committee on the National Crime Authority looked at the new technologies and the controls that should be established. This bill sets out new schemes for controlled operations. It establishes a framework for the use of assumed identities in investigation. It also introduces a new series of child witness protections, particularly in regard to sexual offences, as well as making changes to the existing laws on listening devices.

There is no doubt that modern criminals are using increasingly complex approaches to crime. That is why we need to extend the current legislation. As the shadow minister mentioned, controlled operations occur when law enforcement agencies allow criminal activity to continue under their observation. Such operations are used in the hope of gaining more information about some of the Mr Bigs that operate in our community and about the nature of the operations of and the participants in the crime rings around the country. This has received strong support from past reviews: the Woods royal commission, which supported the continuation and expansion of controlled operations, and the Joint Standing Committee on the National Crime Authority, before I became a member, which recommended extensions.

The problem is that the current law permits only 30 days for controlled operations to operate. That is clearly insufficient time to continue operations. To be on the scent of significant operators and then have to cut off the investigation because of the legislation is not something we could sustain. The time frame is going to be extended and the Crimes Act of 1914 is going to be opened up to allow for a wider variety of situations—including money laundering, people smuggling and other forms of trafficking, bribery and corruption. To address the concerns about allowing the operations to run for a longer period, the bill provides for validating certificates to remain in force for up to six months, with a mandatory three-monthly review. It also allows officers from various agencies—Customs, the Australian Federal Police and three other organisations—to report to the Minister for Justice and Customs once every three months. I think that is an appropriate check in terms of what is happening. The second aspect relates to assumed identities which go with controlled operations. It is also an important part. It allows officers of the Commonwealth to assume identities and not be subject to penalties of up to 12 months imprisonment which normally relate to the assumption of assumed identities. Being able to check on criminal activities is an important way to go.

Then there is the highly volatile area of child witness protection. No worse crime exists in our community, with such a pernicious nature in terms of its long-term effect on individuals, than child abuse. The protection of witnesses is absolutely appropriate. In my electorate there are victims of abuse who meet regularly. I have met many of the people who are members of that group and I have heard them outline their stories. The ongoing impact is horrific. There is also child sex tourism and other areas in which we need witnesses to come forward. It is very stressful for children to be a witness and to see in front of them those who perpetrated crimes against them. Obviously, that situation needs to be removed. The bill allows for children to provide evidence to the trial by CCTV through special screening arrangements. Again, that is an appropriate way forward. I congratulate the officers involved and the people from the minister's department for bringing this about. This is a very important inclusion in our legislation.

In conclusion, this is appropriate legislation. It reflects the concerns that exist in our community regarding the escalation of crime and the way in which, from the Commonwealth's point of view, we can look to some of the major organisers of crime in our community by extending controlled operations and by allowing officers of the Commonwealth to assume identities. I believe that this is absolutely appropriate. With the distribution of drugs right across many levels of our community, there are very few families which have not had some experience of the devastating impact of drugs. Through this legislation, the wider community can assist in the pursuit of individuals who distribute drugs and are involved in organised crime. Finally, in terms of child sex crimes, the way in which you can have the evidence by way of the CCTV is appropriate. These are all good measures. I commend the minister, his department and the officers who brought this legislation forward. It is good to see the bipartisan way in which this legislation has been supported. I commend the bill to the House.