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Friday, 23 August 1985
Page: 290

Senator CHANEY —My question is addressed to the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce. I refer to the lengthy search of the luggage of the Premier of Queensland by Customs officers earlier this month and to the questions which have been raised about who instigated the search. The Minister has been reported as saying that he would obtain a report on the incident. I ask: Has the Minister received the report? Does the report indicate how and why the search was instigated? Can the Minister advise the Senate of the facts and, further, assure the Senate that there has been no victimisation or unfair treatment of the Queensland Premier?

Senator BUTTON —Of all the publicity which this Mickey Mouse incident received, I thought the most bizarre allegation which floated up was that I was in some way involved. Having said that, let me try to describe what happened. As I understand it, Sir Joh and Lady Bjelke-Petersen returned from overseas on a flight which arrived at 6.40 a.m. in the morning and were cleared by Customs at 7.44 a.m.

Senator Peter Baume —In the morning?

Senator BUTTON —The same morning. In the course of discussion with Customs officers Senator Bjelke-Petersen indicated to the aircraft inspector that the baggage contained some goods which were possibly dutiable and chocolates which might be subject to quarantine. As I recall it, this discussion took place after Sir Joh and Lady Bjelke-Petersen had omitted to sign their Customs declarations and had received some assistance with that from a Customs officer. In the course of the baggage examination which followed the conversation between Senator Bjelke-Petersen and the Customs officer a quantity of seeds was discovered and referred to a quarantine officer. Preliminary quarantine advice obtained thereafter was that the seeds were of `a tree seed species not usually restricted'. But further analysis was required to confirm this and the seeds were subsequently referred to the plant quarantine authority in Queensland. Advice was received by Customs from that authority on 8 August 1985 that the seeds were native to Australia, and the release of the seeds was then granted.

It is normal practice for Customs officers to question the declarants when undeclared quarantine goods are found. This was not done at the time and there is no clear indication of why this was not the case. However, I am advised that it was probably due to the preliminary quarantine advice that the seeds were unlikely to be restricted goods. No action is contemplated under either the Customs Act or the Quarantine Act, the main reasons being that the seeds are of Australian origin, that the declarant was unaware of their presence in the baggage and that there were indications that the seeds had been present in the Premier's bag for some time. The seeds have been returned to the Premier and he and Senator Bjelke-Petersen have been advised by the Collector of Customs that no further action is contemplated. The decision by the Australian Customs Service not to proceed to further action is consistent with normal guidelines and would apply equally to any citizen in similar circumstances.

I had occasion to say at the time of this incident that if there were any lessons to be learned from it by anybody they were that, first of all, returning travellers should sign their Customs declaration; secondly, they should read their Customs declaration; and, thirdly, they should realise that all citizens in this country, whoever they might be, are treated by the Customs Service in an appropriately equal way.

Senator CHANEY —I ask a supplementary question. I thank the Minister for his answer and acknowledge the final point that he made, which would be the view of the Opposition. The Minister may have answered my question inferentially but I have specifically asked him why the search was instigated. Does his answer mean that it flowed from the facts that he has given us? Were any other factors involved? Has he checked that? Can he give me an answer to that explicit question?

Senator BUTTON —There is no point in my checking that information further. I think I understand the circumstances. I just make the point that Customs officers are under an obligation to search all bags. That is their obligation. They may depart from the exercise of that obligation in some circumstances and, of course, thus usually do. The question of whether bags are to be searched is dictated by two things: First of all, the random sampling system which throws up particular passengers for search; and, secondly, a subjective judgment made by the Customs officer in charge at the time.

Senator Chaney —In this case?

Senator BUTTON —Yes, made by him at a particular time. It is my understanding that the search was instigated largely on the basis of a conversation with Senator Bjelke-Petersen when she informed the Customs officers about chocolates and other possibly dutiable goods.