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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 8

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (9:48 AM) —in reply—I thank senators for supporting the Customs Amendment Bill 2004 and I acknowledge their contribution. In particular, I thank the opposition for their support for the quick facilitation of the passage of the bill. This is a very important bill which strikes at those people who wish to gain commercially from the trafficking in illicit drugs, in particular from the importation of those drugs into Australia. As Senator Greig pointed out, over time the drug scene has changed. When these laws were drafted some time ago the drug scene was somewhat different to what it is today. We have seen varying derivations of amphetamine type stimulants—in particular, crystal methylamphetamine, which is known as ice—gain a market share. Recently, there was a case involving the importation of that drug and, as Senator Greig pointed out, comments were made in relation to sentencing options. I draw to the Senate's attention the fact that the Attorney-General's Department had been working on this matter prior to that. It came to the department's attention that an amendment was needed and the advice was it was best done by way of legislative amendment rather than by way of regulation. That is why the urgent passage of this bill is necessary rather than waiting until early in the new year.

I point out also that the government has a bill planned for the sittings early in the new year. The Law and Justice (Serious Drug Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2005 will be a comprehensive approach to drug offences and penalties which attach thereto. In this instance, however, urgent action was necessary and the officials of the Attorney-General's Department have worked very well in getting this legislation in place. Again, I acknowledge the assistance of the opposition and others in the Senate in facilitating the passage of the bill.

As Senator Ludwig pointed out, this amendment bill relates to schedule VI of the Customs Act, which applies to offences involving a commercial quantity of amphetamine type stimulant drugs, particularly crystal methylamphetamine, which I mentioned earlier. Previously, the law dealt with offences involving only a trafficable quantity, a lesser amount, and the maximum penalty was 25 years imprisonment. Now offences relating to those sorts of drugs will have a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Life imprisonment attaches to the importation of a commercial quantity of heroin, cocaine and other drugs about which we have a more common knowledge. The drugs mentioned in the amending bill will now have a commercial quantity provision, which will mean that life imprisonment can be handed down to anyone who imports a commercial quantity of those drugs.

Of course, it is no secret that we face a great challenge in the illicit drug market of amphetamine type stimulants. We have made some progress in reducing the supply of heroin. We are not complacent of course; we still continue the war against drugs in that area. But, both domestically and overseas, we have seen a huge increase in the production of amphetamine type stimulants. Domestically, drug laboratories have increased by around 300 per cent, indicating a huge domestic market.

Also, we have seen very large seizures at the border. This indicates that there is a market in Australia, and that overseas criminals see Australia as a target, so we have to fight it both internationally and nationally. With this amendment we send a very clear message that Australia will not tolerate the importation of commercial quantities of illicit drugs—indeed, will not tolerate the importation of illicit drugs at all. The imposition of a penalty where the maximum period of imprisonment is life imprisonment is the strongest message we can deliver under our criminal justice system. There are people serving a life sentence under Commonwealth law for the importation of commercial quantities of illicit drugs. The Commonwealth has, we believe, the toughest penalties for the trafficking of drugs. We have seen life sentences handed down where non-parole periods have exceeded 20 years. There have been sentences ranging upwards from 25 years to life with non-parole periods in excess of 20 years. This sends a very clear message that, if you attempt to import illicit drugs into Australia, you will face serious penalties.

We have about 700 federal offenders in Australia, and over half of those would be for drug offences. In the Commonwealth jurisdiction those offences are at the serious end of the scale. Attempts are being made to bring in larger amounts of drugs, as Senator Ludwig has pointed out. I want to place on record the appreciation of the Australian government for the work done by the Australian Customs Service, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission and for the cooperation we get from state and territory police. We cannot fight this war alone. It requires a whole-of-government approach and a complete law enforcement approach. The very fine work of law enforcement is making a difference. We have had some standout results from the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Customs Service. I commend this bill to the Senate. It has been an urgent response and is much needed.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.