House of Representatives

Customs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999

Second Reading Speech

Mr SLIPPER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration)

I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

This bill is identical to the Customs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1998, introduced into the House of Representatives on 2 July 1998 before the last parliament was dissolved on 31 August of that year.

It represents another instalment of legislative amendments proposed by the government in implementing the Tough on Drugs strategy, as announced by the Prime Minister on 2 November 1997.

Illicit drugs damage our society, especially our young people. The government is determined to do everything it can to reduce the menace of illicit drugs. The Prime Minister's outstanding personal leadership in announcing the Tough on Drugs strategy is a very clear demonstration of that commitment. Recent significant seizures of illicit drugs underline the commitment of the government.

The government's strategy is threefold.

Firstly, it aims to reduce demand for illicit drugs by educating people, particularly young Australians about the dangers of drug use.

Secondly, it aims to reduce the harm being done to drug users, for example through education about the risks of HIV-AIDS among injecting users.

Thirdly, it aims to reduce the supply of illicit drugs by stopping them from coming into the country in the first place.

Each of these parts of the strategy received a significant boost in funding in the Prime Minister's initial announcement of 2 November 1997 and were emphasised in his second announcement on 16 March 1998.

As well as making sure that our law enforcement agencies have the people and the tools that they need to combat this menace, we also need to make sure that they are equipped with adequate and appropriate legal powers. That is what this bill is about.

The bill amends the Customs Act 1901, with the objective of providing customs officers with more effective powers in relation to the detection of illicit drugs at the border.

The bill also amends the Customs Administration Act 1985 in relation to the use made of information obtained or held by the Australian Customs Service. A brief outline of the proposals included in the bill is as follows.

Currently, passengers and crew who arrive in Australia on a ship or a plane are required to report to Customs. In respect of such people, Customs has powers to ask questions, search bags and, subject to establishing a `reasonable cause', conduct searches of people.

But there is a gap in these powers. Customs does not currently have these powers in relation to a large number of people who have access to ships and planes that have arrived in Australia and which may have illicit drugs aboard.

This group of people includes people such as maintenance crews, caterers and cleaners and, in relation to ships, visitors. This gap is a weakness which has been exploited as a means of importing illicit drugs.

The proposed amendments seek to provide customs officers with the power to examine the bags or other containers in the possession of such persons to ensure illicit drugs are not being landed by them.

Similarly, customs officers do not currently have any power to frisk search such persons. This inability, where the customs officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is carrying prohibited goods on his or her body, provides a significant opportunity for such persons to walk illicit drugs off a ship or aircraft.

The amendments propose to provide customs officers with the power to undertake a frisk search of a person in such circumstances.

It is proposed that these powers will also apply in circumstances where customs officers are involved in the boarding and searching of a ship or aircraft whether it is berthed or parked at a wharf or airport respectively or whether a vessel is boarded at sea by customs officers on an Australian customs vessel.

In summary, the powers proposed are not new ones: as I have explained, Customs already has these powers in respect of arriving passengers.

The proposal is simply to extend the powers to other people in a `customs place' who have unrestricted access to planes and ships for quite legitimate purposes.

The proposed frisk search powers will provide the same safeguards and rights to individuals as currently apply to passengers, thereby ensuring that the dignity of a person being frisk searched is maintained. In relation to customs officers on board Australian customs vessels, there has, for some time, been a concern within the Australian Customs Service about the safety and welfare of customs officers operating at sea in an isolated environment.

Customs officers are not armed. They should be able to feel safe and without fear of any threat when administering the Customs Act and protecting our borders. This is particularly the case in relation to customs officers operating at sea when boarding a ship. Unlike the controlled environment at an airport, customs officers do not necessarily know in advance the circumstances they will confront on boarding.

For this reason, a special frisk search power is being sought in the circumstances. When an officer suspects that he or she is in danger of being injured by a person on the ship, the officer would be able to frisk search the suspect person without consent and take possession, if necessary with reasonable force, of any implements such as knives, guns or other implements which could harm the officers.

The bill also proposes to give customs officers the power to copy a document in circumstances where a customs officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that the document contains information in relation to the importation of illicit drugs. Such information will be invaluable in the detection of significant drug importations.

In addition, the bill proposes a number of amendments which will assist in the detection of drugs by generally making customs controls more effective at the border. These may be summarised as follows:

A customs officer currently has the power to require a vehicle to stop in a customs place for the purpose of checking goods leaving customs control. There is no deterrent if the driver of the vehicle fails to stop. It is proposed to make it an offence in cases where the vehicle fails to stop.
Currently, the act makes it an offence for craft or goods coming from a place outside Australia to go directly to a sea installation without customs permission. A similar offence exists in relation to a craft or goods leaving a sea installation directly for a place outside Australia.

It is proposed to extend the application of this provision to resources installation. The potential for sea installations to be used to breach border controls is equally relevant in relation to resources installations.

It is an offence under the act for an Australian based craft to transfer goods at sea to a craft on an international voyage. It is proposed to also make it an offence for the craft on the international voyage to be involved in such a transfer of goods.
A customs officer currently has the power to board and search a foreign flag ship entering the Australian territorial sea.

As a consequence of Australia becoming a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is proposed to extend these powers to the contiguous zone in cases where the customs officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that the ship has been, is, or is to be, involved in the commission of an offence against the act.

It is also proposed to extend the area in which the general powers to board and search ships may be exercised to include the sea to the landward side of the base line to the coastline of Australia as well as the territorial sea.

Amendments are also proposed to the Customs Administration Act 1985. These amendments will modernise the official secrecy and disclosure provisions and will recognise the necessity of arrangements for intelligence sharing in acting against illicit drug smuggling and trafficking (including performance enhancing drugs) as well as in relation to other unlawful activity.

Such arrangements also assist efficient operational and regulatory activity by customs and other bodies. Special safeguards are also included to ensure the appropriate protection of personal information.

The bill also includes a proposal related to the control of weapons in accordance with the government's gun control policy. The objective of this proposal is that a person on a craft on an international voyage visiting Australia, for example a yacht, is to be subject to the same gun controls as if such a person arrived in Australia as a passenger, similar to all Australians.

To this end it is proposed that such a person be required to keep such weapons in secure storage on board their craft for the duration of their stay in Australia.

If they are unable to provide secure storage on their craft for the storage of the weapon, the customs officer is to have the power to take the weapon into custody for the duration of the person's stay in Australia. The weapon will be returned to the person upon departure from Australia.

The proposals I have outlined will be of valuable assistance to the Australian Customs Service in controlling movements of people, craft and goods across the Australian border, and, in particular, enhance the ability of the Australian Customs Service to detect importation of illicit drugs into Australia. I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and commend it to the chamber.