Thursday, 14 March 2013
Customs Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
The Customs Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2012 makes a number of amendments to the Customs Act relating to the importation of restricted goods, Customs controlled areas and cargo reporting, among other measures. The purpose of the bill is to amend the Customs Act to introduce a new offence for the bringing into Australia a new category of goods known as restricted goods. Restricted goods will be prescribed by regulation. Initially this new category will be limited to child pornography and child abuse material. In future the category could be extended to give effect to international agreements or to address matters of international concern. The new offence does not apply if the person brings goods into Australia in accordance with the written permission given by the minister and the material is being used for law enforcement purposes. This power may be invoked, for example, to permit a controlled delivery by a law enforcement agency.
The bill will also make a number of technical amendments. It clarifies that self-powered ships and aircraft that are imported or intended to be imported are subject to the control of Customs. This clarification does not affect any existing rights but makes the relevant section clearer for duty payable purposes. The bill will amend a number of valuation definitions to ensure consistency with the Agreement on Implementation of Article VII of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 from the World Trade Organization's Customs Valuation Agreement.
The bill will enable officers of Customs to designate a Customs controlled area for both passengers and crew and the CEO to designate a seaport as a Customs controlled area. The bill also allows the CEO of Customs to request further information from an applicant prior to the granting of a warehouse licence. The bill makes further amendments to repeal the legislation which introduced the Accredited Client program. This program was proposed in 2001 but never went ahead due to technology improvements and policy changes. It will repeal the moratorium period for cargo reporting to provide a transition period to move from documentary cargo reporting to electronic cargo reporting—which expired in October 2007—and makes other minor technical amendments to correct an incorrect reference and repeal a redundant definition.
The Labor Party has taken an axe to the Customs budget over the term of the Rudd and Gillard governments, including slashing 750 Customs jobs. This has significantly weakened the agency and left it open to penetration by criminal syndicates. While there have been funding and staff cuts across the board, two areas of mainstream Customs that have been hard hit are the cargo inspection program and passenger facilitation. One of the unfortunate consequences of the continuing weakening of our borders is the decline in air and sea cargo inspections. Labor cut funding for cargo inspections by $58.1 million in the 2008-9 budget and Customs has not recovered since. Under the Howard government, 60 per cent of air cargo consignments were inspected before they were allowed across our borders. Under Labor, less than 10 per cent of air cargo and less than five per cent of sea cargo is inspected when it enters Australia's borders. This gives criminals a much better chance of successfully smuggling weapons, drugs and other contraband into our community and onto our streets. With the volume of incoming cargo being projected to increase in the coming years, even less cargo will be inspected at our borders, meaning more dangerous goods will slip through and into the hands of organised criminal syndicates if the Labor cuts are not restored.
This was evident in March 2012, when 220 Glock pistols smuggled across our borders were detected not by Customs but by the New South Wales Police Force. The Premier, Mr Barry O'Farrell, said at the time that the New South Wales Police Force had embarrassed Customs and exposed the gaping holes in Customs front-line services as a result of cuts made by the Commonwealth government. Mr O'Farrell said that the reason the guns were being imported into the community was that:
…we have a federal government that seems to look the other way with the illegal importation of guns into this country.
At a time when gun violence is escalating throughout the community, the Gillard government continues to slash funding and personnel from the very agency that is tasked with protecting Australia's borders and keeping guns out. If an agency is not properly funded and staffed, it will be left vulnerable to penetration by criminal syndicates, as we have seen in the recent revelations of extensive corruption within Customs itself. These failures are just another reason why Australians have rightly concluded that the Labor Party cannot be trusted to protect our borders. If you cannot trust Labor to stop the boats then it is no surprise that you cannot trust them to stop the guns either.
Let me turn to the issue of passenger facilitation. Despite Customs being slugged with staff and budgetary cuts, the government has decided to put even more pressure on passenger processing. In the 2011-12 budget, the Gillard government hit Customs with a $34 million cut to its passenger facilitation program, and last year it axed a further $10.4 million from the program at a time when passenger numbers were expected to increase from approximately 32 million to 38 million in just four years. The $34 million hit Customs took has already had the effect of a reduction of 70 staff positions across primary Customs lines at Australia's eight international airports in the past financial year. This further funding cut will only serve to make waiting times worse. Airports are already short staffed and they need more Customs officers. The Australian Airports Association wrote in their Customs and Border Protection discussion paper in 2011 that the effect of Labor's cuts has been:
An increase of up to 24 minutes extra at Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth at peak periods for inbound processing.
Estimates by Customs show that international visitors to Australia will increase by more than 150 per cent and international departures will increase by more than 500 per cent over the next two decades. Customs staff numbers and resources have not increased in line with passenger numbers; they have in fact fallen. The demands upon Customs have increased while the funding to Customs has been reduced. This is only putting further pressure on Customs and is causing frustration to the travelling public. It is unfortunate that the hardworking women and men of Customs have a minister who is more than happy to put Australia's premier border protection agency up on the chopping block at budget time.
The Customs service will struggle to do its mainstream duties effectively while it is forced to deal with Labor's border protection crisis in our northern waters. Despite this, I commend the officers' efforts to do the best they can with the resources the government has left to them, and for reasons I indicated earlier in these remarks—notwithstanding the entire lack of confidence the opposition has in the government's management of Customs—I indicate that the opposition will support these amendments.