Customs Amendment and Drug Detection Bill 2011

That is 15 minutes of my life that I am not going to get back again, and that is 15 minutes of my life that my colleague is not going to get back again. I am reflecting on how much time the member for Indi actually focused on the Customs Amendment (Serious Drugs Detection) Bill 2011, which is the reason we are here today. It was quite an extraordinary little performance that one, but it is pretty indicative of the bile, venom and nay-saying that is typical of the opposition today. Every opportunity that they get they use to kick down everything that we are doing, to nay-say what we are doing, to flip-flop all over the place on climate change. You are just wreckers. Admit it, you are just wreckers.

Madam Deputy Speaker, with all due respect to you, I shall speak through you. It is indicative of an opposition that just generates a culture of fear in this country and that wants to keep this country on its knees. It generates a culture of division and a culture of hatred. I am actually seeing it now, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not know about you, but I am getting quite a few emails that are just revolting; they are poisonous. The only reason I can think of that I am receiving these emails is that there is this hatred that is being whipped up by the opposition on a whole range of issues and people are feeding off it. Is this the sort of nation that we want? Is this the sort of nation that you want? I hardly think so. What we do is make people proud of the fact that they are Australian— proud of the fact that as a result of our swift action when the GFC hit we saved this country from recession. We saved thousands of jobs from being lost. We saved this country. As a result of what we did we are the envy of the world. We invested millions of dollars in education, millions of dollars in health, millions of dollars in child care, millions in paid parental leave and millions—and we are continuing to do investment in these areas—in infrastructure. This is what makes people proud. This is what makes a happy and content nation, not one that is fuelled by what goes on in the opposition—on hatred and bile and venom—much of which we heard today. Probably we heard 12 minutes of that today and about three minutes on the bill, which I am about to discuss.

It is with great pleasure that I speak today in support of the Customs Amendment (Serious Drugs Detection) Bill 2011. This bill amends the Customs Act 1901 to enable Customs officers to conduct an internal, non-medical scan of a person who is suspected of internally concealing a suspicious substance. It is indeed a pleasure to speak in favour of a bill that illustrates so well the focused concern of this government to pursue worthwhile reforms and improvements in the way the government carries out its role. In this case, the role is the critical one of protecting the Australian community from the tragic effects of drugs.

I doubt that anyone who gets to about my age has not been touched by the tragic effects of drugs. When I was here at ANU I used to share a house on the north side with someone who was studying to be a lawyer. He became quite a prominent lawyer, as is so often the case. People tend to think that people who have serious addictions are either homeless, unemployed or in a disadvantaged position, but my friend was a prominent lawyer. He was living in Darwin at the time and he overdosed on heroin. My husband also had a good friend who overdosed on heroin when she was in her late teens. So, as I said, once you get to this ripe old age you have always been touched by the tragic effects of drugs.

On that subject I was very heartened the other day to attend Karralika, which is in my electorate. They conduct a range of programs for those with drug and alcohol dependencies. They have had a fantastic success rate and I commend the work that they are doing at Karralika and encourage them to continue with their good work. They have a few issues at the moment in terms of wanting to extend their funding base. They are largely dependent on the ACT government and they want to extend their funding base to be a bit broader, so we have been discussing ways that they can do that. I take my hat off to everyone at Karralika for all the work that they are doing and thank them again for hosting me the other day.

This bill provides clear advantages over the current way in which those suspected of internally carrying drugs or other suspicious substances are examined and suspicions are tested. It does this by taking advantage of technological advances while at the same time reducing the cost to the Customs services of testing suspicions and reducing the negative effects on those tested. By providing greater efficiencies, the proposed procedures would materially improve the ability of the authorities to combat the importation of drugs, with all of their tragic consequences, some of which I have just outlined. Although the advantages are clear, as with any new technology the government is prudently beginning with a trial in order to ensure that the anticipated gains—advantages— do in fact materialise.

Currently under the act the procedure involves the internal manual search of someone who is suspected of internally concealing drugs. As you can imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is far from being simply an inconvenience to the subject of the search. It is in fact an invasive and embarrassing operation. Furthermore, this operation can be carried out only by a medical practitioner at a place specified in the regulations. The Customs regulations of 1926 specify that it be a hospital or the rooms of a medical practitioner. Therefore the way we do things at the moment is characterised by considerable inefficiency, potentially wasting a considerable amount of time and human resources, and by a surfeit of bureaucratic procedure.

The current medical scan technology that is the subject of the bill, in contrast, has the potential to clearly show whether or not a person is carrying drugs or not and does so in a manner that is far less invasive and time consuming. It does so by scanning the internal organs and cavities of a subject and this technology produces a computer image of a person’s internal cavities within a skeletal structure as opposed to images of external body parts. So, in particular, it is a completely different system from that introduced recently in the United States: full body scanners that have received a great deal of critical comment. Where a Customs officer’s suspicions are allayed through a negative result from the scan, the subject will be released immediately. If, however, the suspicions are given evidential support by the scan, it is only then that a full internal examination will be conducted.

An example of the greater efficiency to be achieved is shown by some statistics. During the 2009-10 financial year, 2005 subjects were passed to the Australian Federal Police for internal examination at a hospital, but of those only 48 were confirmed to be concealing suspicious substances. This is clearly a very high rate of false positives with the associated efficiency losses. Of course, given the nature of the evil that we are trying to combat, we have to weigh the cost to the taxpayer and the effect on those suspected against the cost of failing to detect drugs. The proposals of this bill would allow us to achieve the same aims at a lower cost in resources and harm and embarrassment to those examined, particularly those whom examination reveals to be not concealing suspicious substances.

The advantages include reducing the number of people who are referred to hospital for internal examination by a medical practitioner; reducing the significant resource costs and medical costs incurred in the current process; reducing the impact on hospital emergency units, which I think is a very positive thing, because given the pressures that are currently on emergency units any mechanism to alleviate those pressures is welcome; enhancing early and accurate identification and referral for medical examination of people suspected of internally carrying drugs; and, through early identification of internal concealment, minimising the potential threats to life and reducing the number of people requiring transport to hospital by ambulance on the basis of deteriorating health during detention.

It is important to stress again that these expected advantages will be tested in a trial. This trial will help to pick up any unexpected problems or ways of improving the process. Importantly, despite the strong imperative to combat the importation of banned drugs, the bill also provides protections for the privacy and human rights of those subject to examination. I know this is an issue of concern to people, so that is why I was keen to cover it today. First, under this amendment these kinds of scans will be conducted only with the permission of the subject. Second, this bill provides for the use of only such devices as are capable of scanning internal cavities and not any external scanning or imaging. Any scanner that is bought that has a capability beyond this would have that superfluous capability locked out so that no Customs officers will be able to alter that capability. It will be completely locked out and people will be incapable of mobilising it. Thirdly, the chief executive of the Customs service must provide a statement to the minister stating that the device procured is safe to be used, possesses no or minimal risk to the subject and can reliably detect illicit substances. Finally, these scanners will not be used on all travellers or, indeed, randomly. They can only be used in a situation where a Customs officer has reason to suspect the subject is carrying illegal substances. I think that is an important point to make and underscore.

Madam Deputy Speaker, the bill before us is one that should command the support of all who wish to see Australians protected against harmful drugs, and you understand the importance of securing efficiencies and cost reductions in the way government carries out its functions. I commend the bill to the House.

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