Interview with Fran Kelly – Radio National – 03 July 2013




03 July 2013

Topics: Reform of Customs and Border Protection Service; asylum seekers; ALP leadership

FRAN KELLY: The arrest earlier this year of four customs officials suspected of drug trafficking at Sydney Airport prompted a widespread overhaul of the Customs and Border Protection Service. The Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, will release the first report of the Customs Reform Board today which he set up in response to growing concerns that criminal networks were trying to infiltrate Customs with some success. And the board will recommend a range of measures designed to change the culture and the practice within Customs including a proposed introduction of fixed tenures to try and mitigate the risk of corruption.

Jason Clare joins us now. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

JASON CLARE: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: You say that Customs needs major structural and cultural reform. That suggests a breakdown of its operational capabilities. How bad are things at Customs?

JASON CLARE: Customs and the Customs team are doing a good job. What this report shows is the current model is not going to be good enough in the future. You’ll remember last year, Fran, we talked about the first stage of these reforms. I implemented integrity testing and drug and alcohol testing last year. The rolls out the next stage of reforms but the challenge for Customs is bigger than just the corruption issue. What this report shows is that over the next five years, the amount of cargo and the number of passengers coming to and from Australia is going to increase dramatically and that is going to require big changes to the structure, the training, the equipment that Customs officers use. But also big changes to the culture. Culture is often the hardest thing to change but the most important.

FRAN KELLY: And how bad is the culture though? I mean how much – we’ve had these arrests – 20 people arrested so far as part of Operation MARCA.

Which I guess is a relatively small proportion in a 5000 strong workforce. How much evidence that organised crime has infiltrated the service?

JASON CLARE: We’ve seen evidence of that from the arrests. We’re seeing evidence of officers who have been susceptible to corruption, who’ve stood over managers, manipulated rosters in order to get drugs or precursors into the country. When you get evidence of that, that’s serious enough to act. That’s why last year I established the Customs Reform Board headed up by Justice James Wood who ran the New South Wales Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service.

He’s provided me with a great set of recommendations and advice to make sure that we can weed this out and stop it coming back.

FRAN KELLY: One of the recommendations for weeding is out is a recommendation for fixed tenure periods for Customs staff to mitigate the risk. What does that do? What kind of problems arise when someone’s stayed in a job for a long, long time?

JASON CLARE: I’m glad you asked that because this was one of the problems identified in the New South Wales Police Service, particularly at Kings Cross where people were in the same job for too long. They could build up relations that could enable them to act in a corrupt way. We’ve seen evidence of that here as well where people have avoided promotion in order to stay in the one job, get on the right roster, in order to import drugs into the country. So one of the things that Justice Wood recommended to me is that you need to limit tenure in certain jobs to certain time periods.

Now that will vary depending on the type of job that people do but it is a really important anti-corruption measure.

FRAN KELLY: There’s also a recommendation for a special integrity adviser. What would that do?

JASON CLARE: We already have an independent integrity commissioner, a corruption watchdog, a little bit like the ICAC or the PIC who runs these investigations and Philip Moss, the Integrity Commissioner, ran this investigation at Sydney Airport. This position will sit over the top of the internal investigation team, the Professional Standards branch. And it’ll report direct to the chief executive officer and run some of those complicated investigations with Philip Moss, the independent integrity commissioner.

FRAN KELLY: There’s also a recommendation to tighten up on the policy about secondary employment which I guess means a ban on Customs officials holding down a second job. Why is that an issue?

JASON CLARE: This was another recommendation put to me by Justice Wood. He said there are some jobs that people do where it can expose them to criminal elements. Whether it might be doing work after-hours in the security industry or other areas of employment. That can expose people to criminal elements and increase the risk of people getting involved in corrupt behaviour. So he said look, you need to have a good look at secondary employment policy and tighten that up.

So that work will now occur on the basis that we need to tighten the rules when it comes to second jobs.

FRAN KELLY: Customs and Border Protection is also on the frontline when it comes to intercepting asylum boats. So it’s a massive job. I mean just in air cargo movements back to the general Customs work, 95 million air cargo movements by 2017 is the suggestion. But on the boats front, more than 740 boats carrying asylum seekers since 2007. That must be putting a huge strain on Customs too, is it?

JASON CLARE: It does. They do an enormous amount of work, working hard. They wouldn’t have to work as hard if the politicians would work together on this to form a political solution. It’s politics that have been poisoned here that make this such a wretchedly difficult problem. We’ve got a good structure in place in Customs with what we call Border Protection Command, which is over 100 officers in the headquarters in Canberra made up of Defence officers as well as Customs officers, and we’re going to replicate that model here with the reforms that are being implemented as part of this blueprint to create a Strategic Border Command to make better use of the skills that we’ve got to target crime at the airports and ports.

But you’re right, Fran. The team that work on our borders, particularly intercepting boats, work very, very hard and they wouldn’t have to work as hard if the Opposition had worked with the Government on this issue.

FRAN KELLY: There has been a big increase in the number of Iranian arrivals. Of the nearly 13,000 people who’ve arrived on boats in the past six months, almost – more than 4000 are from Iran. Bob Carr says most of them are economic migrants. Gillian Triggs, the Human Rights Commissioner, says how we do know, we haven’t processing people. Do you agree that most of these are economic migrants and how do we know that?

JASON CLARE: Well, I’ve said this before. It hasn’t received as much publicity as what Bob has said, but I’ve made the point before that there are a large number of people who are coming to Australia and are seeking a better life looking for a job, and that…

FRAN KELLY: But how do we know that if we haven’t processed them?

JASON CLARE: Well, the people that have come recently from Sri Lanka, an awful lot of them have said, look, I’m here looking for a job…

FRAN KELLY: Sure, but a lot of them have been sent straight back.

JASON CLARE: That’s right, and that’s the point, that over 1000 people from Sri Lanka have been flown home because they don’t meet the requirements for asylum.

FRAN KELLY: But that doesn’t tell us anything about the Iranians.

JASON CLARE: No, let me get to that. A lot of Iranians are also coming to Australia because of the sanctions that are happening in Iran and seeking a job, seeking a better life. The real problem here, Fran, is that we can’t fly them home because Iran, unlike Sri Lanka, refuses to take their citizens back unless they voluntarily want to return home. So unlike Sri Lanka, where you can fly them home, you can’t fly them back to Iran.

FRAN KELLY: Yes, but you’re prejudging the tribunal. You’re basically saying the tribunal’s getting it wrong, and even though we haven’t been processing people for six months. On what is this based?

JASON CLARE: I’m placing the caveat it’s not my portfolio area, but I make this point, and it’s been in the paper and I think others have mentioned it, there is an approval rate at the moment of around about 90 per cent of people seeking asylum and that is much, much higher than any other equivalent countries in the world. In those sorts of circumstances, I think it’s appropriate for us to review the current process. That’s what Bob’s talking about, that’s what the Government’s talking about, and I think that’s the right thing to do.

FRAN KELLY: And just finally, you were a long-time supporter of the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I understand you voted for Kevin Rudd this time around. After – I remember speaking to journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh. She spent three years documenting, really, day by day what she paints a picture of a campaign of disloyalty from Kevin Rudd and others white-handing Julia Gillard’s leadership. Do you accept that view of what happened to Julia Gillard?

JASON CLARE: Fran, I joined the Labor Party a long time ago, and I joined the Labor Party to help it make a better country. I’m not going to tease through the entrails. It doesn’t help the party that I love so much. What I’d say is this: I think and I hope that the days of division are over. People have been disappointed with us, they don’t want to vote for Tony Abbott. There’s a lot of people out there that are very worried about an Abbott Government, and the decision that was made last week, and I spoke to Julia personally about it, makes us more competitive and gives us a real chance at the next election.

FRAN KELLY: Jason Clare, thank you very much for joining us.

JASON CLARE: Thanks Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Jason Clare is the Minister for Justice and Home Affairs, releasing that report into the operations of Customs with recommendations today.