In its 2010-11 annual report, then-Australian Customs CEO Michael Carmody explained the agency’s approach to conducting business reflected an “increasingly targeted approach”.
Directing “our resources on high-risk people … as a part of the intelligence-led risk-based approach”, Carmody stated, is what Customs and border protection is all about. The “potential impacts”, he continued “[i]f we do not manage our responsibilities effectively … may negatively affect the Australian community”.
I couldn’t agree more.
As so it was that my wife and I were selected out of the queue of departing passengers at Tullamarine on Tuesday morning for what we were informed was a “cash search”. Did we lie on our departure card and were really carrying in excess of $10,000 with us? And were our mobile phones stolen goods? Well, no, not to our knowledge.
With a bare 15 minutes to go before boarding, we found ourselves in the detention waiting room. Don’t get me wrong; Fiona and I are quite familiar with the holding pens of various countries’ immigration services, such as London and Auckland. Until now, however, the Australian equivalent had escaped us. All that changed on Tuesday.
Into the austere interview room we went, CCTV mounted on the ceiling. The dirty carpet and grey walls were hardly a welcoming start to our long-awaited holiday. Out came the gloves of Officer Steve and into Fiona’s handbag he delved. My man-bag followed soon after, along with my carry-on roller case.
What section of the act allows you to go searching like this, my budding lawyer wife asked one officer. “The Customs Act,” came the reply. “Yes, of course”, continued Fiona, “but what section?” Just the act was all the information we were given.
When one laptop, one iPad, one Kindle and two mobiles were neatly piled on the table – the only fruit Officer Steve’s search had borne – off the officers went. No written notice that our possessions were being acquired. And no explanation beyond the question “were our mobiles stolen?”
After a fair bit more questioning from Fiona in regards to the role her laptop and Kindle played in determining the ownership status of our phones, the officers said the other devices were being scanned for kiddie porn.
As authors of the only Australian book to be banned in 35 years (The Peaceful Pill Handbook was banned on appeal by then-Attorney-General Philip Ruddock in 2007), we were half expecting them to say “objectionable material”. After all, that was how I was last caught out, back in 2002.
Back then I was also going to the United States. But that time I was carrying with me some pieces of polypipe, which, if assembled in a certain way, could make a fairly efficient carbon monoxide generator. On that occasion I was leaving Australia to attend a right-to-die conference in San Diego; this time I was off to Mexico for a belated wedding anniversary holiday.
And besides, that incident 11 years ago appeared to be a one-off. Yes, the Howard government was in power, and yes, the Customs regulations had, seemingly, been recently changed just for me, making it an offence “absolutely to export a device designed or customised to be used by a person to commit suicide” (s3AA(1)) or a “document that instructs a person how to commit suicide using one of those devices” (s3AA(2)(c)).
As we sat in detention this week, we couldn’t help but think about the family of East Timor’s Finance Minister Emilia Pires, who were detained upon entering Australia in December. They too were searched for cash, and unlike us they didn’t have their phones returned. But the point seemed to be the same.
Arbitrary searches are one clear means to harass. In an era where civil liberties are being increasingly eroded, the need for reasonable suspicion, let alone reasonable belief, is disappearing. If the boys in Canberra don’t like you, they are all too willing to use the public service to do their dirty bidding for them.
In a 2011 profile piece in The Monthly on Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Nick Bryant described Morrison as a “devout Pentecostal”. While I’ve never had dealings with the man, Christianity is often a commonality among my enemies. And anyway, this directive could equally have come from any number within the Abbott cabinet – not least Eric Abetz or Kevin Andrews or Tony Abbott himself – all of whom have an intolerance for the message of choice that I advocate.
There is lots about Tuesday’s detention that irks me; I’ve not space to go into it here, other than to say the ombudsman will be hearing from me.
But one thing stands out. With the doors of QF93 about to close, we were handed our belongings back and told to get moving. When Fiona asked for the officers’ ID numbers or names, one “Officer Raelene” said she could locate the list but we would then miss our flight. Is that what we wanted? Hardly in the spirit of the act.
Is this what Australia has come to? Subversion like this should cause the Customs service to hang its head in shame.
Dr Philip Nitschke, a voluntary euthanasia campaigner, is Director of Exit International. He recently opened a clinic in Gilberton.
This article was first published in Crikey.
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