Blogging Senate Estimates (part 4)

Senator Ian McDonald shakes his head. The CEO of Customs is detailing the ongoing investigation into corruption and criminal charges of Custom’s officers. Importing illicit substances, other contraband and code of conduct breaches are all being outlined. 5 people have been charged, one has been convicted with a 7 year jail term.

“Operation Heritage” is not a front page story which is surprising given the media’s love of guns, drugs and public servants being corrupt. The abuse of public office is a serious issue and shows how clearly even in a highly functioning democracy and world-class bureaucracy, weeding out poor behaviour is difficult at any agency. The CEO is concerned it is hard to undercover those who actively seek to avoid detection.

Unfortunately for Customs officers, all are now subject to drug and alcohol testing, both targeted and random. 1040 tests have been conducted since March 2013. This testing does not occur for other public servants. Termination has occurred for one of the three people found to have been under the influence while on duty. The CEO outlines how he intends to make the “organisation suitability regime” the toughest in the public service (I don’t know what that is). Law and order from the very top is obviously the order of  the day however one wonders if these types of procedures are overboard and impacting on the work environment of a large public service organisation such as Customs (at last check ~8000 staff).

I find it hard to believe aggressive policing does not have negative downsides for your average staff member. Taskforces, integrity units, and other active internal governance hits staff members as well as ‘dangerous criminal gangs’ who import illicit drugs. Further, there are a wide range of measures to stop the importation of illicit drugs that do not involve a ‘crackdown’ on thousands of staff.

It is in policy areas such as this one where you see the most able of public servants. The CEO justifies these tough measures by appealing to a tough on crime narrative. He just outlined how Australian prices for drugs such as cocaine are global leaders, and then compared the Australian price cocaine to the price in Mexico and Columbia. It doesn’t take a genius to understand those price differences and it has nothing to do with staff at Customs.  I understand these prices do contribute a heightened risk of importation of drugs however by conflating the issues, he is clearly signalling to Senators that Customs is tough and appealing for ongoing support on his agency’s reform processes. I wonder what the CPSU thinks of all this.


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