Tuesday 20th Nov, 2018

Balancing the needs of industry and trade

Acting Commissioner Michael Outram of the Australian Border Force argues for a risk-based approach to security, says security and customs should remain under the same umbrella and calls for industry to be more vocal regarding its interests

ACTING Commissioner Michael Outram of the Australian Border Force says industry must find a voice when it comes to customs and the movement of goods from overseas.

The former Scotland Yard police officer was speaking in the context of the planned creation of a federal Department of Home Affairs.

AC Outram said the Border Force would probably be slightly more independent under the new arrangement than it had been previously alongside other frontline agencies the AFP and ASIO.

“The first thing I would say is that the Border Force is and will remain Australia’s Customs service,” he said. “As the Acting Commissioner I’m also the Acting Controlling General for Customs in Australia and we see that role as being very important into the future.”

Trade against security?

With national security a hot topic, there has been some suggestion of a clash between the needs of border protection against those of trade.

“That you’re going to be so focused on security you’re going to forget about facilitation, you’re going to forget about revenue and the traditional Border functions,” AC Outram said.

“Actually that’s far from the truth because the better we are at the security side of our job, the more we can facilitate (trade). In other words, we know which people, which companies, which goods, which transactions we can trust,” he said.

“Because we have good data, good intelligence and good knowledge about the system. The better we are at our Customs role in terms of integrating cargo systems… getting good data and information out of industry partners and the supply chain, the better our ability to analyse that data and cross-check it against national security intelligence holdings and criminal intelligence holdings in real time.

“I actually think to separate them (the two functions of security and customs) would be madness, frankly.”

AC Outram talked of targeting enforcement activities at areas of highest risk while giving reputable people, companies and transactions “a light touch”.

“But if I’m being honest we probably haven’t been as vocal in the Border Force about that almost symbiotic parts of our business as we should have been.”

Clear communication

He noted efforts to improve lines of communication with industry, such as the Australian Trusted Trader program.

“We have got to keep the foot down on the accelerator in relation to that and getting the benefits of mutual assistance agreements that we’re now trying to strike with other countries who have similar programs in place,” he said.

“Of course we have maintained the annual industry summits and there is a whole range of dinners we get to attend during the year to ports and freight forwarders and customs brokers.

“There is a whole lot of engagement we’ve been doing with industry to make sure we’ve been keeping industry appraised.”

Grinding the border to a halt?

AC Outram noted a “tendency in the media, even with some commentators beyond the media, to dumb down this discussion and say, ‘the Border Force should do more screening of stuff, you should search more containers for asbestos, you should search more mail items for things that might be made into bombs, you should search everything’”.

“The reality is, if we do that, we are going to grind the border to a halt, we are going to grind industry to a halt and slow down trade and passenger movements,” he said.

“Given volumes year on year are going up exponentially in mail and cargo and passengers. And our resources… the Commonwealth budget is not growing…

“So how do you manage that growth in volume which is great for the economy and great for our traders here in Australia and our shrinking budget if you don’t take a risk-based approach?”

He noted a case where the ABF was criticised for not having found components for plastic explosives.

“Think about the components that are used to make improvised explosive devices. They don’t tend to come in the guise of four sticks of dynamite with an alarm clock stuck on the top of it.

“If you put a timing device in a parcel and sent it to Australia from another country, is it reasonable to expect that our people, on the basis of that alone, would detect that?

“So if we don’t have intelligence to tell us that we should be worried about certain sorts of items coming from certain countries or companies to certain places in Australia, and we can’t screen on the basis of that to create profiles and alerts from the data, so that our people are targeted in terms of what they do….

“That applies to trade, it applies to mail and it applies to passengers… the idea we open every sea container… you can’t take that approach.”

AC Outram agreed industry could better make its views heard in public.

“I wish that we could hear more from industry sometimes about what their view would be of us taking that (heavy handed) approach at the border.

“At the moment I think we’re trying to balance the risk and the volumes facilitation against the backdrop of reduced resources.

“Opening more containers isn’t the answer.”

He noted unofficial calculations suggested that to open every container would require another 6500 officers.

“At the moment we clear containers at an average of four hours. But we could get back into the days, rather than the hours (if every container was checked.

“It just would be terrible for industry and trade.”

From the print edition August 17, 2017

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