What’s wrong with checking your phone at work? Combating corruption in Customs

Proposed new restrictions on the activities of Customs officers aim to prevent corruption and stop illegal drugs entering Australia. AAP/Supplied

When it comes to organised crime and corruption, there are events that inspire TV shows: Bikie Wars and Underbelly, for instance. There are those that attract big headlines: “Customs officers arrested” and “NSW Crime Commissioner convicted”. And then there’s the stuff that is a bit less sexy.

Proposed changes to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) announced by the federal government include the following: reforming rostering procedures, restricting the use of mobile phones in specific areas and regulating secondary employment.

These might sound dull, but at least one network allegedly exploited the very weaknesses these changes aim to address. In 2007 they colluded in the corrupt importation of at first steroids and then precursor chemicals. Similar operations have involved the illegal importation of firearms and hard narcotics.

Integrity reform might not be as sexy as scandals and violence, but unless we take it seriously we are condemned to watch one major event after another without changing the system and culture that allows them to happen.

Why should we care?

Customs matters because much of our organised crime and corruption relies in some way upon smuggling. Trafficked firearms are used and distributed by organised criminal enterprises.

Smuggled drugs are a key source of revenue and a major corrupting influence on police and customs. And where criminal and corrupt smuggling networks emerge, they can then spread into other activities also.

Why is this a problem in Customs?

When there’s lucrative demand for an illegal product, someone will try and bring it into the country. Customs officers, then, risk being tempted to smuggle goods in themselves, and are vulnerable to being lured or directly pressured by a criminal enterprise to do so.

Some of the reforms in the Law Enforcement Integrity Legislation Amendment Act (2012) addressed these problems directly. Integrity testing - essentially honey-trap style sting operations - and drug and alcohol testing can help manage such risks.

These reforms (along with others such as the mandatory reporting of misconduct) were well-worn policies that are relatively straightforward to introduce. They were well suited to the kind of quick response called for after more news about corruption in the ACBPS broke late last year. Since then we’ve seen the release of a major Australian Commision on Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) interim report into corruption in the ACBPS late last month, providing more detail on the problem.

The release of the new Customs Reform Board’s first report and Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare’s announcement of the ACBPS Blueprint for Reform outline what comes next for customs reform since those initial policies.

What are the proposed reforms?

Much of the information was big on stated intention but lacked detail. The announcement spoke of “tightening up” policies, implementing “flexible and dynamic screening” in recruitment, pledging to “continue to act upon identified vulnerabilities” by “exploring new initiatives”, and a commitment to “investment in the right IT systems”.

These are good ideas, but as policy statements they are pretty ambiguous regarding what shape the reforms will actually take. To be fair, Clare and Customs CEO Michael Pezzullo openly acknowledged that the ideas would be refined in further detail.

It is important that they are, particularly given that the June ACLEI interim report attributed systematic vulnerabilities in the ACBPS to the unforeseen consequences of a previous round of broad changes that promoted similarly nice-sounding objectives (such as “intelligence-led interdiction” and a “whole of airport” strategy).

Specific announcements

There are now three year fixed terms in specific duties for employees, in part to “break up cliques” used by corrupt officers to indoctrinate new recruits. There are also proposals for a training college for customs officers, and the creation of a Special Integrity Adviser within the ACBPS to conduct internal investigations and/or assist external investigations.

Home affairs minister Jason Clare’s announcement this week of reforms to Customs procedures was somewhat lacking in specifics. AAP/Lukas Coch

These announcements are all promising, though they bring inherent risks. In dealing with police corruption, for example, breaking up corrupt cliques to disrupt networks has been known to actually expand them as individuals take the tricks and techniques they have learned and spread them to other areas while remaining in contact with each other. This was the case, for example, with the New South Wales Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB).

Training colleges are fundamental to educating and informing new recruits about the importance of integrity and the risks misconduct poses to their careers. But specific policies are required to prevent such institutions from serving as pools for identifying and recruiting potential corrupt collaborators.

The accountability and oversight of a Special Integrity Adviser (and how they fit into the pre-existing integrity system) will be fundamental to its effectiveness. This is particularly the case when creating another position with access to very sensitive information, which can increase the risk of that position being co-opted by corrupt networks for their own ends.

Are these reforms going to work or not?

These policies are definitely worth implementing. Provided they are carefully managed, the associated risks are outweighed by the benefits they should bring.

And given the experience of the individuals heading up the Customs Reform Board, those involved in elaborating on the detail of these reforms are unlikely to be oblivious to such risks. James Wood, for example, headed up the very Royal Commission that identified the effects of dispersing the NSWCIB. This is all the more reason for us to see a more detailed and specific second report from the Customs Review Board and some clearer policy detail in the near future.

We need further efforts to address the issues surrounding agency culture noted in the ACLEI report and common to anti-corruption pushes in general. Clare and Pezzullo’s claims that the majority of Customs officers are of good integrity are perfectly reasonable. As much as anything else it is for the sake of the many honest Customs officers that efforts to improve policy must not be squandered by a failure to institute cultural change.

All the recruitment screening, training programs and policy in the world will be for nothing if new employees are entering a culture in which misconduct or corruption are normalised in any way, as suggested in the ACLEI report.

All things considered, the announcement represents a good start to the longer, harder job of more intensive reform. Some, such as former customs employee and whistleblower Alan Kessing remain cynical. Specifically, he doubts whether the promises will materialise as concrete, implemented policies. We should all hope that the government proves him wrong.

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