Subjects: ABF uncover drug smuggling syndicate; misreporting in the media; Australian Citizenship Act – Allegiance to Australia Act.
Thank you to Tim Fitzgerald who's the Regional Commander for New South Wales Australian Border Force for hosting us this morning. I also want to acknowledge the Acting Assistant Commissioner with the New South Wales Police Force Ken Finch. Most importantly today I want to acknowledge all of the hardworking Australian Border Force officers who have done some incredible work and I want to pay tribute to the work that they have done, not just in relation to this operation, but over a long period of time.
There was a big sacrifice made by Australian Border Force officers as well as New South Wales Police in relation to this investigation, ongoing investigations, and investigations that have already culminated in arrests and people being jailed for importation of illicit substances, including drugs. They make a big sacrifice in their own lives in protecting us on the frontline and I acknowledge their work most importantly today.
I am pleased to advise you that two people have been arrested as a result of an operation that's been under way for about the last year. It's resulted in some 300 kilos of ephedrine being seized that would have resulted in $240 million worth of methamphetamine flowing on to the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, all across the country and ultimately into the hands of young users.
We know that there are well over 100 Australians each year who die from drug overdoses and countless numbers of families whose lives are destroyed because of the use of illegal drugs.
This would have resulted in 2.4 million hits being sold to kids, being sold to people across the country and that's why the work that we recognise today is so important. I want to thank again all of those that have been involved in what has been an extensive investigation and operation. There are, as I say, many more other operations that are under way at the moment. Over the last 18 months, the Australian Border Force has seized something like eight tonnes of precursor that goes into the manufacturing of ice, of amphetamines, and this is work that they do in conjunction with the respective state police forces as well as the Australian Federal Police, our intelligence agencies domestically and our partners internationally as well.
So full credit to all of those today. I'd ask Tim to say a few words, then the Assistant Commissioner might after that.
Thanks very much Minister. As mentioned, I'm Tim Fitzgerald, the Regional Commander for the Australian Border Force here in New South Wales and it gives me great pleasure to be here today to talk about a joint operational activity that took place between the Australian Border Force and the New South Wales Police – an operation that led to the seizure of over 300 kilograms of the precursor ephedrine and the arrest of two foreign nationals.
The operation commenced in March of 2016 as a result of a number of detections at our international mail facility here in Sydney. Over the course of the year, Australian Border Force officers at our international mail centre intercepted over 50 individual packages consigned to suburbs in Western Sydney that contained ephedrine.
The goods within those packages – goods such as radiators, coolers, aluminium rods, wall hangings – were all used to conceal significant quantities of ephedrine. As mentioned by the Minister, the total amount of ephedrine seized could produce up to 240 kilograms of the illegal drug methamphetamine or ice. It has a street value of over $240 million and it is the largest seizure of ephedrine by the Australian Border Force.
Ephedrine has very similar characteristics to the narcotic methamphetamine and as a result it is highly sought after by organised crime syndicates to be used to produce ice. The investigation by the Australian Border Force and New South Wales Police officers identified an organised crime syndicate of Chinese nationals who were operating in the south-western suburbs of Sydney.
ABF investigators and New South Wales Police investigators undertook search and seizure warrants at 10 premises on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. It was during that activity that two Chinese nationals were arrested for their involvement in the importation of the 300 kilograms of ephedrine. A further nine persons were detained at the various premises that were identified as being illegally in Australia and they've subsequently been detained.
An investigation of this nature over what is an extended period – we are talking a 12 month period here where investigators from the New South Wales Police and the Australian Border Force dedicated significant amounts of their own personal time to ensure a successful outcome – we are talking about a syndicate, an organised crime syndicate that were active in using encrypted devices and other activities in an effort to both avoid detection of their goods at the border, but also to distance themselves from the importations with a view to not being arrested.
I'd like to pass on my thanks to the intelligence analysts involved in this particular operation, the Australian Border Force officers at our international mail centres, but particularly to the investigators involved; the Australian Border Force investigators and the New South Wales Police investigators.
It is only through their commitment that we achieved significant outcomes as the kind that we're talking about here today – two partner agencies with extremely dedicated officers who are working together, sharing resources and capability that delivers results like this.
I will just hand over to Assistant Commissioner Finch.
Thank you. Thank you Minister, Mr Fitzgerald. Good morning. The results that you've heard about today are simply as a result of our increased cooperation between our agencies and that will continue. Obviously taking that many hits off the street is significant, but I would say that just taking one hit off the street might save a life.
Make no mistake, these people have no regard for the safety of our community and they are killing our community just as surely as they were holding firearms. Some would say, as some have recently, that the war on organised crime is lost. It isn't. Results such as today's results speak volumes about that. The fight continues, and we will continue doing that in cooperation with our partner agencies. Thank you.
We might take questions on this particular matter from either one of us and then I'm happy to deal with other matters in the absence of the two gentlemen. So are there any questions on this matter?
Just on the mail centres. Where was the mail centre where they were found? Can you tell us in detail about how they were detected?
So the international mail centre is in Clyde here in Sydney. It receives about 110 million different packages a year. Through this particular operation, obviously, we have been able to identify 50 individual packages that held the concealments of the ephedrine. It's a fantastic effort by our officers, from an intelligence perspective being able to identify some of those packages, but also by the Border Force officers that are positioned out at the international mail, finding those packages in amongst a significant number that come into the country each and every day.
Over the course of the year, the Australian Border Force makes over 18,000 individual detections of narcotics and precursors and a significant quantity of that is through our international mail centre. So the team out there do a fantastic job.
And did this come in from China, or was it that they were a Chinese national getting it from somewhere else?
No, so the importations themselves were generally out of China or Hong Kong.
And do you know how they were meeting or distributing? Do they have a network or an operation set up themselves [inaudible] on the streets?
That's part of ongoing investigations and with this particular investigation, there will be further arrests. Investigators from both the Australian Border Force and New South Wales Police are undertaking further activities as we speak with a view to looking where this particular products are going in respect to the manufacture of methamphetamine and ice.
The Chinese nationals, what's the go with their status in this country going forward?
So my understanding with the Chinese nationals is one was unlawfully within the country and a second person was here lawfully, but obviously not undertaking lawful activities.
Okay. Well gentlemen, thank you very much. I appreciate you being here. Thank you. Are there any questions?
Minister Dutton, we're hearing reports from Darwin that a number of foreign vessels have arrived there. Do you have any details on the number of boats and where they've come from and if they are seeking asylum?
Well, no. I've seen the reports this morning which I understand are based on some sort of media release or a tweet from a refugee advocate group and I want this to frankly be, hopefully, a bit of a lesson for some of the mainstream media taking advice from advocate groups or from unsourced tweets and then running with it as if it were fact.
Now, I'm advised that we don't have any arrivals of people smuggling boats in Darwin. I am advised that there is some activity up there, as you would expect and as occurs on a regular basis with Australian Border Force, in relation to some illegal fishing operations. People are held in Darwin and they're held there until they can be deported or their matters are finalised and so that activity right across, as you would expect, the north of our country, out from Darwin and in particular in recent times on the north-east coast as well above Cairns and across the Torres Strait, there has been a concerted effort by the Australian Border Force to detect and deal with those illegal fishers.
Do we know what nationality they are?
So in terms of any of that, they're questions that can be directed to the ABF when there is an announcement to be made or when further details can be provided. So it's not an arrival. We've had now over 900 days since we've had a successful people smuggling venture into this country, we've stopped deaths at sea and we still face the scourge of people smugglers – we know that through the intelligence reports and through the work that we're doing through our concerted efforts both on the sea and in the air and our diplomatic engagements and strategic messaging and support from our intelligence partners abroad as well.
Well, I've dealt with that. There's a lot of work that has gone on and continues to go on in relation to stopping people smuggling boats and that's as I'm advised this morning.
Can you comment further on how you think our terror laws need to be strengthened?
Well, I think it's important to point out that firstly Australia has probably the toughest security laws in relation to trying to defeat the scourge of terrorism than almost any other country.
The Government is always looking at ways in which we can improve the legislation and if there are ways in which we can improve the legislation, then the Government will proceed with that and there's no doubt work that the Attorney-General and the Justice Minister and others are doing in relation to this at the moment, but there is a bit of misreporting around this morning around this Bill, or this now law, doesn't deal adequately with foreign fighters coming back to Australia.
The idea of the Bill in its original form, and as it was now implemented into law, is to take Australian citizenship away through a number of, firstly, the acts of the person or the individual themselves; so they're involved in terrorist activities, so it's self-renouncing in that sense; in terms of a conviction that they've had in relation to a terrorist offence or if they're part of a proscribed terrorist organisation. In that circumstance, providing that we don't render somebody stateless, there is the ability to take citizenship away and as has been reported publicly, without commenting on the specific case, there is one case where an Australian, through his actions, has given up his Australian citizenship.
If there are ways in which the law can be improved, then we will be open to that. The Prime Minister and I have already had conversations about ways in which we can improve our suite of measures in relation to dealing with this and I think the Attorney-General talks, quite rightly, all the time about a tool kit of options in defeating terrorists, defeating terrorism, and keeping the Australian public safe and that's what we'll continue to do.
There's been a bit of debate about foreign governments not cooperating and making it difficult to tighten any loopholes. What's your reaction to that?
Well, as you'd expect, I just wouldn't comment on the actions of other governments. The responsibility for all of us in the national security team is to make sure that we keep our country safe and we've got the best law enforcement agencies in the world, we've got the best intelligence agencies in the world and they are working cooperatively together.
In our country we've seen a number of intended terrorist acts disrupted and we should be proud of the work that our frontline officers are doing and those behind the scenes that keep Australians safe 24/7. This scourge of people coming back from the Middle East is difficult for us to encounter, particularly where they come back as a greater threat because of the fact that they have been trained up in the art of killing people and there are a number of ways in which we deal with that threat.
This piece of legislation is just one of many acts that we have to deal with the scourge of terrorism.
Are there any signs that some of these fighters might be returning as the battlefields heat up over there? And how concerned should Australians be about that?
Well, I mean this has been reported on so this is open-source intelligence; people who have been involved in ISIL will be returning – not only to our country but to countries of origin around the world because they are facing defeat in Syria – and all of us, as allies in the fight against terrorism, have been very successful in making sure that we defeat that threat in Syria and in Iraq and elsewhere. Those operations will continue on because Australia has a very strong partnership with the United States and other partners to deal with that in the theatre of war, but all of us are facing returning foreign fighters and we need to make sure that, through our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, we can contain those threats, but if people have been involved in activities where they have put themselves in a position where their citizenship can be stripped from them, that's what this piece of legislation provides and as I say, across the board if there are ways in which we can strengthen up or improve legislation, then I'm happy to do that.
The Prime Minister and I worked hard to get the best possible Bill through the Parliament in its current composition and if there are ways in which any Bill can be improved, then we are happy to consider that, but as I say the Prime Minister and I have been discussing it and he has written to me recently to ask about ways in which we can continue to work on strengthening those laws.
But is it strong enough at the moment?
Well I think it's self-evidenced by the fact that we have bought one person, or through their actions that person has bought himself into the scope of losing his citizenship and that is a very severe outcome because if people that are involved in fighting overseas, and they have the threat of coming back to our country, then we want to deal with them as effectively as possible and by losing their citizenship they don't return to our country.