Speaking on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Proceeds of Crime and Other Measures) Bill 2015

What a pleasure it is to be speaking on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Proceeds of Crime and Other Measures) Bill 2015, which deals with, amongst other things, the proceeds of crimes legislation—legislation that we support. 


We supported it in government. We built on it in government and support it in opposition because we are committed to ensuring that there are strong laws that will tackle the kingpins of crime and remove their ill-gotten gains. However, we think it is important to refer the bill to a Senate inquiry so that the parliament can be satisfied that the bill achieves its stated objectives without any untoward or perverse consequences. We have championed the legislation in both government and opposition to ensure that our law enforcement agencies have the powers that they need to confiscate unexplained, ill-gotten wealth from criminal figures. We will continue to support these sorts of bills.

The bill amends the Proceeds of Crime Act, the Criminal Code Act, the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act and the AusCheck Act. It will implement a range of measures to improve and clarify Commonwealth criminal justice arrangements, including a number of technical changes, such as amending the proceeds of crime legislation, to clarify the operation of the non-conviction based proceeds of crime regime. These measures come in response to a series of recent court decisions.

In some circumstances there can be a stay of confiscation proceedings, and that should always remain the case. But what this bill does is make sure that this cannot be used as a tool to delay what is always going to be the inevitable. A court may still opt to stay proceedings, if it is in the interests of justice to do so—a provision which we strongly defend. However, the person who faces having their assets confiscated cannot just say that they may face charges or have to give evidence in a related criminal trial at some future date as a ruse to avoid confiscation of their ill-gotten assets.

The bill also amends the criminal code to insert two new offences of false dealing with accounting documents. This allows us to strengthen our compliance with the OECD anti-bribery convention. Under the changes in this bill, conduct that involves altering, destroying or concealing an accounting document will be criminalised. These are straightforward, sensible changes, and I welcome them. They will improve and clarify criminal justice arrangements, pending the report of the Senate committee.

It would be remiss of me if I did not take the opportunity to assess, during the course of a parliamentary debate on a bill that deals with the proceeds of crime, to reflect upon the record of the Abbott-Turnbull government when it comes to the disbursement of funds which have been confiscated through the Proceeds of Crime Act. It would not come as a surprise to anyone in this chamber that many of the proceeds of crime relate to drug trafficking and related crime. It is estimated that crime—that is all crime—costs Australia nearly $36 billion a year. Drug-related crime represents a significant proportion of this cost and is of increasing global concern. What some may not be aware of, however, is that money from the scheme's Confiscated Assets Account—that is, the account into which confiscated moneys go prior to disbursement—allows for payments to be made under a program approved by the Minister for Justice. The money may, for example, be put towards crime prevention, law enforcement or diversionary measures and also measures relating to the treatment of drug addiction. This is something that, as a shadow minister in the Health portfolio, I am very interested in. This is a sensible scenario. It takes the proceeds—the ill-gotten gains—from the criminals who prey on vulnerable members of society, and it directs that money into efforts to steer people towards a better life, particularly in relation to rehabilitation. Workers on the front line in the treatment sector need all the support that they can get, because every extra dollar will count. Grants from this account can really go a long way to helping with substance misuse problems. It helps them turn their life around.

When Labor were in government, we used the proceeds of crime scheme's Confiscated Assets Account to fund projects which would support alcohol and illicit drug treatment and rehabilitation as well as prevention strategies. In fact, we spent around $5.8 million supporting treatment workers on the front line. I will give a couple of examples: $149,000 was given to a project developing and implementing an alcohol and drug program for women in prison; another nearly half a million dollars was given to the Inside Out through care program, which assisted inmates affected by drug and alcohol use to accept support and treatment services so that they could successfully rejoin the community; and another $145,000 went to the Getting It Together project, which addressed drug and alcohol use within the Coonamble community in the remote central western plains of my own state of New South Wales.

It was not only the previous Labor government which adopted these strategies. Deputy Speaker Vasta, you have been in this place quite some time. You are probably familiar with the fact that the Howard government had a similar idea. They dedicated funds to projects of real use to workers on the front line and the communities that they support. Deeply regrettably, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have ignored the sector and instead dedicated funds from the account to support projects within their own electorate. It is perhaps not unkind of me to suggest that this was, in many instances, a pork-barrelling exercise in the lead-up to a federal election.

I think that the justice minister is truly committed to this area of public policy, but he can do a lot better. He can do a lot better when it comes to disbursement of funds. I remind you, Deputy Speaker, that this is a man who said earlier this year—and this goes to the nub of the problem—in relation to methamphetamine use that, 'We are not going to police our way out of this. We're going to need to look at the health and education programs if we are going to turn this problem around.' You would expect that a man who held that conviction in his heart would put that conviction into practice when it came to disbursing funds from this account. Regrettably, under the Abbott government and under the Turnbull government, this has not been the case.

If we are going to get on top of drug related crime, we need to get to the source of the problem. We need to look at the demand side as well as the supply side of the problem. These services need all the help they can get. We know that demand is rising and many within the sector feel abandoned by this government—not without reason. Over $800 million has been cut from funds which support alcohol and illicit drug treatment services. This is having a devastating impact. Not only have there been cuts to the funds which support these services; there has been a delay in funding and uncertainty around funding and program streams. This means that services are laying staff off; they cannot plan about what services they are going to be offering in the next financial year. It is an untenable situation.

Against this backdrop, the need could not be greater. That is why I use the opportunity of this important debate to say quite clearly to the government and to the minister: we need to be doing better. If we are confiscating funds from drug dealers, from drug importers and from those who are involved in the illicit drug trade—if we are confiscating the ill-gotten wealth from these individuals—then surely some of that money could be better directed towards minimising the demand for these deadly products in the first place. We should be using the opportunity of the funds amassed through the proceeds of crime legislation and direct that money towards drug and alcohol treatment services. As the minister himself admits—and as former commissioner Ken Lay himself admitted in statements after his around the country tour as a part of the National Ice Taskforce—this is not a problem that we can arrest our way out of.

To take that a step further, we need to look at this as a health related problem. If there are extra dollars available to the Commonwealth and we have a choice about where we allocate those extra dollars, then some of them should be allocated towards drug and alcohol treatment services. Nothing is more effective than taking a person from a life of addiction, which may also involve a life of crime, and rehabilitating that person to ensure that they can turn their life around and become a productive member of society. I argue that that is a very effective investment of Commonwealth money—more effective if we are confiscating money off the criminals in the first place and redirecting it towards the victims of those crimes so that they can turn their lives around. Once rehabilitated, that person is not only contributing in a positive way to the community; they are not engaging in the crimes, whether they are property related crimes or other related crimes, which tie up so much of our precious police resources, both state and federal.

Deputy Speaker, if you are not moved by compassion, then you might be moved by accounting on this particular issue. It is an effective investment. As we are debating a bill which deals with the issue of proceeds of crime, it is an opportunity for us to say, 'Let's learn the lessons of the past.' The Howard government got it. The Rudd and Gillard governments got it. This is a call out to the Abbott-Turnbull government to revisit this issue, because we can be doing so much more and so much better than what we are doing—using this fund as a cynical honey pot in the lead-up to an election, for nothing more than cheap pork-barrelling exercises. I think that it behoves us all to ensure that we are using the proceeds of crime and confiscated moneys in a much more socially useful way. With those comments, I commend the legislation to the House, noting that, when it goes to the other place, it will be referred to a Senate committee to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of the bill.