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Tough Measures to Tackle Organised Crime
It is fantastic to follow the contribution of my colleague the member for Casey. He did an outstanding job looking after a patch of Deakin when it was part of Casey by ensuring that the main street of Croydon got CCTV. That is an enduring legacy of his hard work and I think ultimately it is a great example of the fruits of the changes I will discuss today in the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Unexplained Wealth and Other Measures) Bill. Ensuring that we use the proceeds of crime for, effectively, crime-fighting infrastructure is of great benefit to the community. I will speak a little later in my contribution about the ways in which we are using those measures in the electorate of Deakin.
The bill contains a number of measures that will be effective in hurting the criminal kingpins where it hurts them the most—in their pockets. I was staggered to learn, as I think most Australians would be, that the criminal economy in Australia is worth around $15 billion, according to the Australian Crime Commission—that is $15 billion of illegitimate wealth. The question that immediately springs to my mind is what is the cost of that to all our communities. I am sure everyone in this place—I heard other contributions earlier—has stories about how crime has damaged their community. In my electorate of Deakin, as in many other electorates around the country, one example that immediately springs to mind is the ice epidemic we are currently facing. Just this month my local paper, the Maroondah Leader—an outstanding publication—reported on how the trafficking of crystal methamphetamine—ice—is worsening and police resources are being severely tied up in dealing with this threat. I am informed that in my patch the police are arresting up to 20 drug traffickers a month and, as one senior sergeant said, ‘When we arrest one trafficker, another one jumps into his place.’
What of the people who are buying this ice? Unfortunately we know all too well what this insidious drug can do to people, inducing unpredictable psychosis and other often violent behaviour. There is no doubt that there is a direct link between the supply of ice and crimes such as burglaries, thefts from cars, assaults and other street-type offences. Police are doing an exceptional job and they are using all the tools in their chest to stop the scourge of these drugs. I often applaud their hard work and dedication, and I do so again today. But what we in this place have a responsibility to do is to help our police, our state government departments and our communities by introducing laws that will help them combat crime at all levels.
We have a responsibility to protect our communities and to create a safer and more secure Australia, and that is what the bill before us today does. It introduces tough measures that strike at the heart of organised crime. These are tough measures that target the people who make their money out of other people’s misery, who live off other people’s addictions through drug trafficking, as I have mentioned, illegal gambling and many others, who prey on the vulnerable through cybercrime, identity theft, who rip us all off through money laundering and tax evasion and who commit or order violent and other abhorrent acts, including assaults, murders and human trafficking.
What I think is important for Australians to understand is that these measures are focused on people who not only make their money out of other people’s misery but also insulate themselves from the dirty work—the so-called kingpins, the bosses. Unexplained wealth laws are a very effective weapon as they take away what crime bosses value most in the world, and that is money. These laws give courts the power to order a person to prove that their wealth was legally acquired; if they cannot, they may be ordered to forfeit their illegitimate wealth.
As other speakers have mentioned, unexplained wealth laws do already exist in Australia, but these laws need to be strengthened. We took our policy to tackle crime to the last election and in that we promised to bolster laws and close loopholes to create the toughest possible regime to cut organised crime off from the profits it needs to reinvest in criminal activity. Today’s bill fulfils that promise to the Australian people. I therefore want to congratulate the Minister for Justice, the Hon. Michael Keenan, on his dedication to strengthening the unexplained wealth laws and to combating organised crime more broadly.
I know that the minister is strongly focused on establishing a national and cohesive approach to organised crime, of which today’s bill forms one crucial part. It was in fact the focus of discussions between the Commonwealth and the states and territories at the inaugural Law, Crime and Community Safety Council in July. I was pleased to hear that at the council meeting the various jurisdictions agreed to look at developing a cooperative scheme that will support a national approach to the seizure of unexplained wealth. A working group will also be established to assist with this task. Again, I commend and congratulate the minister for his success in bringing the various jurisdictions together in this very important battle.
The minister in his second reading speech went through the finer details of the measures in the bill and how they will operate, so I will not go into those in great detail today. However, I do want to touch on what the amendments in this bill—some of them I foreshadowed a little earlier—are designed to do. The amendments stem from the Joint Committee on Law Enforcement inquiry into the Commonwealth’s unexplained wealth laws and arrangements in 2011. The committee made a number of recommendations—18 recommendations, in fact—in its final report, some of which had not been implemented until now. The inquiry involved extensive consultation by law enforcement agencies and stakeholders to make sure that the recommendations put forward achieved the right balance of providing the agencies with the tools they need to investigate and target unexplained wealth while, at the same time, ensuring appropriate protections remain in place. From what I have read, today’s bill gets the balance right and will be welcomed by law enforcement agencies, including Victoria Police in my patch, as they continue to do an outstanding job in tackling serious and organised crime.
Firstly, the amendments seek to strengthen the powers of law enforcement agencies by giving them more tools to go after the profits of criminal syndicates. The bill boosts search and seizure powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act and also makes it easier for state, territory and foreign authorities to share information and work cooperatively. Secondly, the bill seeks to streamline the laws, making them fairer and removing uncertainty. The courts’ overarching discretion to refuse to make unexplained wealth orders for suspected wealth in excess of $100,000 will be removed, creating greater certainty for all parties. But I stress that appropriate protections do remain in place, with the court retaining its discretion to refuse an order if it is satisfied that that refusal would be in the public interest. Finally, the bill closes a number of existing loopholes in the Proceeds of Crime Act. People will be prevented—the member for Casey went into some detail on this—from using restrained assets to cover legal expenses to defend an unexplained wealth case; instead, as with other proceeds of crime orders, they will be able to seek legal aid. I echo the member for Casey’s comment in that respect: it is a perverse outcome if a criminal boss in a certain case may be able to string out or unduly tie up the resources of a court by using restrained assets to fund, effectively, a protracted court case. Also, people whose property is subject to a preliminary unexplained wealth order will be prevented from frustrating the proceedings simply by failing to appear at court. That is a glaring hole in the current laws, and I think it is a very sensible change. We hope this reform will help to usher in a new era of combating organised crime by giving both the police and the courts the powers that they need to enforce the unexplained wealth laws.
It is also fitting that the criminal profits should fund crime prevention infrastructure. Every dollar that we take from a criminal through the unexplained wealth laws will be reinvested into crime-fighting infrastructure. It is a common sense approach and it has certainly been welcomed in my electorate of Deakin, where the coalition government is investing $600,000 to improve public safety through the Safer Streets Programme. It is $680,000 generated from criminal activity that will now make our community a safer place in which to live and work. Of that funding, $400,000 will be used to install CCTV cameras in Railway Avenue, Ringwood East and central Ringwood, where people have expressed to me their concerns about feeling unsafe walking at night. CCTV has proved to be a very helpful tool for deterring crime and assisting police to identify offenders, so much so that many groups in my electorate of Deakin are expressing to me their wish to have additional CCTV in our area. Another $200,000 for the Deakin electorate will go towards the installation of lighting in Nunawading, where the local traders association voiced fears that a lack of lighting makes passers-by and many of their customers feel very unsafe at night.
The final piece of the Safer Streets funding for Deakin is $80,000 that we have provided in the budget to assist the Whitehorse City Council with the cost of a retrofitted graffiti truck to help with the more rapid removal of graffiti in the municipality. If people feel unsafe because of anti-social graffiti in the area, we want to combat that at all levels.
All of these crime prevention measures will make a real difference to safety in my community. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that they have been funded by money that would otherwise have gone to furthering criminal activity. These measures are but a few examples of the good use that illegitimate wealth can be put to, and the great benefit that can come for all of us from the unexplained wealth laws.
I look forward to the bill passing, and, hopefully, to hearing media reports of successful police investigations and prosecutions of unexplained wealth cases and to knowing that, on each occasion, the Commonwealth has broken a criminal syndicate and taken away the money the syndicate relies on to continue its destructive activities. Ultimately, each successful prosecution will mean less money going into the pockets of drug traffickers, money launderers and thugs, and more money being invested in productively in our society, through crime prevention initiatives.
It is a sad reality that serious and organised crime represents a significant threat to the safety and security of our nation, as we all know too well. But today’s bill goes a long way towards helping to tackle that threat and to undermining serious and organised crime. I am pleased to have been able to support this bill, and I look forward to the implementation of the reforms it contain, which ultimately will help to create a more safe and secure Australia.