The state of Home Affairs: Michael Outram’s address to the Home Affairs Industry Summit

By Michael Outram

Thursday November 28, 2019

Michael Outram. AAP/Sam Mooy

Here is the speech Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram gave to the Home Affairs Industry Summit on 19 November 2019.

In May, as part of a landmark speech, the prime minister outlined his expectations of the Australian Public Service.

Among other things, he wants:

  • Departments and agencies to have a clear focus on serving Australians
  • For public services to be delivered ‘seamlessly and efficiently’
  • To make government interactions with the public ‘simpler, more human, and less bureaucratic’, and
  • For ‘regulatory bottlenecks’ to be reduced.

Minister Dutton has echoed the prime minister’s priorities, which we are enthusiastically committed to in the Australian Border Force.

Indeed, Australians are at the centre of all our work:

  • They’re the travelling public we facilitate through our airports and seaports.
  • The businesses we bolster through a fluid international trading environment.
  • The communities we help safeguard from organised crime, modern slavery and worker exploitation.
  • The fishing industry we support by guarding our territorial waters.
  • The taxpayers who benefit from our strong customs regime which protects revenue and intellectual property.
  • And all the residents of this nation who are beneficiaries of strong borders and managed migration.

Unquestionably, the pressure on our operating environment has been rising for some time.

For example: over the past four financial years,  international air travellers who crossed Australia’s border escalated by over 17% — from 38 million to almost 44.7 million. To put that in perspective, we now facilitate almost double Australia’s population through our international airports each year.

Moreover, during the past four financial years, the number of imported air cargo consignments we processed increased by about 52% — from 34.9 million to about 53 million.

That equates to about two imports for every Australian, each year. Astonishing figures, I’m sure you’d agree.

The data on our enforcement efforts tells a similar story. In 2018-19, we detected more than 19 tonnes of illicit drugs at the border — about 14 tonnes more than in 2015-16.

And last financial year alone, we made more than 286,000 detections of illicit tobacco at the border, weighing more than 633 tonnes, representing more than $670 million in duty evaded. That’s the value of three state-of-the-art Boeing 737 aircraft.

I joined the former Australian Customs and Border Protection Service in March 2015. In less than five years it feels, in a somewhat vertiginous way, like our border environment has transformed from a metropolitan road into an interstate freeway.

Looking ahead, and based on all evidence and trends, we face three interrelated challenges:

First, escalating volumes of travellers and trade.

Secondly, an increasingly complex security environment that demands an historically unprecedented focus on integrity across the border continuum.

And thirdly, an expectation among the public for convenient, seamless and fast digital services.

Tellingly, Australia’s two-way trade value is now worth more than $799 billion. More than 53,000 Australian businesses export their goods to the world, while one in five jobs in our economy involves trade-related activities. Furthermore, tourism generates more than $57 billion to our economy.

The Australian Border Force must be a reliable filter — one which intercepts security threats without turning off the tap of travel and trade flows so crucial to our nation’s economic prosperity.

But in this day and age, it is impractical and financially unfeasible to manage the border by simply putting additional officers into our operational front line. We’ve already reached the point where we are at the mercy of the law of diminishing returns. That’s why, in line with the prime minister and Minister Dutton’s intent — as well as public expectations — we’re striving to improve all aspects of our business and make our services more convenient, seamless and digital.

The Australian Border Force has embarked upon a customs and border modernisation agenda. This is a complex, 10-year, multi-phased plan to improve our trade and travel systems, which in turn, will boost Australia’s economic growth and national security.

For the travelling public and trading business, we’re aiming for a fluid and digital border environment — one where border regulations are easy to comply with and security is enhanced. The agenda is being developed across government, involving 16 other departments or agencies.

It will require stamina and investment. Specifically, it involves:

  • Digitising and automating more of our services
  • Leveraging new technologies, like blockchain and biometrics
  • Upgrading our underlying IT platforms and infrastructure
  • Modernising our cross-border policies and legislation
  • Streamlining regulations and business processes
  • Investing in our officers’ capabilities
  • Enhancing information sharing between government, business and industry
  • Better utilising data analytics and intelligence
  • Bolstering our enforcement and compliance regimes, including to collect revenue, and
  • Continuing to expand our thriving programs, like the Australian Trusted Trader.

I cannot stress enough that, at the core of this agenda, is partnering with business and industry. The Australian Border Force sees you as co-designers, not hovering spectators. Twenty-first-century border management is a multi-party endeavour. It cannot be undertaken by the government alone. We need your ideas, support, expertise, co-investment and cooperation.

This collaboration takes many forms. For example, it might be:

  • Through your unique technology or systems which we can test and utilise at the border.
  • By becoming an accredited trusted trader — where there are mutual benefits of more streamlined border processing and greater supply chain security.
  • By providing information which supports our compliance or enforcement activities, such as reporting under the Modern Slavery Act.
  • By helping us identify ways to improve processes and cut red tape—such as we’ve been doing under a border permits review to simplify importing and exporting and provide a digital system to manage licences.

To contextualise our work within the Home Affairs portfolio, the Australian Border Force is an operationally independent border agency. Its functions are defined in various pieces of legislation — such as the Australian Border Force Act, the Customs Act and the Migration Act — and it is responsible for the delivery of specific outcomes to government.

My position of commissioner is a statutorily appointed role, and, as an accountable officer, has powers vested through relevant legislation. I am also the comptroller general of Customs.

As our nation’s customs service, the Australian Border Force administers the import and export controls on behalf of over 30 government agencies. A core part of our work is collecting border revenue. It might come as a surprise, but trade and border-related revenues are the second-largest source of Commonwealth revenue, standing at more than $19 billion last financial year.

Despite the distinct functions of the agencies and department which makes up the Home Affairs portfolio, all our work is highly interconnected, particularly in our focus on the prosperity and security of Australians. The portfolio’s principal strengths are in coalescing capabilities, aligning efforts and sustaining collaboration.

Since last year’s industry summit, the Australian Border Force has continued to mature. For an organisation just over four-years-old, I’m proud to say we’re recognised as world-leading in many aspects of border law enforcement and customs management. Indeed, that recognition stems in part from how we’re partnering with other governments, industry and business to respond to mutual challenges and leverage collective support for mutual benefit.

For example, we continue to work with the New Zealand Customs Service to trial a digital secure trade lane.

For businesses, the lane reduces administration and customs checks, while our respective government agencies obtain trade information more expeditiously so we can target our enforcement efforts on higher-risk trans-Tasman cargo.

The Australian Border Force is also contributing to Australia’s engagement in the Pacific region — known as the Pacific Step-up. Together with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and World Customs Organization, we’re implementing a container control program which establishes inter-agency port and air cargo control units. Fiji will be the first nation to run the program, which commences early next year. We’re also supporting the establishment of a Pacific Fusion Centre to help our neighbours protect their sovereignty.

On 1 July this year, we made a major internal functional realignment within the Australian Border Force. We established a Customs Group, led by Mr Bradley Armstrong, who is its Group Manager and the Deputy Comptroller-General of Customs. And an Immigration Detention Group, also headed by a group manager, Ms Kaylene Zakharoff, providing a single line of accountability and management for onshore immigration detention operations.

Now, I appreciate that business and industry can sometimes regard bureaucratic structural changes with a degree of scepticism. There can be the view we’re engaged in yet another internalised feng shui exercise to create the perception of change. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like any business, the Australian Border Force must constantly look at our operating environment and our customers. We have to refine and improve our practices to ensure we don’t ossify.

The new Customs Group encompasses trade and traveller related policy as well as customs policy and compliance. It’s staffed by blended teams Australian Border Force officers and Home Affairs employees.

In particular, the group has elevated the trade and customs function within the Home Affairs portfolio to:

  • Better align these activities
  • Give greater weight and allocate more resources to our ambitious border modernisation agenda
  • Improve our partnerships with industry, and
  • Better support Australian trading businesses and travellers.

To emphasise the importance of meaningful industry engagement, the Customs Group is leading the development of a customs engagement strategy. We will co-design this strategy with industry, by consulting on its design.

I am confident that with your partnership, we can support the prime minister and government’s agenda, and also create a more facilitative and secure border environment.

The Australian Border Force’s customs and border modernisation agenda is mutually beneficial and will help all Australians to prosper.

Thank you for your enduring support.

This transcript was taken from the Australian Border Force Newsroom.

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