Jason Clare … launched a crackdown on waterfront crime.The war against organised crime on Australia’s waterfront has secured a series of high-profile arrests that police say have smashed alleged drug networks operating through Sydney’s ports.
In the past three months, the Polaris taskforce – the Australian Federal Police-led operation that involves the Customs Service, NSW Police and associated agencies – has arrested four Sydney waterfront workers, two men with connections to the docks and a former wharfie.
While the four cases are not connected, all the men are before Sydney courts on drug charges and are yet to enter pleas.
Police, who spoke to The Sun-Herald on the condition of anonymity, said they remained wary of an entrenched culture of corruption, nepotism and silence on wharves.
”The waterfront is where Australia is most vulnerable and Polaris is working at ways of reducing that exposure,” an officer said. ”It’s a slow grind but we’re getting there.”
But Dean Summers, a Maritime Union of Australia organiser who handles waterfront security concerns, said: ”It’s ridiculous. This bagging, this trying to suggest we’re all crooks and gangsters and, in the past, terrorists, just doesn’t wash.”
He added: ”The wharves are largely a sterile environment. It’s boxes moving across the tarmac. To suggest it’s a dark and dingy festering den of criminality is just off the page.”
Police admit they have an endless battle against ”dark networks” that operate through the ports. The NSW Crime Commission has detailed that after several arrests, and cash and drug seizures, a Mexican cartel had simply ”set up a new stream of supply within months”. In part, it is because ”disproportionately large profits can be obtained for illegal drugs in Australia”, they wrote in last year’s annual report.
But a tiny fraction of containers are checked. Statistics from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service show more than 2.2 million containers are imported each year, 70 per cent of them coming to Melbourne and Sydney. Of these, the Customs Service X-rays 101,500 and physically examines 14,000 containers each year.
In May, the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, launched a crackdown on waterfront crime. But he declined to comment on container check ratios and police allegations that the union, a big supporter of the Labor government, was a problem for the nation’s border security.
In May last year, David Samuel Perry, 45, a former Queensland branch assistant secretary of the union, was sentenced to a year in jail for allegedly lying about helping a syndicate to smuggle $170 million worth of drugs into Australia. Mr Summers, however, said he had never seen any criminal activity in his time working for the union.
”Our members are by and large honest, hard-working men and women who just want to go to work.”
Mr Clare’s reforms include new obligations for maritime and aviation security identification cards for stevedores and at customs depots, warehouses and for brokers who use the Integrated Cargo System. But last month the government’s Office of Best Practice Regulation ”assessed this decision as being non-compliant with the Australian government’s best practice regulation requirements”. Mr Clare did not respond to emailed questions and declined requests to be interviewed. In a statement, his spokesman said that since inception in July 2010, Polaris had made 20 arrests resulting in 113 charges, seized more than 12 tonnes of illicit substances and precursor chemicals for drugs, 119 tonnes of illicit tobacco and 92 million cigarettes, preventing the evasion of about $77 million in tax revenue.
Mr Summers said increasing the security requirements for waterfront workers was a misplaced policy.
”I don’t know if you understand how invasive that card is already. People have to undergo an ASIO background check, AFP check and an immigration check. If they are suggesting that’s not good enough, well, they need to speak to those agencies.”
Mr Summers said the union was disappointed it was left out of negotiations about the reforms.
”People working in shipping companies, or those people who have real effective control of terminals, they don’t have to have background checks,” he said. ”A lot of ports in the country don’t even have security on them.”
In July, Asciano, the company that runs the Patrick wharf, announced plans to replace 270 of its 511 Port Botany workforce with automated straddle carrier technology by 2014. A spokeswoman said: ”We have always and will continue to work together with the relevant law-enforcement agencies in order to appropriately address crime and review potential vulnerabilities.”
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