From TCP # 24: In edition # 23 of The Coastal Passage I published
the accounts of three sailing boats
entering Australia and the difficulties they had with Australian
customs. The first letter to arrive was from John Hayward concerning
his friends Bram and Magda of the Dutch boat Saluut.
It was hard to believe. If it wasn't for the corroborating accounts
I may have dismissed it as exaggeration. When I did investigate
I found much similar detail between the accounts. The worst of
it was discovering the plight of Jim
and Dorothy Manzari. These people had been warned of the
difficulties with Australian Customs but had faith in the notion
that if they were very careful to follow the procedures (however
irrational they might be) to the letter they would have to be
OK. And now they find themselves branded as criminals, a state
of affairs they will not accept. How could something like this
occur in my country? Where did all this come from? Why hadn't
I heard of this? And many more questions.
What I have found is legislation that seems
unclear and then the enforcement is handed to an agency that
has suffered a serious decline in international reputation typified
by their "Integrated Cargo System debacle that recently
caused Australian ports to seize. (and at a reported cost blow
out of $200 million!). Domestically there is the documented decline
in professionalism and overreaching of jurisdiction. (see; Dangerous Customs, TCP web site
under issues) In short, Customs are interfering with
domestic craft and a foreign flagged vessel entering Australia
is taking a real crap shoot. Do you feel lucky?
Lets start at the beginning and ask why
the legislation in the first place? Reacting to, or capitalising
on fear, this is all under the heading of Border Protection
Policy which sounds good except in spite of much research
I have not found an example or suggestion of there ever having
been a threat to Australia or anywhere else via yacht. But for
the sake of argument let's say there may be suicide Beneteau
bomber out there somewhere. If any one would have had to deal
with such a threat I imagine that would be someplace like Israel.
Except for their relatively large coast line, they are literally
surrounded by hostile nations dedicated to their destruction.
So what is their entry policy for yachts? Give a hoy on your
VHF as soon as you are in range thanks. Most boats report that
they are met at about 40 miles off by a patrol craft anyway.
And what of the post 9/11 US customs entry policy? Upon arrival
please report to the nearest customs office, that's it. The only
country that has anything remotely similar to Australia's policy
is New Zealand and they seem to have a relaxed enforcement attitude.
I called myself and asked and I was told that as long as you
give an estimate of arrival at least 48 hours in advance (no
maximum period as in Australia) via fax from your last port and
call with VHF when in range you are OK. In fact in all the searching
I've done, no country on earth is as dangerous to enter by yacht
as Australia. Hey! We're number one!
Why no notice of this new policy? No press releases? I was shocked that I had not
heard of the policy prior to the first conviction reports. I
have yet to talk to anyone who found out about this through what
one would consider a normal channel. Even the government
friendly press were mute on this. I saw ads from customs extolling
the virtue of dobbing in anything you see that is suspicious
while out on the water but not one mention of this radical change
to customs enforcement.
Why so harsh?
Thousands of dollars and a criminal record for this minor infringement?
This does not appear to be meant to educate and persuade as much
dissuade people from the cruising lifestyle.
Border Protection Policy as it applies to pleasure craft appears to be
a sham. In spite of considerable time spent in search, I can
find no evidence or even suggestion that yachts deserve the attention
that they now enjoy. If ever there is a serious threat
to our shores it is most likely a yacht that will make the first
report... providing the yacht is inclined.
Why does customs work so hard at image
control? Its easy to get the impression that Australian
Customs spends an inordinate amount of time and resource in message
control, even to minutia degree. It is obvious (in my opinion)
from a thorough web surf that Customs commits a large effort
to its web presence and search engine placement. And be
wary of trusting their web site for information as it seems to
change often; perhaps in response to publicity? A whole page
of information that I pointed out in last edition (information
for ships masters) that contradicted what customs had been
stating in public and in court, has simply been removed from
the site for travellers and other small but important
details change from time to time. I also advise caution in taking
the terms they use at face value, like Border Protection
policy, Remember the Iron Curtain or
the Berlin Wall? Well to East Germans it was
the Anti-Imperialist Protection Wall. Have
a familiar ring to it?
Customs officials at risk... Customs officers that cause harm in violation
of law may be held personally responsible for those damages.
Just because superiors order a thing to be done and assure it
is law is not necessarily protection.
Pariah State? Us??
Australia?? How can this be?! But it is true already. Reports
have been coming in for months, even before the latest outrage.
Some Australian cruisers are leaving their boats in foreign ports
and flying home for a visit or business. Many foreign flagged
vessels are by-passing Australia in favour of countries like
Indonesia where it is considered safer than here.
What of the boating industry? The last few years have been good but there may
be storm clouds on the horizon. For those that remember the controversy
in New Zealand a few years ago, it was industry pressure and
a brave yank that took it to court to overturn a law there that
saved the day. (New Zealand passed law that required safety equipment
on departing yachts that was at odds with international law and
How attracted are people going to be to cruising when Customs
states they can board any vessel, anywhere, anytime.
Might be bad for business.
Questions, questions, and few satisfactory
answers... My mind keeps returning to a brilliant quote from
the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand that one of the
first victims of all this, American Yacht Sochatoa,
had in their report last issue...
Did you really think that we want
those laws to be observed?... We want them broken... We're after
power and we mean it... There's no way to rule innocent men.
The only power any government has is the power to crack down
on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes
them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes
impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a
nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone?
But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor
enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation
of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt."