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 UP-DATE; This article was published in 2006 and at the time was considered evidence of a new aggressiveness on the part of customs. The warning it portrays is that customs was then acting outside the law and established guide line. Current events now vindicate the validity of this report as a warning, not heeded.

 Why Are Australian Customs acting like secret police? The author is a retired attorney of considerable note and generally conservative in views. That Mr. Ayers was so offended is a measure of the abusive nature of the confrontation. It should be pointed out as well that the Ayers's cruise in a boat that is typical of the cruising community. Perhaps if they had a more flash vessel this event would not have happened..... to them.

   Chris and Rhonda Ayers doing what yachties do...
 Dangerous Customs  

 By Chris Ayres, SY “Lady Lonsdale"


As we all should know, Customs have the right at law to intercept, board and search any vessel entering Australian waters. Foreign yachts must report to Customs and meet all lawful requirements under the various Acts governing customs, excise and quarantine legislation. These requirements are essential to the protection of not just our society, but the rural industries, wild-life, law and order, the protection of our children from narcotics traders and the overall safety of our community in fact everything we value. It is a vital role Customs play. We need an effective and professional Customs service.

However, what happens if you happen to be an Australian registered vessel, clearly not having come from overseas, anchored in calm anchorage in the Whitsundays? What is the role of Customs? Perhaps to record your presence on their database and if necessary, speak to you personally or call you on radio maybe. Above all to behave in polite and courteous manner. To be professional.

Well, 'Lady Lonsdale' was peacefully at anchor at Keswick island. She is Australian and Queensland registered and clearly marked. We were the only boat in the bay after a smaller sloop had departed. We had been ashore for a swim and an explore and were now enjoying a quiet lunch down below. Suddenly I saw a face peering in through the portlight and my partner thought she heard an outboard motor idling. In alarm I shot up the companionway and saw four people dressed in black or dark blue with baseball caps and sunglasses in a large un-marked RIB. At a glance in the bright light I could see no identification as to who or what they were. They made no effort to tell me. I asked who they were. I received the reply from one grinning individual “guess”. I asked what they wanted “what do you think?” came the reply from the same articulate being. “Are you Customs?” I asked. It seemed a good question. After all in Queensland waters, you can be visited by one or all of all of the following:

1. Federal Police usually identified by the fact they are boarding the wrong vessel to the one they are looking for;
2. Fisheries clearly identified by uniform and vessel;
3. National Parks and Wildlife clearly identified by a similar uniform and differently marked vessel;
4. EPA similar uniforms but different type of vessel;
5. Marine Parks - very different uniforms and larger vessels and helpful people;
6. State Police obvious uniforms and very different vessels, clearly marked;
7. GBRMPA no uniform, different type of vessel, usually very friendly;
8. AQIS usually in aircraft but afloat they wear different uniforms and are usually in the company of (9) below;
9. Customs different uniforms to those worn elsewhere and apparently- without the name identification badges normally worn at airports and other points of entry and also driving unmarked vessels without registration or name identification. Sometimes such vessels carry hand-written notices marked 'customs' (eg Magnetic island). Consistency?

Good news for the boat-builders, bad news for the taxpayers funding this amazing diversity of law enforcement agencies and their respective fleets. Where else other than dear old Oz?

Back to my story. The four individuals continued trying to be smart so I asked them “Do you see a Q flag? Am I foreign registered? Do you have reasonable cause to investigate me? If not, go away. Now!” At this point one of the individuals sheepishly identified himself as “Michael from Customs”. I asked for ID. They refused. I queried the fact they were in an unmarked and apparently unregistered boat. At no time was I told who might be in charge or what they were doing. I told them to leave. I can be not nice when I have to be. It came with the job I did. Still they hung around and I was at a loss to fathom why. Were they just having a nice day out? Were they filling in a lunch break? If so, why hover around? Surely they were not waiting for 'little presents'? But in a country where Federal ministers wander around foreign capitals with bundles of banknotes, where Australian companies pay bribes to dictators and in a state where business was once done by passing brown paper parcels to premiers, who knows? I gave them my card (it has the vessel details, my marine and professional legal qualifications and address). One of them then apologised and they left. At speed. (editors note; I'm pretty sure Mr Ayers legal qualifications had something to do with the speedy departure) I recorded the conversations, description of the vessel, descriptions of the individuals and time and place in Lady Lonsdale's log. I then reported the matter to the local Coastguard who, despite the fact that 'Michael - from Customs' had told me they worked closely with the VMR - had no knowledge of any customs vessel in the area. A lone voice then came in after my call and advised that a large customs vessel was in the area. By now, everyone in a 60 nautical mile radius was aware. If they wanted a clandestine operation, they were now out of luck. Shortly after the mother ship roared past the bay, sending in a one metre high swell. That carelessly driven vessel was, indeed. marked 'Customs' and called 'Roebuck Bay'. I also recorded this incident in the log.

At no time did I consider the behaviour of these people to meet the standards of professionalism required by a member of the Australian Public Service. Having worked in that organization and having at one time assisted in the drafting Codes of Ethical Behaviour for APS departments, I considered these officers had no idea of the standards required of them, lacked leadership and behaved in a supercilious and offensive manner.The Minister, when I made formal complaint to him about the behaviour of his officers, offered another apology and promised his staff would receive 'public relations training' However, he was quite uninterested in the alleged breaches of the Public Service Code of Ethics his employees are required to follow. I considered his officers to have breached the following conditions :







· To act with probity
· To treat members of the public with … courtesy, sensitivity to their rights;
· Not to harass a member of the public;
· Not to unlawfully coerce a member of the public;
· To comply with any lawful and reasonable direction given by a person having authority to give the direction
· Not to make comment that he or she is not authorised to make.

Where breach has occurred, there are remedies available to a person who has suffered as a result of that breach. As they had not boarded our vessel nor attempted to board, I considered it not worth pursuing the matter further. I was frankly sickened by the experience. I have serious heart condition and don't need stress. That's why we went cruising for heavens sake! To relax. Fat chance.

However, were they or anybody to board my vessel, I would consider it my right to record the incident on digital camera. Where a person not clearly identified to be what he or she claims to be and boards a vessel without apparent authority and without consent, then a can of worms is opened. It may be trespass. It may be unlawful entry. You may be a victim of false imprisonment if you are held against your will on your vessel. Or it may all be legal. But what happens if you later find your hand-held VHF radio is missing? Or your GPS.? What if you find something you know doesn't belong to you aboard? Sometimes these individuals may be armed. In confined spaces, firearms are particularly dangerous. Guns are anathema to me.

Conversely, what happens if some yachtsperson later makes complaint that property has been stolen from his vessel? Even if employees of these authorities hide behind anonymity, a court order soon rectifies the issue of identification, and such an allegation hardly helps the credit of the relevant authority nor does it offer much protection to the employee. Such looseness in the law puts not only yachtspeople at risk, but also the employees of the plethora of state and federal organisations who might want to drop in on you and look over your bedding, your unwashed dishes, oily tool-kit and general reading matter.

It all gets down to what sort of a country we want to live in. If we want a society where unidentified persons can enter our homes at will (at common law our boats are residences), turn our property upside down, intimidate and threaten us, bring weapons on board our vessels, then all well and good. Accept it and lie down. Australia was founded as a prison so maybe people feel safer that way. That's fine if you are happy with it and the confusing law that endorses such actions. But bad law makes bad people. And abuse of authority is one step short of a police state. How can any yachtsperson, quietly enjoying the environment we love and look after, possibly know what the legal situation is governing a visit, (all in the one boat for the sake of economic rationalism this time) by Federal and State police, Customs and Quarantine, Fisheries and EPA etc etc none of whom have a warrant and all wish to come aboard your 35' boat. Remember they travel in pairs like on the Ark, two by two from each department. What happens if one of them gets injured? Are you insured? What if they discover something you didn't know about and they still don't have a warrant but remove it as evidence anyway? What about the damage they may do to your vessel or to you? Are you expected to cruise in company with a.. with a … lawyer!!! for Christs sake?

And that is the bottom line. How safe are we from the Guardians? Why is it that government is now such a terrible threat to civil liberties and the right to enjoy the seas? People seem to have rejected the Welfare state that once looked after us in time of need. In place we now have, if not a police state yet, an extremely authoritarian state. Once it was pirates that threatened the seas, now it is MIB - Men in Black/Blue/Brown.

We need an honest and open police force (I think we have one). We need laws governing the operation of our vessels, and restricting the abuse of alcohol when we use our vessels. Remember it is volunteers who risk their lives to make rescues and the police who have to remove the remains from the water after death occurs. Too often the police risk their lives to save lives and when they have to deal with a fatality, it is they have to break bad news to loved ones. We need an efficient and professional Customs and Quarantine service. We need laws to protect the environment that can be reasonably enforced and readily complied with. We need to regulate our own behaviour. But to do so, we must also be able to comply with the laws, to be able to understand the law and have confidence in our law enforcement agencies no matter how many of these there are. It seems business can be trusted to self-regulate; what about some self-regulation for yachtspeople?

If the authorities insist on alienating us yachts people they run the risk of losing the greatest source of intelligence they have to do their jobs.

It really is our choice as to what sort of a country we wish to live and sail in