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
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,
7. GBRMPA no uniform, different type of vessel, usually very
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
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
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
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
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
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
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