War on boat people (no job too large!)

On my holiday, I discovered a fascinating dimension of the Australian government’s war on boat people. I wonder whether all those voters who salivated at the prospect of enhanced customs and immigration powers to keep out terrrsts realise what their taxes are actually paying for?

Let me begin by saying that I admire the resolve and determination of the Australian Customs Service to ensure that every single boat arrival to Australia is duly authorised.

In fact, so dedicated are they to this cause that they are prepared to endure 4 hellish days on luxury cruise liners like the above, just to check all the passengers’ arrival cards.

Unlike airport officers who only bother to check your arrival card once you, you know, arrive, the intrepid men and women of the ACS are prepared to take swift pre-emptive action. Risking seasickness, boredom and death by profiterole, they board intimidatingly opulent cruise vessels in Malaysia and then sail across the equator – checking, checking, checking as they go.

So effective is the war on boat people that for immigration purposes the borders of Australia now finish somewhere around the perimeter of Uluru, but if you’re a customs officer, Australia begins at Borneo. Please don’t tell the Malay or Indonesian defence ministers – we all know about those ‘nasty neighbours’ up north!

And unlike those lax customs officers in Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia, whose small team only devote a scant few hours to processing 2,500 arrivals, our meticulous bevy of 8 Australian Customs Officers take two days to do the same job. And it is such an important job that it can only be done on board the ship, preferably near the buffet.

Some of the deadly cargo that customs officers protected us from, by eating it. That selfless act alone saved dozens of Australian arteries.

And may I also say how impressed all the boat people were with the thoroughness of the Australian procedures. For instead of quietly processing all the cards in port like those dozy southeast-Asian customs officers, our proud Australian officers made sure there was sufficient fanfare on board so that everybody knew what a good job they were doing. For two continuous days, passengers were called away from their holidaying to go and present their cards at a time convenient to the customs crew.

Of course, being modest, stoic Aussies, these officers exhibited great humility when asked about their exploits on the high seas. When I asked them how long the ACS had been sending officers to spend time on luxury cruise ships, they replied demurely “a whileâ€?. When I enquired with other passengers, I was led to understand that customs officers are selected by lot to endure such privations, and they refer to it as ‘the prize’.

Over the four days to Darwin, I noticed the officers lounging in the buffet, strolling the decks and sampling the wares of the ship to ensure there was nothing suspicious going on. Such thoroughness is to be admired, especially in contrast to the cursory approach of the Thai, Singaporean or Malay customs services, who couldn’t be bothered coming along for the ride.

Just a few of the undesirables who make their way to Australia each year by boat after paying thousands of dollars to unscrupulous operators. Children can clearly be seen in the water.

I for one felt immense gratitude that ACS officers are prepared to go to such extravagent lengths to protect Australia from this menace to our north. It was a great satisfaction to know that not only had I paid for my own ticket, but that my taxes had also helped pay for about eight ACS officers to cruise along with me. Your taxes too.

Citizens, aren’t you glad to know that no luxury cruise liner is too large for the Australian Customs Service? I feel better-protected already.

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No responses to “War on boat people (no job too large!)”

  1. Debbieanne

    Another fine example of how to ensure public servants reputations stay in the toilet.

  2. Helen

    Children can clearly be seen in the water.

    Another keyboard ruined!

  3. Zoe

    *stands, applauds*

  4. Graham Bell


    CV ready – where do i apply?

    Oh, by tne way, you didn’t mention those thousands of unsearched shipping containers entering Australian ports …. Hmmmm

  5. GregM

    Checking the identity of those people who enter Australia and confirming that they have valid visas is the role of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, not of the Australian Customs Service, which is the responsibility of the Attorney General’s Department.

    What on earth (or in this case on the high seas) were these people doing on the ship? Checking out whether the tourists on board were carrying in native crafts which do not pass muster with our quarantine regulations?

  6. Paul Burns

    And to think, years ago (1990) I applied for a job with the ACS. (I never got a reply. And I was quite prepared to move from Armidale to Cairns. If I’d known about this, I would’ve been more persistent.
    What is it? The Gravy Boat?

  7. Mark

    I used to know a guy about 15 years ago who worked for the ACS – he reckoned it was one of the cushier jobs in the APS, and all that juicy overtime for going out to the port at Lytton in the middle of the night. But I didn’t realise how cushy.

    You should write to the Minister, Mercurius – seriously. Odds are that no one at political level knows this is going on.

  8. Paul Burns

    Another thought. Maybe they were checking for horse flu?

  9. Mark

    Re – your application, Paul. I gave it serious thought when in 95 there wasn’t actually a massive job market for newly minted BA graduates! If only they’d played up the “lerve boat” angle perhaps they would have sucked me in.

  10. pablo

    Mark. I realise this is a bit left field on your ‘lerve boat’ angle but in the light of the terrible Dianne Brimble inquest I can envision our Customs Service jaunters being very careful who they carouse with while chasing exotic imports.

  11. Mark

    I’m sure it was all much more civilised in the 90s, Pablo. I imagine people wearing boaters and playing deck tennis. Or maybe that was the 20s… I think my image of cruises derives largely from Brideshead Revisited.

  12. Darin

    @ 2 – Helen – Another keyboard ruined!

    Agreed! It was worth firing the laptop up tonight for that alone.

    @ 9 – Mark – The market was no different in 99… I’m sure lurve boating would have trumped IT. I still wonder why there was no call for peace studies graduates when everyone was worried about war…..

    Oh….hang on…..

  13. Graham Bell

    Paul Burns [8]:
    That sounds like a load of horse ….-feathers to me! Anyway, just ask Pyzo [:D L=O=L]

    GregM [5]:
    Wasn’t that quaint concept “quarantine” abolished in our wild rush to globalization? [Never mind what they do in Japan, Taiwan or New Zealand]..

  14. Mercurius

    Greg @ 5:

    You are right, they weren’t checking visas.

    Here is what they were doing on the ship:

    1) Read each arrival card to make sure the name on the card matches the name on the passport, and that the card is complete.
    2) If the boat person had ticked ‘Yes’ to having any declarable items, then they would tell that person to have those items ready for inspection by AQIS officers in the port, 2-3 days hence.

    They were blue-uniformed customs officers wearing the exact same uniform that is worn by those people at the airports who check your passport and card for arrivals/departures. They were not checking visas.

    By the time the Aussie officers got on board that boat, everybody on the boat and their luggage had already been inspected by some of the most rigourous and fearsome customs officers in the world: Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. Some passengers had also been through Japanese and Chinese customs. I would say that they were the most inspected passengers on the high seas, but no, our officers had to do their bit – on board next to the casino, of course.

  15. Paul Burns

    I’ve been engaging in the guilty pleasure of extreme levity on this thread so far. But just a serious thought. In the wake of the Diane Brimble affair, might not the customs officers have been on board partly to keep an eye on potential illegal drug use? Possibly at the request of the cruise company. They would not have been likely to advertise this. Further, might not customs authorities have been concerned to be seen enforcing quarantine measures after the horse flu debacle? One wonders.

  16. Mercurius

    Paul, the boat had already passed through Singaporean, Thai, Vietnamese and Malay customs. They are among the toughest in the world, with a death penalty for drug traffickers in at least two of those countries. Passengers had been subjected to innumerable beagles and their baggage X-rayed about 6 times before they got anywhere near Australian waters. They had received far greater scrutiny than anybody who arrives by air.

    I leave it to you to ponder the likelihood of any recreational drugs remaining on the vessel.

    In addition, the customs officers informed me that this had been the normal operational procedure for “a while”, which I suggest is likely to pre-date the Brimble affair or horse flu. I also remind you that the Brimble affair happened on board a ship that departed from and returned to an Australian port.

    I can also vouch for the fact that no horses were among the passengers, although many of the women displayed chicken-wings, which could be an avian flu risk :-)

    Given the operational complications for the ship in having the Australian customs corral on board for days, with constant shipboard announcements to call passengers, great inconvenience caused to passengers, and having to rope off large sections of the revenue-generating casino and a lounge bar, I very much doubt that this is the sort of thing the cruise company would willingly invite on board. Especially as the cruise line didn’t feel it necessary to do so for any of the other 6 countries they had passed through since leavining US waters.

    When it comes to customs operations around the world, I think you’ll find that they call the shots and the transport companies just have to grin and bear whatever the customs officials want to do.

  17. Paul Burns

    Well, Mercurius. Sounds like a weird piece of bureaucratic craziness then. Why couldn’t they wait till the ship came into port? I suppose because it is “the prize.” I wonder what would happen if the tabloids got hold of this? Hope you had a good holiday, anyway.(Apart from the customs intrusion.)

  18. Kev Gillett

    If they waited ’till the ship docked the passengers would have to join a 2,500 person queue to get processed. How long would that take and how inconvenient would it be to the tourists. When I came home by ship years ago the Customs chaps came out and spent the last few days of the voyage checking us – I saw it as reasonable then and still do.

    What’s your point – that someone has a job to do and a part of it happens to be on a cruise ship. Is it envy or just hatred of the “System”

    The fact that they were inspected by customs other countries is irrelevant as we have different requirements and standards and who’s to say the other guys do a professional job. As you say they devoted only a few hours to clearance and based on that are you suggesting we just let ’em in? Travelers get cleared at the first port of entry to all countries.

    It is standard procedure and has been for years and if you do write to the Minister as Mark suggests I can promise you the letter would be put in the “letters from crazies who aren’t aware of how the world works” bin.

  19. joe2

    The luxury cruise scene would require special treatment for minor immigration details and presumably that is what happens. If the Australian taxpayer is in any way paying for ‘the extras’, then we have a problem.

    Mercurius, you are not suggesting that are you?

  20. Mercurius

    joe2, I only know what I saw. I’m not suggesting that those officers were acting outside of their official duties – which is actually the problem. Since we wouldn’t countenance the taxpayer subsidising a business-class seat for customs officers on every inbound flight into Australia to inspect cards in the air, then why are we paying for the equivalent for inbound cruise ships (and, why are those customs officers considerably less eager to ride inbound cargo ships, where the heavy quantities of contraband actually get shipped)?

    Ah Kev Gillett, how good of you, a non-crazy who knows all about how the world works, to drop by and cast your aspersions. How’s the view up there on your high horse?

    Thanks for the psychological reflections, but it’s hard to see how I might be envious of the customs officers when I was on the same boat as them and in a better cabin. Nor do I hate the “system”, but I marvel at the magnitude of waste that sees our taxes used to schlep customs officers around the Coral Sea in glorified ferries to do nine-tenths of SFA in twice the time it takes other countries to do the same tasks on-shore.

    To repeat, all the customs officers did was look at the cards, they didn’t inspect our luggage. So regardless of their heroic efforts at sea, there was still a long queue to get off the boat – the longest of all in Sydney, where AQIS officers and beagles went through everything again and x-rayed everything again that had already been inspected by six other national customs crews, most of whom are much tougher than Australia’s. Alas, no queuing time was saved at all.

    And all that effort was expended on a boatload of holidaymakers, who were intent on bringing to Australia nothing more hazardous than bad fashion and a few bratty kids.

    But if you consider that to be a ‘reasonable’ use of your money, then I guess it’s further proof of the maxim that we get the government we deserve.

  21. joe2

    “Since we wouldn’t countenance the taxpayer subsidising a business-class seat for customs officers on every inbound flight into Australia to inspect cards in the air, then why are we paying for the equivalent for inbound cruise ships”

    Mercurius, i do not believe you have established the truth of latter part of this story…”why are we paying for the equivalent for inbound cruise ships”

    It is possible that cruise ship is taking up the expense of the custom officers.
    If not, it is a disgrace.

  22. steve at the pub

    I am with Joe2. My money is on the cruise line standing the cost of the customs officers onboard expenses. It is even possible the cruise line stands the cost of the customs officers head-positioning to board in the first place.

    Customs are one department I have a lot of dealings with, there is no end to the side-plays, false flagging, bait & switch, and other ploys they pull.

    While they do take their turn at “plum” jobs (eg, luxury liner entry card reading), they do have to stand up to a few hardship postings/chores.

    That said, however, a job in Customs is quite a bludge.

  23. uk visa

    There must be immigration officials the world over taking notice; and considering how they can improve the job they do…
    I can almost hear UK immigration officials telling civil servants that it’s absolutely necessary to intercept vessels in the Mediterranean to make absolutely sure there are no illegal immigrants headed for the UK!

  24. James

    This has actually been going on for some time. The officers are placed onboard to process at the request and expense of the shipping company. Thankfully not tax payer funds. The idea was to conduct enroute passenger clearance in order to reduce the waiting and inconvenience for travellers upon arrival in the first Australian port of call.