Drugs on the waterfront

A FEDERAL-STATE police task force has reported anecdotal evidence that regional ports host ‘‘widespread criminality’’.

It’s not the first time the government has been warned that regional shipping centres – potentially including Newcastle – might be used by international criminal gangs to bring illegal drugs into Australia. In 2009 the Australian Crime Commission said much the same thing when it concluded that Australia’s ports were wide open to criminal influence. Then the government boosted funding for waterfront security, but three years later it isn’t clear that much has improved.

The latest report has alleged rampant corruption at every level of waterfront activity, with the huge financial resources controlled by drug cartels used to neutralise security efforts.

This time the government has promised sterner action, including using law enforcement intelligence information – not just criminal convictions, as is presently the case – as justification for removing individuals from waterfront jobs.

It would be naive to imagine that Newcastle doesn’t figure on the radar of drug importers. In many ways the city is an ideal entry point. Shipping movements are high, outlaw motorcycle gangs (which overseas experience suggests typically work with drug cartels to distribute drugs and launder proceeds) are conspicuously based in the region and the city is conveniently located close to a major road corridor between Sydney and Brisbane.

Although drug importation is mostly associated with container ports, bulk carriers are used. Cartels have used divers to secrete drugs in underwater compartments of bulk cargo ships. In other cases at different ports, it has been alleged, consignments have changed hands offshore, before ships have berthed.

In 2008 the United Nations criticised Australia’s ‘‘porous borders’’ for permitting large amounts of amphetamine precursors to be illegally imported.

Last week Australian Federal Police commissioner Tony Negus promised those borders would be ‘‘hardened’’ to stem the flow of Latin American drug supplies.

Most Australians – other than the criminals involved in the drug trade and those whom the criminal gangs have corrupted – will be hoping the police can succeed.

FOR all its potential shortcomings, the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission remains one of the best avenues available to members of the public who have a grievance against a healthcare provider.

That doesn’t mean its procedures might not benefit from adjustment in some areas. Some doctors, for example, have told a recent inquiry that the commission can unfairly damage reputations by advising patients of investigations into matters that might not affect quality of care at all.

If that’s true then a better approach might be needed. But no matter the criticism, the government must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The medical world remains in many ways a tightly closed shop, and the commission is one of very few avenues of redress that healthcare consumers can readily use.

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