Govt takes the credit for record drug seizures – but let’s not forget where Customs’ new patrol boat came from

Ministers love to bray about the seizing of illegal drugs.

Customs statistics on seizures last year – albeit “preliminary” statistics – therefore were irresistible to Customs Minister Jenny Salesa.  They gave her a platform to remind us of her existence as a Minister while acknowledging the work of her officials.

Her statement said:

Customs’ preliminary statistics for 2019 show it made 2,613 separate drug seizures of various class A, B and C drugs at the New Zealand border, adding up to 2,577 kilograms, 505 litres, and over 342,000 items such as pills or tablets.

The illegal drugs were seized at the New Zealand border by Customs and overseas by Customs’ international border partners before the drugs could be sent to our shores.

But who was given the lion’s share of the credit for these seizures?

The statement was headed Coalition Govt’s investment in Customs nets record drugs haul: 3 tonnes stopped at borders in 2019.

The first paragraph amplified the notion that the government deserves all the credit for this law-and-order accomplishment:

The Coalition Government’s investment in a strong border and disrupting transnational organised crime produced record results for stopping drugs in 2019, says Minister of Customs Jenny Salesa.

And further down in the statement:

Jenny Salesa says the record haul by Customs is down to the Coalition Government’s record investment in the agency to fight crime at our own border with 49 extra new operational staff since 2016/17, and 97 ‘Ship-to-Shore’ Customs officials working to stop drugs before they are sent from overseas destinations.

“We have given Customs the cash injection they needed to boost their capabilities, plus disrupt more criminal networks offshore to stop illegal drugs before they even leave the export country. These overseas seizures are increasing year on year.”

“In Budget 2018 we committed an extra $58.1 million over four years to disrupt drug smuggling networks, including $3.9 million for capital like detection technology and surveillance equipment. That investment is paying off because we’re stopping more drugs at our border.”

Thanks to additional funding, Customs has also been working smarter through offshore collaboration with law enforcement agencies in Australia, the Pacific, the US and further abroad to stop the drug traffickers’ products and ingredients before they can leave overseas ports and airports. Our support has meant Customs has been able to hire almost 100 extra staff in the Ship to Shore project.”

Treating illegal drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one was a factor too, the Minister noted.

Jenny Salesa says Customs’ focus on disrupting the supply of illegal drugs from reaching communities is part of the Government’s health-based approach.

“Our Coalition Government is putting more resources into addiction, detoxification and residential care services for New Zealanders who are struggling with drug and alcohol issues. For this to be effective, it’s important for our law enforcement agencies like Customs to reduce the supply of drugs like meth as much as possible, and take a hard line against the organised criminal groups that push these products.”

The extra money for Customs to target drug smugglers was announced not on Salesa’s watch, however, but was included in the Ardern’s government’s first budget in 2018 when Meka Whaitiri was the minister.

She announced at that time:

“Budget 2018 invests $54.2 million of operating funding over four years to significantly enhance Customs’ capabilities to attack these criminal networks from all angles. This includes an additional 127 Customs staff, both here and overseas.

“New initiatives will disrupt international drug-smuggling networks early in the supply chain by making seizures offshore, while also boosting onshore capabilities through more maritime patrols, frontline resources and community engagement.  

“A further $3.9 million in capital will bolster our maritime and frontline work with new rigid-hull inflatable boats, mobile x-ray vans, and vehicles and kennels for Customs’ detector-dog teams.

“We will also hit organised crime in the pocket by targeting the cross-border flow of criminal proceeds, slashing their profits and preventing re-investment in further criminal activity.”

But the overall Customs budget hasn’t changed greatly since the Ardern government took over in 2017.

The Key government’s last budget, in 2017-18, appropriated $216.2 million for Customs.

This was 0.23 per cent of a total appropriation of $94.6 billion.

The total appropriation in the 2019/20 budget was 17 per cent higher than in the Nats’ last budget at $110.8bn.

The increase in the appropriation for Customs was a  more modest 11.8%, lifting it to $241.7m.  This amounted to 0.22 per cent of the total appropriation, a tiny tad less than Customs share of the total in 2017/18.

We must suppose savings are being made in other areas of Customs – efficiencies, too, all going well – to explain the grunt being invested in frustrating drug criminals.

But not all the crime-busting can be attributed to a change of government.

In  January 2018 Whaitiri said she was

 … delighted to announce that the new state- of-the-art patrol vessel, Hawk V, officially started work today following a commissioning ceremony at the Port of Auckland.

“The world-class patrol vessel has been purpose-built to boost Customs’ ability to identify risk, and carry out enforcement now and into the future,” says Ms Whaitiri.

Designed by Teknicraft in Auckland and built by Q-West in Whanganui, Hawk V is an 18.6 metre long, foil supported, aluminium catamaran. Equipped with the latest technology, the new vessel has the ability to monitor comings and goings over a much greater sea area than her predecessors, and at a much faster pace of around 40 knots.

Primarily based in Auckland, Hawk V will be operated by a crew of four Customs officers with specialist maritime expertise. The Hawk can be deployed to other regions.

But the Nats can take credit for this initiative.

Nicky Wagner was the Customs Minister who announced in 2016 her department  would be getting a new patrol boat, a world-class vessel that would reinforce and enhance the protection of New Zealand’s maritime border.

It would be locally-designed, purpose-built, and equipped with state-of-the-art electronics.

Wagner said the new vessel would boost Customs’ capabilities to identify risk and carry out enforcement work beyond our territorial waters.

No doubt it played a role in the statistics that prompted Salesa to put out a law-and-order statement and pump up her government’s accomplishments.

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