Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker
May 25, 2012 - 3:00AM
A federal and state police taskforce has found that Australia's border security is exposed to 19 ''critical'' risks, along with dozens of other serious vulnerabilities.
A secret report written by the Polaris taskforce in February has also found that Australia's maritime union - which is affiliated with, and a major donor to, the Labor Party - is hindering police and government efforts to clean up the ports.
The security flaws identified by the Polaris taskforce include several gaps that were reported to the federal government as far back as 2008, but never acted upon. The report also details how organised crime syndicates have infiltrated the customs and quarantine services, port management and the private-sector supply chain.
The Age can also reveal that so dire is the situation that senior ministers recently urged Prime Minister Julia Gillard to approve the biggest crackdown on waterfront crime in decades.
The government will announce today reforms that include the establishment of police waterfront taskforces around Australia.
The Polaris report is the most damning official expose of border security failings in recent history. It says crime groups have infiltrated key positions in the cargo industry - from terminal stevedores to freight forwarders and customs brokers - and have also recruited senior maritime industry staff.
"Team leaders and supervisors have also been identified by investigations as being involved in importations. These positions have additional advantages for criminal groups including higher levels of system access and some influence over other staff. These activities do not breach any criminal legislation unless illicit commodities are accessed by a stevedore," it says.
The report also details how:
■Corrupt Australian officials with government security clearances, including some working
for customs and quarantine services, have been influenced by crime syndicates.
■Some senior managers and supervisors at major port terminals, along with their employees, are corrupt, feeding a culture that is ''anti-law enforcement, nepotistic, insular and tolerant of criminality''.
■Substandard security at regional ports has left them badly exposed, with ''anecdotal intelligence'' suggesting they host ''widespread criminality''.
■ The federal government's security identification card system is failing.
The report warns that "serious organised crime groups are able to access and exploit key Australian government officers who have the opportunity to influence the clearance of cargo''.
"Polaris investigations have identified employees of law enforcement and regulatory bodies providing assistance to criminal groups. This assistance is less common but of higher consequence than private-sector corruption. The employees have included members of customs and employees of AQIS [the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service]."
A case study detailed in the report involves a senior customs official maintaining a long-term relationship with well-known contraband importers, even though customs prohibits such associations. Even when this relationship was reported to senior customs managers, ''no remedial action was taken''.
The report also exposes an entrenched waterfront culture in which workers take no action when confronted with ''unusual, improper illegal activity''.
''This culture is strengthened by the insular and nepotistic workforce. Many employees are family or have long-term links to other employees, which further reduces the likelihood of improper behaviour being reported,'' it says.
''Attempts at enforcing existing legislation are hindered by this culture and the strong union presence in this workforce. Further regulatory or legislative action is also hampered by the opposition of the Maritime Union of Australia.''
Operation Polaris has also determined that the government's maritime security identification cards - required by tens of thousands of workers in the industry - have failed to stop organised crime infiltration.
''Multiple MSIC holders are involved in drug activity and are subject to substantial intelligence holdings detailing their criminal activity and criminal associates," it says.
The report is also scathing of existing security infrastructure, warning that some customs examination facilities (CEFs) have been infiltrated by criminals and "storage facilities for underbond cargo are easily infiltrated by serious organised crime groups".
"The CEF is an integral part of the infrastructure required to examine cargo entering Australia. The infiltration of this facility by serious organised crime groups is a critical risk. Intelligence suggests that criminal groups have been advised of the examination of illicit cargo as it was occurring."
The report warns that even at ports with ''proper security procedures, these are rarely followed".