By Jenny Salesa, Minister of Customs, Labour MP for Manukau East.
Like most New Zealanders, until a few months ago my knowledge of Customs mainly reflected news reports of big drug busts at the border. That, and on occasion watching Border Patrol.
However, I am always eager to make sure I’m talking to the people on the front line of the agencies I oversee so it was with great pleasure that I was able to take the Prime Minister on a site visit this week to see first-hand the work Customs officers do.
I’d like to share some of the things we saw and learnt – yes, including the ever-popular and highly skilled detector dogs. First things first, while most people think Customs controls everything at our borders – there are actually four agencies at work: Customs, Immigration, MPI, and Aviation Security.
Customs’ mission is simple, keep bad things out of New Zealand while facilitating the trade and travel that is vital to our economy.
While the mission might be straightforward, achieving it is anything but.
With more and more people travelling internationally, new and ever-changing ways people try and conceal things they know should not leave or enter New Zealand, not to mention the ongoing need for new tools and technology, we were both impressed with our up-close insights.
Our expert Customs officers have prevented an estimated $1 billion of potential social harm to New Zealand’s communities by seizing more than a tonne of drugs in the first six months of 2019. Thanks to boosted funding for border security in Budget 2018, we’ve been able to hire 127 new Customs officers to beef up security on our borders.
Our visit began at the International Mail Centre where every item of mail sent to and from New Zealand is screened. The skill of the Customs officers in detecting when a package didn’t look quite right, and their care in following up helps prevent millions of dollars of illegal and harmful drugs entering our country every year. One in particular – a cardboard box which looked normal to us but that an officer picked up as the corners were not as sharp looking as they should have been - reinforced how highly skilled they are.
Sure enough, drugs were detected between the layers of cardboard.
At the Customs’ Air Cargo Inspection Facility, we saw larger intercepts – including the electric engines recently reported by media in which the importer had attempted to smuggle 460kg of methamphetamine into New Zealand. Not only was this shipment prevented from entering the country, its capture sent a strong message to others overseas who might be tempted to try something similar – don’t.
This is also where we met Leo (Law Enforcement Officer), the newest Customs’ recruit in the form of a lively and energetic 12-week old Labrador. Leo is the first Customs’ dog to be bred in New Zealand (we usually import them from Australia) and in coming years he will join the force of detector dogs helping their human colleagues protect our borders. Who knew they are trained (the dogs, not the humans) to sniff out large quantities of undeclared cash and so stop it from being taken across our border illegally?
Our final stop was the international terminal at Auckland International Airport where we got a behind-the-scenes peak at the Customs’ Control Room. Trust me, the officers there notice things that everyday passengers would be oblivious to and are highly skilled at noticing unusual actions of passengers who may be trying to flout the rules. We were also lucky enough to see a new scanner being trialled - without getting into the technical details, it is basically a CT scanner for luggage which provides a 3D image and makes it much easier for both Customs and MPI officers to detect illegal contents.
After this week’s visit, it comes as no surprise to me that Customs has one of the longest-serving workforces of any Government department. People join because they want to protect New Zealand’s borders, environment and people. They stay because the work they do every day ensures this happens. A great result for an operation established in 1840, making it the country’s oldest public service organisation.
Jenny Salesa is Minister of Customs and Labour MP for Manukau East.