Interview – ABC Radio Sydney – Breakfast with Wendy Harmer
Topics: Illicit tobacco
WENDY HARMER: Joining us on ABC Sydney Breakfast is Karen Andrews, the Federal Minister for Home Affairs, who oversees this taskforce. Good morning to you, Minister.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Wendy. How are you?
WENDY HARMER: Good, thank you. Of course, this is all happening, I guess, because cigarettes are incredibly expensive these days.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, that’s not an excuse for illegal activity, but we do know that we have significant imports coming into the country illegally of cigarettes and loose tobacco. We also know that it’s being grown illegally here in Australia – because if you’re going to grow tobacco, you actually need a licence to be able to do that. So Border Force, State Police and the AFP have been doing some great work along with the ATO, of course, to deal with excise issues. But they’ve been doing a lot of work to stamp out these illegal products coming in at the border and then to make sure that where they are being grown – and you’ve mentioned at least one of the sites that was raided recently. These farms do exist and they’re clearly not legitimate farming practises.
WENDY HARMER: Where are they spread across Australia? Is there any particular part of the country which is more conducive to growing tobacco? I mean, for its climate, et cetera?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it is actually scattered around a little bit. There used to be quite a bit that was grown legally in North Queensland. But the most recent farms that have been raided, have been close to the Victorian border. New South Wales, Victoria, south-west New South Wales seems to be having quite a bit of activity at the moment.
WENDY HARMER: The smoking rate in Australia is down around 11 per cent; on a steady decline. It’s at the bottom of the list of OECD countries. I mean, you would have thought that there wouldn’t be a huge market here and that it wouldn’t be increasing. Is it just for domestic use that this has been grown or is it being exported as well?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, potentially it’s just being used in Australia, but we can’t rule out that the product that is grown here is not exported. So the product that is coming into Australia, whilst there are significant amounts of it, it’s often used as a way to test trade routes and to test the measures that are in place to detect illegal activity in Australia so that the criminals can start importing drugs. So there’s a couple of sides to the activity with illegal tobacco – the illegal tobacco itself, and also the fact that it’s used effectively as a precursor to bringing drugs into the country.
WENDY HARMER: You would be missing out on a lot of revenue, wouldn’t you? I mean, the tax on cigarettes is about 40 per cent these days, isn’t it?
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s a significant excise that’s on it. So if you just look at the last financial year – and I’ve only got the figures up until May – the lost revenue was equivalent to about $1.7 billion. So that’s a significant loss of revenue. And, of course, that could go towards roads, hospitals, buying vaccines. So the taxpayer is, in effect, missing out of a lot of that revenue.
WENDY HARMER: Yeah, and the group that you’ve got, the taskforce there, they really want to hear from people to, you know, dob in if they think that there’s a tobacco farm that they’ve driven past or are near?
KAREN ANDREWS: Absolutely. And you did a great job when you were just going through all the signs that you need to look for.
WENDY HARMER: I’ve got to say, some of them are quite amusing ‘an unexplained strong tobacco odour’. Hmm…
KAREN ANDREWS: Yeah. Yes.
WENDY HARMER: But included in that list; earthworks along creeks and rivers on private and public land; suspicious responses to online and print ads where land is being advertised for sale or for lease; people approaching real estate agents; landowners or farmers to lease land within or outside of the state that they live in. So, yeah, interesting.
KAREN ANDREWS: Yeah there are some signs. So yes please, anyone who sees something that they think is suspicious, please dob them in. Go to abf.gov.au
WENDY HARMER: Alright. Well, thank you for joining us this morning. All very fascinating. The growth in illegal tobacco farms there with Karen Andrews, the Federal Minister for Home Affairs. Thanks Minister.