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A spectre of corruption has loomed over Australia's customs services for decades. Photo: Peter Braig

The present allegations and arrest of customs officers is part of a continuing saga of official corruption and inter-agency bickering that would have been diminished significantly had the plan of the Whitlam government to amalgamate federal law enforcement bodies not been aborted by the coming Coalition in 1975.

Grouped together earlier that year as the Department of Police and Customs under the administrative control of customs mandarin Alan Carmody, it began in de facto format as the Australia Police with the incorporation of the Commonwealth, Northern Territory and ACT police forces and the enforcement section of the Bureau of Customs. Cross-integration of senior personnel had commenced and it was intended to continue this by bringing in Australia Post investigators and even border control Immigration Department staff to create a single agency with overall responsibility for enforcing Commonwealth law. If fully implemented this would have had immense authority and patched up the splintering of multiple bureaus guarding their own turf and refusing or being reluctant to share intelligence with outside personnel.

When Malcolm Fraser succumbed to the lobbying of self-interested groups and individuals fearful of their prestige as heads of agencies and of staff unwilling to become part of a national body, he allowed the legislation to lapse on the argument that Australia did not need such an all-powerful ''Big Brother'', and the combined agencies reverted to their isolated roles while retaining the additional senior posts allocated to them to mollify their concerns.

It was not until 14 years later that, pursuant to the Hilton Hotel bombing and increasing incidents of domestic terrorism, that the then Coalition government adopted the recommendations of Sir Robert Mark leading to the formation of the Australian Federal Police by amalgamating just the Commonwealth and ACT Police.

It was a body well short of the authority and scope envisaged for the Australia Police but expanded marginally in 1980 when, following a detailed report that it was both inefficient and corrupt, the Narcotics Bureau within the Customs Department was disbanded.

To maintain its developed expertise, however, the government mandated that one of its two heads be absorbed into the newly formed AFP along with a percentage of its experienced staff. AFP commissioner Sir Colin Woods was far from happy with this requirement but had little option but to comply.

Although most former Narcotics Bureau members performed adequately in their newly adopted police role, some of the corrupt came through the net and continued their previous activities, the jailed former Crime Commission assistant director Mark Standen being but one of them.

The increasing globalisation of crime, the easy international movement of individuals and goods, the hacking of the internet and embedding of ''sleepers'' into sensitive operational, political and administrative positions behoves national policing to move into the 21st century with all the gusto it can manage.

As part of this, the federal government must decide if it wants customs to be a law-enforcement body or an income producer via tariffs and duties as in other countries where its personnel are still referred to as revenue men. If the former they must be incorporated into the AFP and not swapped willy-nilly between public service and enforcement roles, and this includes the maritime section of Customs and Border Protection.

There must not be on-again off-again decisions as occurred with the Coastal Protection Unit in 1985 when it was taken from Customs and given to the AFP, only to be returned in 1988. Such a move will not eliminate corruption totally but will enhance the indispensable sharing of crime intelligence and reduce the ability of criminal smugglers and terrorists to rely on inter-agency jealousy as an ally as was determined to have facilitated the USA's 9/11 event when a pooling of the maze of information gleaned by the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could have pointed to the end goal of the airborne terrorists.

For the Australian government to procrastinate or do anything less will be an unwrapped gift to organised crime.

John Murray, a former AFP officer who served with Interpol for three years, occasionally lectures at Sydney University on legal systems of the Pacific.