New legislation clears way for NZ to patrol seas for drug smugglers

07:34 am on 4 July 2018

New Zealand is beefing up its powers to police the high seas as it faces the risk of becoming an easy target for drug smugglers.

Legislation to crack down on drug trafficking unanimously passed its first reading in Parliament. Photo: 123RF

Legislation to crack down on drug trafficking unanimously passed its first reading in Parliament on last night.

The Maritime Powers Extension Bill cleared the way for Customs to board, search and potentially commandeer vessels in international waters if the agency had reason to suspect they were carrying illegal drugs.

In the case of foreign ships, New Zealand would first have to get clearance from the responsible country.

Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri said New Zealand was increasingly being seen as an attractive destination for drug smugglers.

"We have seen a marked increase in the number of smuggling operations taking place across the South Pacific over the past two years including those targeting or implicating New Zealand," Ms Whaitiri told Parliament.

Australia already had the authority to intercept shipments in international waters, meaning New Zealand would likely be seen as a "softer target".

Ms Whaitiri said she had intelligence to suggest "motherships" had been parking just outside New Zealand's jurisdiction and then sending in smaller vessels carrying drugs.

"The fact that illicit drugs tend to attract a high price in New Zealand also makes this country an attractive market," she said.

New Zealand's geographical isolation was no longer acting as a deterrent to criminals, Ms Whaitiri said.

"Distance is no longer our friend ... and our long and often isolated coastline is our vulnerability."

The legislation would also bring New Zealand in line with its commitments and obligations under two United Nations agreements.

The bill will now be considered by MPs at a select committee before returning to Parliament for its second reading.