Sometimes IT can get real ugly. Almost two months ago, the imports component of the Customs cargo computer system was activated, some three years late and about $200 million over budget. Since that day, my office has been bombarded by businesses in despair about what to do as their systems continually crashed or slowed to a near halt.
Customs Minister Chris Ellison would have everyone believe such pleas are isolated incidents. Yet trade at Port Botany and Port of Melbourne almost ground to a complete halt. If a couple of hundred extra containers had landed ships would have been turned away. That’s how close our island nation came to hanging out the “closed for import business” sign.
All the while Customs had no answers as to when the system would be operating as it was supposed to. There was supposed to be a “seamless transition” to the new cargo system. The minister had promised the project would usher “the greatest reforms to occur to the Australian Customs Service since federation”.
They say reality bites. Well, it must have bitten Senator Ellison hard enough to make him hide for a month. As soon as the system went live, the minister chose to go to ground. Not a peep was heard out of him - no media releases, no statements, nothing. Any official statements came direct from Customs. Desperate attempts by business people to contact the minister’s office either went unanswered or were fobbed off by a Customs officer stationed to “screen” the minister’s calls.
The concept of integrated, re-engineered cargo management (known as CMR) is no bad thing. In fact Labor, when in government, first recognised the need. The Cargo Management Re-engineering project or something like it was conceptualised as a fully automated cargo system before December 1993.
The media has been reporting the saga that has become the new system almost since the outset, with headlines such as: “Customs Faces Tech Calamity” (the Australian Financial Review, August 2003); “Customs Defends its $146m System” (The Age, January 2004); and “Customs Close to Meltdown” (the Australian Financial Review, February 2004.)
In theory CMR should have revolutionised communication between industry and Customs - but the implementation of it by the Howard Government has been a disaster.
Customs CEO Lionel Woodward admitted in Estimates last week the agency had been aware of problems within the system for some time. There is further evidence Customs knew the ICS would not be fully functional just a few hours before the system went live. Yet Customs chose to persist with the minister’s self-imposed deadline in wanton disregard of their customers' livelihoods.
We now know the movement of goods under bond went from the computer age back to the dark age. The back up system actually relies on business and Customs communicating by fax. That is an absurd situation in the 21st century. We can be thankful they haven’t rolled out the Telex machine or the carrier pigeons.
The question for Minister Ellison now is, why did he persist with going live on October 12 when he knew the system did not have full functionality? How did the government manage to botch it so badly?
The project was envisaged to cost a minimum of $25 million. Today that figure stands somewhere near ten times that amount - and that is just the money that we know about.
The sheer scale of the incompetence almost defies belief. Up to $250 million has been sucked into cyberspace. From taxpayers to the ether, the monumental mismanagement of this project has threatened the very viability of Customs itself. Customs has bled so badly on this project it actually needed a cash injection to prop it up last financial year.
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