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What would George Cooper say? Celebrating our 175-year anniversary

WHAT WOULD GEORGE COOPER SAY?Celebrating our 175-year anniversary

Customs is celebrating its 175th birthday this year as New Zealand’s oldest government department. It’s a milestone year for us in many ways that illustrate just how far we have come since George Cooper, the first head of Customs, stepped off HMS Herald in 1840 with Captain Hobson. We’d love to hear what he would say if he could see Customs now.

Back in 1840, there were detailed lists of rules about taxes on goods coming into New Zealand, and excise, and British law had long established rights of entry to inspect premises and produce. This year we will start reviewing and modernising the Customs and Excise Act to keep up with the ever-changing border environment, enable us to fight high tech transnational crime, use our search powers at the border effectively as a choke point to stop threats to New Zealand, and share information to benefit the business and intelligence communities.

Back in 1840, what crossed the border was recorded by ink pen on ruled paper. We and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) have had our computerised Joint Border Management System up and running now for a year, completely modernising border transactions that happen in less than 30 seconds and are written in the latest data ‘language’, making them recognisable anywhere in the world.

Back in 1840, photography was still a new science, and passports weren’t yet standard travel identity documents. Now, we have a world class automated facial recognition system in SmartGate, that has processed over 11 million faces to a very high level of accuracy not possible for the human brain.

Back in 1840, drugs like opium were around, for sure, but Customs’ role in hunting down contraband probably meant rummaging for tobacco and liquor hidden to escape taxes. Now, we fight the scourge of P and fast-changing drug formulas every day at the border to protect our families and economy from harm.

Back in 1840, Queen Victoria ruled the Empire, but outside royalty, women were not leaders of men. Today we are proud to have our first female Comptroller of Customs, Carolyn Tremain, who took up office in 2012.

While so much has changed in 175 years, some things stayed the same. We still collect tax and excise. We still take fierce pride in our role and uniform. We still have a strong maritime role, and each of our boats since 1881 has been called the Hawk.

It’s anybody’s guess what George Cooper would have said if you’d introduced him to the concept of customer service back in 1840. Today, Customs tries to walk a mile in your shoes, and we try to design our services looking at it from your point of view. We aim to make compliance easy to do and hard to avoid so that we can treat trusted and low-risk customers with a lighter touch while still supplying high assurance through checks and balances. We hope you can see the difference.

We would like to thank the export and import industry, airports and ports, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, enforcement agencies, couriers, agents, the travelling public and everyone else whose work touches the border, for supporting New Zealand Customs in our long tradition of protecting New Zealand’s borders. We couldn’t do it without you.

George Cooper - the first head of Customs