Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children And Community Protection Measures) Bill 201918 June 2020
I rise to speak in support of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare annual report on child protection last published in 2018-19 noted the following: 171,300 investigations were conducted for 115,700 children in 2018-19. Sixty-two thousand seven hundred claims of child maltreatment were substantiated for 47,500 children. In 2018-19, emotional abuse was the primary type of abuse substantiated for children, at 54 per cent, followed by neglect at 21 per cent, physical abuse at 15 per cent and sexual abuse at 10 per cent.
Too often our children, the victims of these crimes, are seen as just a statistic. The bill before us today ensures that these children will not be just a number on a page. The Morrison government sees these victims and their families, who are devastated by these monstrous crimes, as more than just a statistic. Each number represents a child, a family unit or a community group that is forever scarred by this offending. What is gut-wrenching is that the full prevalence of child sexual abuse, both domestically and internationally, is largely unknown. But this bill is a commitment from the Morrison government to protect children from sexual abuse.
Too often do we hear it alleged that the perpetrator has reformed or that they have learnt their lesson from their actions and therefore deserve a lesser sentence. But these children and their families get a life sentence, and they are left with the scars and left to pick themselves back up. From the moment of those unforgivable and inexcusable acts, the lives of these individuals are changed forever. No matter how hard they try to pick up the pieces, it will never be the same.
South Australians will remember the harrowing story of the ‘two masked brothers’ matter, a matter that was watched closely by the local community in South Australia. They will recall the masked brothers, who were victims of an abuser, and they will remember their advocacy regarding child abuse and the field of innocence on Montefiore Hill in Adelaide. The offender was found guilty of nine counts of indecent assault and one count of unlawful sexual intercourse against three boys aged between 14 and 16 and was sentenced to six years imprisonment, with a two-year non-parole period, back in 1996. The offender was released in 1997 after the sentence was backdated to commence from the date of arrest. In 2018, the offender was again charged with and pleaded guilty to six counts of offences of a sexual nature against children, and in this instance the offender was sentenced to six years, seven months and six days imprisonment for those offences committed against the two brothers. The offender filed an appeal to serve out his sentence in home detention, claiming that there was no longer an appreciable risk to the safety of the community, due to advanced age and self-reports of diminished libido and sexual interest. The appeal was ultimately dismissed, and the offender now serves a custodial sentence. As you can imagine, Mr President, this case caused great angst throughout the community in South Australia, and it is a stark reminder of why it is that we need strong legislation in place, because the masked brothers were real people whose lives had been turned upside down by this offending. A victim gets a life sentence, and this is why we need strong legislation for these types of offences.
I use this as an example, as the community expects strong action in relation to such heinous offending, and I share this story to remind us that every single number in those statistics amounts to a life that has been forever changed. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent personal safety survey, in 2016, an estimated 7.7 per cent of Australians had experienced childhood sexual abuse before the age of 15, with the average age at which the abuse started being approximately eight years old. Of the 1.4 million survivors of abuse in Australia, the majority knew the perpetrator and experienced multiple incidents. Last year, the Australian Federal Police received almost 18,000 reports of exploitation involving children or Australian child sex offenders, and this number has almost doubled since the previous year. This parliament must show that this behaviour
DEBATE INTERRUPTED FOR QUESTION TIME
Prior to question time, I was speaking in support of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. I had outlined some of my concerns about the statistics surrounding abuse towards children and the manner in which it could or could not be held. I had detailed some statistics from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare and I’d given some examples in relation to how this plays out in a very real sense.
Last year, the Australian Federal Police received almost 18,000 reports of child exploitation involving children or Australian child sex offenders. This is a doubling of what we saw the previous year, and it shows why it’s particularly important that this behaviour is not tolerated. It’s also why the Morrison government is introducing the this bill. What the bill strives to do is strengthen Commonwealth laws in order to provide greater protection to the community through deterring and punishing child sex offenders. It seeks to do it using four key mechanisms. Firstly, there are new offences for grooming activities and for websites and online platforms designed to host child abuse material. Secondly, aggravated offences for the most horrific types of child abuse engaged while someone is outside of Australia will also be introduced. Thirdly, there will be presumptions against bail and presumptions for imprisonment, making it harder to be granted bail and more likely that child sex offenders will go to prison and stay there. Finally, the bill seeks to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious child sex offences and for those who are likely to be repeat offenders.
The bill implements recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to protect vulnerable witnesses. This protection will allow a witness to automatically give evidence via a video recorded interview, rather than needing to seek leave from the court to do so. The bill will also prohibit cross-examination during committal hearings. A broad package of reforms has already been introduced by the coalition government to protect vulnerable Australian, but there is always the opportunity to do more. The bill complements tough new measures to stop child sex offenders from travelling overseas to abuse children, and it complements Carly’s Law, which targets online predators who use the internet to prepare or plan to sexually abuse children. This was implemented in the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. The recommendations from the royal commission addressed in that legislation looked to improve the Commonwealth framework for offences related to issues such as overseas child sexual abuse, forced marriage, a failure to report sexual abuse and a failure to protect children from such abuse. It is critical that we stop any way that these criminals might be enabled.
We must send the message that this behaviour will not be tolerated and that the perpetrators will not get away with their actions. We must use all reasonable legislative mechanisms to tackle these abhorrent crimes. I should note that Labor’s claim in relation to the inquiry into the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, that mandatory sentencing ‘increases the incentive for defendants to fight charges’, is of course entirely false, because we note that within a 12-month period of the Western Australian state Liberal government introducing mandatory sentencing provisions for assaults against police and other officers, there was in fact a 28 per cent drop in assaults against police. It’s a sobering statistic to realise that, in 2018-19, 39 per cent of convicted Commonwealth child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison. This is simply not acceptable. Similarly, from February 2014 to January 2019, a shocking 40 per cent of Commonwealth child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison, and, during that period, only four offenders received a fine. This simply cannot continue.
Pursuant to the provisions of this bill, a sentence can only be suspended fully when the total sentence is three years or less. The bill introduces a presumption that the offender can only have their sentence of imprisonment fully suspended in exceptional circumstances. If the total sentence is above three years, a non-parole period must be set. The bill introduces a presumption for cumulative sentences, which increases the likelihood of an offender receiving a sentence of greater than three years because, on most occasions, sadly, offenders are charged with multiple offences. If a non-parole period is actually set, it can be as little as one day, but the Attorney-General would then have to decide to release the offender on parole, which puts the discretion back in the Commonwealth government’s hands. Where a person receives a sentence of three years or less, the court can provide that the offender should spend a specified period of time in prison before being released on a recognised release order.
The community, and, most importantly, the victims and their families expect that we in this place will protect our most vulnerable. We must ensure that there are consequences for these offenders and that they are not given the opportunity to reoffend. This is not a pleasant topic. It’s a topic that is often seen as taboo, and it’s a topic that is not spoken about as often it should be, but, unless we speak up for those who need our protection, we will never shift the stigma attached to these crimes against children or these offences in general. It is time that we increase the awareness and work to protect children to give them the best opportunity in life. This bill does that. This bill is the Morrison government’s attempt to tighten these laws, as they should be. I take this opportunity to commend the bill to the Senate and commend the Morrison government for its work in ensuring that we protect those who are most vulnerable, as we should.