Crimes Amendment (Grooming) Bill 2013

I rise to speak on the Crimes Amendment (Grooming) Bill 2013. As indicated by previous speakers, Labor supports this bill. The bill seeks to amend the Crimes Act 1958 to create a new criminal offence of grooming for sexual conduct with a child under the age of 16 years. Grooming is an action undertaken by a perpetrator with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, and in some cases with a child’s family, to lower inhibitions or gain access to sexually abuse a child.

Grooming can occur through personal contact, using the internet or any other means. Currently there is no specific offence of grooming; it is considered an aggravating feature of a sexual offence. For many of us who speak today on this bill the phrase ‘child sexual abuse’ makes our skin crawl, but the reality is that we need to tackle this issue head-on, and this legislation goes some way towards doing that.

The bill follows up on the good work done by the Family and Community Development Committee parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and non-government organisations. The resulting report is titled Betrayal of Trust. There is a specific chapter within that report on the criminality of grooming. It recommends the creation of the offence of grooming and states:

The grooming offence should:

not require a substantive offence of sexual abuse to have been committed;

recognise that in addition to the primary or intended child victim of sexual abuse, parents and others can be victims of this criminal conduct.

In touching on the committee’s work I want to acknowledge the great work of some of my colleagues on this side of the house. The member for Thomastown and the member for Broadmeadows worked on that long and hard inquiry. I also acknowledge the work done prior to the inquiry by the member for Oakleigh, who has been passionate about this issue for many years in Parliament.

In essence the bill proposes to implement the committee’s recommendation to create an offence of grooming.

The new offence will be committed if a person 18 years of age or older communicates with a child or with a person having care, supervision or authority in respect of the child, with the intention of facilitating a child’s engagement or involvement in a sexual offence with them or another adult. The offence of grooming is designed to protect the child from subsequent sexual abuse. Grooming does not directly harm the child, but it leads to increased risk of becoming a victim of abuse at a later stage. The new offence will have a maximum penalty of 10 years jail.

Sexual abuse of children is one of the most abhorrent crimes and has a devastating lifetime effect on victims. I will come back to that later in my contribution. Labor supports measures that are designed to better protect vulnerable children and punish those who prey on them. The protection of children from sexual abuse should always be beyond politics.

From the speeches today of members on both sides of the house it is clear that Parliament should stand proud in passing this legislation today.

The bipartisan committee’s inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations vindicated victims by listening, believing and responding to their experiences. This bill is the government’s first formal response to that report.

One of the areas I would like to focus on in talking about this grooming legislation today is the realm in which the incidence of grooming is currently growing, and that is the realm of the internet. As a local member of Parliament I have had this issue at the forefront of my mind when I have talked to many a parent, particularly at cybersafety forums I have coordinated at some of the schools in my electorate. Parents are very aware nowadays of the physical interaction that kids have on a daily basis with others, including strangers and community organisations, in their day-to-day life. Compared to years gone by, fewer kids walk to school on their own now because many parents are concerned about strangers their kids might come across on the way. Parents are out there constantly questioning the contact their kids are having through community organisations that they may be joining. I was quite surprised to be confronted by a barrage of questions from some parents in my electorate when I mentioned that my son is a member of the scouts.

Mr Wells — It is a great organisation.

Ms HUTCHINS — It is a great organisation, and it is fantastic for teaching kids a whole range of life skills.

Unfortunately there are parents who question a whole raft of community organisations about how safe they are for children. I reassured those parents that Scouts Australia is a great organisation and that I have had only positive experiences with my children being involved.

Parents are often out there questioning the face-to-face, physical contact their kids have in daily life, but there is a big gap between that and supervising and looking at the relationships children have online. Online is where we are going to see the incidence of grooming growing in future, unfortunately, if we do not now start to educate parents on the dangers facing their children. In many cases children have 24-hour, unfettered access to the internet. With wi-fi and the growth in sales of iPads and handheld devices kids can be anywhere in the house talking to anyone. If there are no boundaries put in place by parents, sometimes they just do not know what interactions kids are having.

I want to bring that to light by reading some quotes from young people who last year participated in a survey by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. This federal body conducted a survey of kids aged between 9 and 15 years, asking how safe they were online. I will refer to some of the responses. One said:

A few unknown people have added me before or talking to me on a social networking sites, but most of them seemed harmless but all of them I blocked and haven’t heard from since …

That is a positive one from a female aged 15. But another 15-year-old female said:

A man contacted me after I posted on a public thread on Facebook. I thought nothing of it until recently …

The man wanted to meet her face to face. A 14-year-old female survey respondent said:

A man on Facebook sent me an ‘inbox’ message. Who I didn’t know. And didn’t plan on. He told me to add him as a friend and that I was beautiful …

The list of quotes goes on providing examples of that sort of grooming. Unfortunately in Australia we have had two high-profile cases of young victims, Carly Ryan and Nona Belomesoff, who were lured to their death via the internet. People were preying on them by using fake aliases on the internet and arranging to meet them face to face.

An Australian Institute of Criminology study reported in 2009 that 7 per cent of young people said that they had met somebody offline after meeting them online. That is a pretty high number.

The organisation called Bravehearts noted that in that same survey 24 per cent of young people reported that persons who had purported online to be children were in fact adults.

I want to acknowledge the amazing work done by Bravehearts, headed up by Hetty Johnston, who is the founder and executive director of that organisation. She and her team of volunteers work tirelessly in the fight against child sexual abuse. They have been doing an amazing job since 1997. That organisation is one of the strongest voices out there advocating for the change that is required to be made to protect our kids. Predators can often use the identities of professionals, whether they be — —

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Ryall) — Time!