Crimes Amendment (Protection of Children) Bill 2014

I rise to speak on the Crimes Amendment (Protection of Children) Bill 2014. Whilst Labor does not oppose the bill, as has been outlined by previous speakers, we will be putting forward amendments to the bill which have been circulated in the name of the member for Lyndhurst. I draw the house’s attention in particular to amendment 6, to omit clause 4, which is our area of concern.

Physical and sexual violence against children are the most abhorrent crimes in our society. They have devastating effects on the lives of survivors for a very long time — quite often forever — as well as significant flow-on effects for others in their families. The protection of children from sexual abuse should always be beyond politics. At the same time we as legislators need to ensure that the legislation we are passing does not create more victims, contrary to its intent to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Clause 3 of this bill proposes a new offence for a person in a position of authority within an organisation that has children under its care, supervision or authority when they fail to protect a child from sexual abuse. A person in authority, as defined in the bill, is someone who, by reason of the position he or she occupies in that organisation, has the power and responsibility to reduce or remove a substantial risk that a child under the organisation’s care, supervision or authority will become a victim of a sexual offence.

Under clause 3 it is quite clear that the failure of a person in authority to protect a child from sexual abuse will entail quite substantial consequences, with a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment. That is something we strongly support as part of this bill.

Clause 4 of this bill creates a new offence which goes to the failure to disclose a sexual offence committed against a child under the age of 16. Specifically, a person 18 years or over who has information that leads

them to a reasonable belief that a sexual offence has been committed against a child must disclose that information to a police officer as soon as practicable unless they have a reasonable excuse for not doing so. The penalty outlined in the clause is three years imprisonment.

The previous speaker, the member for Shepparton, said that the time comes in a situation such as this where there is abuse in a family when the responsibility falls to the parent who is the non-abuser to step forward, take action and go to the police, and in most cases I hope that that happens. But there are plenty of cases I know of, and I am sure thousands more, in which women have taken that step and gone to the police for support and disclosed the circumstances, sought legal intervention and apprehended violence orders — the whole gamut — and they have ended up being killed by their partners. Domestic violence is one of the biggest killers in our community. One woman dies every week at the hands of a violent spouse in Australia.

That is a shameful statistic to have to quote, but unfortunately it is the truth.

Many stakeholders have raised concerns with the opposition and have called for clause 4 to be redrafted in line with some of the suggestions in the Cummins report. The opposition shares the stakeholders’ concerns in regard to this clause, in that the clause could target those non-abusive parents and basically cause them to become victims. The Cummins report specifically said that non-abusive parents themselves are often victims of family violence, as well as their children, and may be unable to act protectively towards their children. The crux of this issue is not just passing legislation but adequately resourcing all the services in our community that go to the heart of dealing with this problem.

In 2011 I released a report on family violence in the electorate of Keilor.

At that time I was shocked to see a 14.6 per cent rise in the level of family violence within a six-month period. That was in 2011. By 2012 across the areas of Brimbank and Melton we had 3166 incidents of family violence reported and investigated by local police. By February 2013 we saw a 48 per cent rise in that figure of reported incidents of family violence over a three-year period.

Unfortunately this issue is very prevalent in many communities, including my community. The costs of family violence are enormous on so many levels — psychological, physical, economic and social impact — and unfortunately it then perpetuates intergenerational issues, with the cycle of family violence being replicated across generations, where there is no intervention, no support and no encouragement for people to come forward and be protected.

I draw the house’s attention to a quite public debate that happened only at the start of April.

That debate involved Rosie Batty, the mother of Luke Batty, the poor, innocent child who was bashed to death by his father in retaliation for his mother fleeing a situation of family violence. Rosie was due to go on air on Channel 10 earlier in April to talk about and highlight the importance of issues surrounding family violence. As she waited to be interviewed she heard one of the panellists, Joe Hildebrand, make the comment:

… frankly, to say that, you know, you’re going to not report a case of child abuse or child sex abuse by your partner because you are scared for your own safety, I’m sorry, it is not an excuse.

As you can imagine, with everything this woman had been through, she was pretty quick to respond and insisted on coming on air sooner than she was due to in order to be able to respond to those comments. Rosie Batty said in that Channel 10 interview:

If you minimise how it feels to feel unsafe — and when we’re talking about unsafe, we’re talking about the risk to our lives. We’re talking about — when women finally may decide to leave their partners they are at the most risk.
Joe needs to look at his views as a man, and he needs to step up and get informed, because when I hear comments like that I am so saddened that the focus is still on the woman. Where the hell is the perpetrator? Why isn’t he being jailed for three years?

Those words sum it up pretty accurately.

Our proposed amendment to eliminate clause 4 from this bill is not about playing party politics; it is about ensuring that our laws not only protect women and children but also do not create more victims in their application. All MPs voting on this bill need to be assured that this legislation will not cause more harm to those children who are already suffering in these circumstances. We as legislators need to be assured that this bill does not get used against women who are experiencing family violence if they fail to disclose suspected child abuse. We on this side of the house urge all members to give strong consideration to our amendments, in particular amendment 6, which is to have clause 4 removed from the bill.