Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014

I rise to speak on the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Workers) Bill 2014. I would like to begin my contribution by putting on record my support for the great work that emergency services workers do – police; fire officers; Country Fire Authority members; ambulance officers; people providing emergency treatment in hospitals, including nurses, doctors and those in mental health support; Department of Environment and Primary Industries employees on emergency duties; State Emergency Service members; and contractors and volunteers within the meaning of the Emergency Management Act 1986.

This bill provides for the introduction of statutory minimum sentences for offenders convicted of violent offences against emergency service workers on duty, as we have heard from previous speakers. It introduces baseline sentences of 30 years for murder of an emergency worker and the creation and summary assault offences against emergency workers on duty. The bill permits the courts to impose a sentence of imprisonment of up to two years and a community corrections order (CCO) as the sentence for an offence. The bill also allows the courts to combine a sentence of imprisonment of any length with a CCO when sentencing an offender convicted of an arson offence. Labor does not oppose the bill, and I want to touch on some examples of the cases to which this sort of sentencing would apply and on examples of the effect of violence on emergency service workers and their families.

Many in this chamber would have seen the WorkSafe advertisements which have run on television for many years now, where a worker’s family is at home and you might see a kid in the driveway playing basketball waiting for dad to arrive home and there is tension as the family is wondering whether mum or dad will come home or not from their workplace. Many of those ads have a happy ending, but some of them have a sad ending where we see a police officer knocking on the door because someone has been seriously injured or killed on the job.

Unfortunately this is a much more common occurrence among our emergency service workers, and I want members and people in the gallery to think about what it would be like to get ready for work each day, to get dressed, to sit at the breakfast table sharing breakfast with your family, to say goodbye and head out the door or maybe drop off the kids at school and then go to a job in an emergency department or as a police or ambulance officer and daily face the sort of incident that this legislation is designed to prevent. It is intended to protect workers who are out on the job facing a potential life-threatening injury or death in the course of a day’s work.

There is one particular example to which I direct the attention of members. It is centred around Senior Sergeant David Reither, who only a number of months ago faced life-threatening injuries after he pulled over a driver late at night on a country road. The car was swerving, and it transpired that a psychotic drug user in the passenger seat had pulled on the handbrake.

As the officer was dealing with the incident the passenger took a knife and stabbed this police officer multiple times. There was a period in all of the frenzy where the officer dragged himself to the side of the road and rang his wife because he was not sure that he would survive. He wanted to say what he needed to say to her while he was lying on the side of the road. Fortunately he survived, and that matter has since been before the courts. The person in question, who was charged, was an ice user.

Previous speakers have touched on the issue of ice, and I am sure it will be touched on by more speakers tonight, but the offender had spent three of the previous days before this attack in a psychiatric ward after using the drug ice, and he actually had an episode while he was a passenger in the car that his girlfriend was driving down the Midlands Highway. The police officer pulled him over and called 000 to assist this man who was having the episode, but then unfortunately the officer was stabbed four times by the offender.

This man had been a police officer for 26 years. He was airlifted to the Alfred hospital suffering massive internal bleeding. Fortunately he survived, having spent the next seven days in intensive care. The recovery from a trauma like that will take many years, with significant pain and the anxiety of having to return to work and face similar sorts of risks when you are just going about your daily duties.

I put that point on the record to paint a picture of the risk that our emergency service workers face. Unfortunately we have seen an increase in these sorts of episodes involving emergency services workers. I think there have been in the vicinity of 260 incidents like this, if not more, in the last 12 months involving doctors in our emergency departments, police officers or ambulance officers. There appears to be a clear link between the increase in these incidents and the use of drugs in our communities, particularly ice and alcohol abuse.

While we are not opposed to mandatory sentencing in this instance, we are reserving our right to examine the amendment that was been put on the table tonight as debate was underway. We certainly believe that the courts are able to avoid imposing mandatory minimum sentences if there is a special reason involved, as is outlined in the Crimes Amendment (Gross Violence Offences) Bill 2012 – namely, that the offender is between 18 and 21 years and is psychotically immature or has impaired mental functioning. We see more and more officers of the law and ambulance officers having to attend situations where people are having or are on the verge of having psychotic episodes. The families of these people are desperate to get some sort of intervention because they have been let down by the general system, so they have to call law enforcement or ambulance officers to intervene in cases that are spiralling out of control. Those suffering psychotic episodes need assistance, but of course not all officers are equipped to handle such situations.

We acknowledge that while the Police Association and the Victorian branch of Ambulance Employees Australia welcome harsher penalties for offenders who assault or injure workers on duty, we believe there is unlikely to be a major change or deterrent to this behaviour. The solution is more about resourcing the system and about having in place better systems for families to be able to access when their adult children or family members are either drug or alcohol dependent or have mental health problems. They need access through a reliable system that responds quickly rather than having to wait until it is necessary to call an ambulance or the local police.

We are currently facing an ambulance crisis. As a member who represents residents in the outer suburbs, I can say that we have real problems with obtaining sufficient resourcing of our local ambulances. The average waiting time for Melton branch ambulances has increased from 10.4 minutes to 14.13 minutes. This is an increase of about 31/2 minutes from when Labor was in government. Lives are being put at risk and ambulances are taking too long. It is the same story right across Victoria. A few minutes can make a real difference when a family is in need and is calling in an emergency to get support.