Mr SOUTHWICK (Caulfield) — It is with sadness that I rise to speak on the Crimes Amendment (Protection of Children) Bill 2014. Many times we have stood in this house with great enthusiasm about the bills we are debating to ensure that, with the rigour of the law, we are progressing and improving things. In this particular case we are talking about one of the ugliest forms of attack, being attacks on children, the most vulnerable in our community.
It is sad that we need laws like this to protect our children, but the harsh reality is that we do need them. These new laws further protect children from abuse, and we need to ensure that the child is front and centre and key in any situation where they are unable to protect themselves. Children are innocent in so many different ways and need to be protected as far as we possibly can. We as law‑makers in this state have a responsibility to protect our young people from these harms at all costs. This bill is about ensuring that harm to young people is minimised by ensuring that when people are armed with information, that information is passed on and those children are put under protection, away from harm’s way, at the earliest possible point.
This is a signalling bill in many respects. Very early on we introduced mandatory reporting of child abuse for those in professional services. That sent a very important signal back then to say that if information is given that a child is in an abusive situation or, particularly in this instance, is being sexually abused, that information needs to be passed on, and that child needs to be protected at the earliest point.
As we know, this bill comes as a result of the Family and Community Development Committee Betrayal of Trust report. As a result of two recommendations made in that report — recommendations 23.1 and 23.2 — this bill contains two new offences: failure to protect a child from a sexual offence and failure to disclose a sexual offence against a child to police.
The first of these offences, failure of a person in authority to protect a child from a sexual offence, is provided for in new section 49C of the Crimes Act 1958, inserted by clause 3 of the bill. This applies where there is a substantial risk that a child under the age of 16 who is under the care, supervision or authority of an organisation may become the victim of sexual abuse committed by an adult associated with the organisation. The accused will be guilty if they knew there was a risk and if they had the power or responsibility to reduce or remove the risk but neglected to do so.
We have seen in that committee’s work the hundreds of people who came forward to give their stories. They and their families had thought they were protected by organisations such as schools or religious organisations, in places we would consider safe, places where we would have thought our children would be protected. They were the last places we thought there would be predatory activity of any kind.
Clause 3, of the bill which inserts new section 49C, does not in this instance look at the individual case of the child, but if any of these organisations are aware that there is predatory activity happening within them there is a responsibility and obligation on the part of those who are aware of it to report that information. That is crucial. It is a key point in the Betrayal of Trust report. This clause ensures that those organisations are aware that they have a moral and, more importantly, a legal responsibility to report this type of activity and action.
There are many situations when these sorts of activities take place when people have said, ‘We will look after ourselves. We will sort it out within our own communities. We will keep it quiet within our communities. We will ensure that the media and the general public are not made aware of it’. Most importantly they say, ‘We will sweep this under the carpet’. That is absolutely unacceptable. This bill seeks to ensure that there is an imperative for those people who are aware of that information to report it.
The second part of the bill talks about the rights of the individual. I know there is sensitivity on both sides of the house when it comes to this issue, but again there is an obligation to ensure that a young person is safe regardless of anything else. Such young persons do not have the opportunity, the skills, the maturity, the experience, the know‑how or the wherewithal to protect themselves, so even in the most difficult situations we need to ensure that the full force of the law is applied.
I understand that there can be difficult and sensitive situations when there is family abuse, and concerns that if there is a report by a parent, that person might be affected by some form of continued family violence. We as a government have been well and truly on the front foot when it comes to dealing with domestic and family violence. It is unacceptable, and a number of laws have been passed in this house that have been supported by all to ensure that we stamp out family violence. It is a real blight on society and we need to do whatever we can to address it. I am sure members on both sides of the chamber agree that we need to do what we can to achieve that.
We have allocated police resources in the form of specific units that deal with family violence. Task Force Australia deals with young people who are being preyed upon, for example, on the internet, or are experiencing family violence. That unit is working to ensure those young people are protected. However, our police force cannot do what they need to do if they do not have the information to do it; if the information is covered up; if the young person continues to be exploited and sexually abused by a parent, a family member or anybody; if that information is not passed on to the authorities so that the full force of the law can be applied. That is paramount.
We can talk about amendments and all sorts of different ways of watering down this legislation, but this is not about watering down legislation. We need to be firm when it comes to this issue. We need to ensure our children are protected at all costs, and the only way we are able to do that is by ensuring our authorities have the correct information so that they can act on that information and protect the child and the family, and if it is a wife and mother who is being abused, they can act on that as well because that is unacceptable. They can act on that matter and ensure that the mother, the parent, is supported and protected in the same way the child is supported and protected.
This is a very important bill which is the result of a lot of work. I commend members of the Family and Community Development Committee from both sides of the house on the work they have done in arriving at their recommendations, which include the two changes I have mentioned. I find it unfortunate that amendments have come before the house. These two recommendations were originally supported by the opposition, but now amendments to the legislation have been suggested. When the bill went before the committee extensive work was done on it, and these amendments were part of the Betrayal of Trust recommendations that formed part of that crucial work. Witnesses came forward and said they wanted, needed and expected protection of their children. They wanted the sort of protection they did not get when they were children. That is what we need to do here and why we need this house to pass these laws and support the important protection our children deserve. I commend the bill to the house.