17 September 2019

Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019

I rise to speak in support of the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. I do so because it is our job to stand up for children in this place. As the most vulnerable members of our community, children rely on us to do all that we can to use the power of this place to protect them. Against the most horrific and sickening crime of child sexual abuse, we must leave no stone unturned. We must do all we can together to ensure our children are safe and protected from such evil. That's why Labor is supporting this legislation. I acknowledge what is and always should be the bipartisan approach taken to the principle of protecting children from abuse and the heartfelt concern of senators from all sides of the chamber in fighting against this horrendous crime. Labor absolutely supports the intent and principles of this legislation, which implements several recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and builds on child protection reforms and policies that we implemented.

The royal commission was long overdue and hard fought for. In my previous career, I had the great honour of meeting one of the Australians who fought so hard for this justice, Chrissie Foster. Ms Foster, along with her husband, Anthony, were fierce advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse. Their tireless fight for justice began after they learned of the indescribable suffering two of their daughters had been through. The Fosters became the voice and face of so many sexual abuse survivors who could not speak for themselves, and they were not alone. They were joined by survivors and family members across Australia whose sheer will and unmatched determination brought the royal commission and the national apology into reality.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work, sacrifices and immense pain of survivors of institutional child sexual abuse and all of those who have advocated on their behalf. We must not forget their pain or their work. This legislation seeks to implement several of the recommendations from the royal commission by amending the Criminal Code Act, the Customs Act, the Crimes Act, the Surveillance Devices Act and the Telecommunications Act. In response to recommendation 33 of the royal commission, the legislation specifically seeks to create an offence of failure to protect a child at risk of child sexual abuse. The report states that jurisdictions should introduce a criminal offence for failing to report child sexual abuse. Recommendation 36 in the royal commission report states that state and territory governments should introduce legislation to create a criminal offence of failure to protect a child within an institution from substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution. In response, this bill seeks to create an offence of failure to report a child that constitutes a child sexual abuse offence. This includes a criminal code for a Commonwealth officer who negligently fails to reduce or remove the risk of a child under their care, supervision or authority being sexually abused.

Currently, the criminalised persistent sexual abuse of a child overseas requires proof of at least three underlying occasions. This bill seeks to lower that minimum to two underlying occasions and to strengthen overseas persistent child sexual abuse laws. It particularly aims to reduce the difficulties associated with distinguishing particular occasions of offending from repeated and regular child sexual abuse.

Other measures in the bill seek to implement a suite of child protection amendments. The bill amends the Criminal Code to criminalise the possession of childlike sex dolls and would make a childlike sex doll child abuse material for the purposes of the Criminal Code and the Customs Act. The bill inserts a new offence for the possession or control of child abuse material in the form of data held in a computer or contained in a data storage device that was obtained or accessed via a carriage service.

The definition of forced marriage will be expanded to strengthen the forced marriage offences in the Criminal Code. Currently a marriage is considered to be forced if it is entered into without consent, which must be full and free and given without coercion, deception or threat. The explanatory memorandum states that in practice this has meant that prosecuting forced marriage offences involving children is difficult. The bill further seeks to expand the definition of forced marriage to specifically include all marriages involving children under the age of 16.

Travelling overseas to abuse and exploit children is tragically a known practice of Australian offenders. This is most prevalent in overseas jurisdictions which have weak child protection frameworks and where the offending behaviour is less likely to attract attention and investigation from local authorities. The vile individuals who exploit children in this way know and target children in these countries specifically. In an attempt to combat this, the bill seeks to restrict the defence for overseas child sex offences based on a valid and genuine marriage. In addition, the bill amends the Criminal Code to narrow the defence so that the existence of a marriage between a defendant and a child no longer constitutes a valid defence for otherwise criminal conduct if the child is under the age of 16. Finally, the bill also expands the meaning of 'child abuse material', updating the terminology used for child sexual abuse offences in Commonwealth legislation. It does this to reflect the gravity of these crimes, the harm that is inflicted on the children involved, and shifts in national and international best practice.

I note, as some of my other colleagues have, that some stakeholders raised legitimate concerns about certain aspects of the bill currently before the Senate. It is important to note that these concerns were raised by people who unambiguously support the underlying objectives of the bill. The Law Council of Australia raised particular concerns about the application of absolute liability to the offences of failing to protect children at risk of child sexual abuse and failing to report child sexual abuse. However, Labor noted in its additional comments to the Senate inquiry's report that it accepts the submission from the Department of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General's Department that absolute liability is appropriate to ensure compliance with the reporting regime.

The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and the Law Council of Australia also raised concerns regarding the bill's provision that an individual is not excused from failing to disclose information relating to child sexual abuse on grounds of possible self-incrimination. Labor made further additional comments to indicate it also accepts the responses of the two departments in relation to these concerns. As noted by Labor members in the additional comments to the committee's report, it is vital that this legislation be as effective as possible. Labor will watch the government's next steps closely to ensure the bill is implemented as intended. But, fundamentally, Labor supports the measures in the bill, and we support the bill.

The royal commission handed down its final report in December 2017, in which the commissioners made a total of 409 recommendations. It is imperative to note that this legislation before the Senate seeks to implement only a few of those recommendations. The royal commission received 25,964 written submissions in the form of letters and emails. It received 42,041 phone calls and held 8,013 private sessions. From all those submissions received, the commission made 2,575 referrals to authorities, including the police. The total of 76,018 submissions received, in addition to the 2,575 referrals made, makes bipartisan support of this bill and its measures all the more crucial.

It is absolutely essential that as a chamber we stand together, unified against child abuse and exploitation in all of its forms. I am incredibly proud that it was Labor who initiated the royal commission and that the implementation by this government of further strengthening legislation, which seeks to combat child sexual exploitation, builds on reforms and policies implemented under a Labor government.

Children are the most precious and vulnerable members of our community. They do not have their own voice in this place, so it is our job to speak for them. Here we hold the power to implement legislation to protect them from the world's most sickening crimes and people. It is our job to do all we can to keep them safe from sexual exploitation and from all harm, because they deserve our protection and our support. Labor are committed to protecting Australian children. We have no tolerance for these crimes. That's why we're supporting the bill, and I commend it to the Senate.

17 September 2019