Monday, 15 February 2021
Private Members' Business
Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation
That this House:
(1) recognises that the Government has established the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) as the frontline defence in the Government's fight to protect children from predators online, in Australia and across the world;
(2) acknowledges that:
(a) ACCCE brings together the specialist expertise and skills from government agencies, law enforcement and advocacy groups, in a central hub, to investigate cases of child exploitation and to implement prevention strategies;
(b) in the period 1 July 2019 to 30 June 2020, the ACCCE received more than 21,000 incoming reports of child exploitation, compared with 14,000 in 2018-2019, from this, 134 children were removed from harm; and
(c) recent operations by the ACCCE removed 16 children in Australia from harm and arrested 44 offenders with 350 charges collectively;
(3) welcomes the Government's significant investment in establishing the ACCCE, with $68.6 million committed over four years to further the crucial work they do to protect children;
(4) notes the recent opening of the new purpose-built facility and thanks all the Australian Federal Police and state police officers for their selfless work in tracking and apprehending predators; and
(5) commits to the ongoing safety of all Australian children, both online and in our communities, by continuing the Government's recent investment in anti-exploitation measures.
As a young dad there is nothing more important to me than protecting my kids and I know it's the same for every parent in the Ryan electorate. Child sexual abuse is a very real threat in Australia. It is a scourge that we must not shy away from and we must tackle head-on and with courage. It's highly confronting. The things that we hear in this space are terrible crimes that you can barely manage to hear or to consider, but we can't stay silent on this issue. That is what the predators count on. I have said it before in this place: these predators count on us turning down the TV or turning the page of the newspaper when we hear or see the horrors of these stories. We can't do that. We must talk about these issues. We must talk, importantly, about its prevalence in our community, so that parents know the risk—they must talk about it with their kids—so that we can work together as a community to prevent it.
It's for this reason that I rise and move this motion today on the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, known as the ACCCE. I want to start by acknowledging the Minister for Home Affairs, Minister Dutton, for being the driving force behind the establishment of the ACCCE and for his unwavering commitment to find, stop and prosecute these sickening offenders.
In response to an increasing number and severity of reports of child exploitation received by Australian law enforcement agencies, in 2018 the Morrison government, with a $68.6 million commitment, established the ACCCE. For those not familiar with it, it is led by the AFP and brings together skills across public and private sectors, all working together in one central hub, to protect our kids. The ACCCE provides a capability that no single federal or state agency has by itself, provides a conduit for foreign law enforcement to tackle the borderless crime that is creating and sharing child abuse material. It has been joined by some world renowned child protection personnel now working right here in Australia.
Last year I got to visit the ACCCE in person, because it's located in my home town of Brisbane, and I spoke to the many dedicated employees and officers who are working there. The work done by each and every team member is incredible and we are really in their debt for the work that they do. I just want you to imagine the work that they do because it is hard to fathom. They work through thousands of reported images of the most disturbing nature. They are going through these materials and these pictures, intercepting messages across the dark web, posing in these forums as pedophiles themselves in order to infiltrate the networks of offenders producing and sharing this content. Many of them, as they are doing this, are parents themselves and have their own kids in the back of their minds. You cannot even come close to imagining the challenges that their work poses. Thank you, a very real thank you that we're expressing today as a House, doesn't even come close to expressing the gratitude that they deserve. That's why I have moved this motion in this place to thank them for all their efforts. The difference that they are making is profound.
Recently in this place, together with my friend the member for Macnamara, who's here, we launched a parliamentary Friends of Combating Child Exploitation in Australia and the ACCCE. It shows you what a bipartisan effort this particular field is. There are no politics when it comes to stopping child exploitation. I know that every member of the Labor Party is dedicated, as we are, to ensuring that it happens. The member for Macnamara's passion for this is greatly appreciated by me and other parents.
During the launch we heard from the Assistant Commissioner Northern Command, Lesa Gale, and Detective Sergeant Kate Laidler from the AFP victim identification unit, who provided an update on Operation Arkstone, which is being run from the ACCCE Operation Arkstone has resulted in 46 children being removed from harm, including 16 from a child-care centre—these are kids in Australia right now—and 828 charges being laid. The victims range from 16 months to 15 years, with an average age of eight years old. The positions of the alleged offenders were child-care workers, a volunteer soccer coach, a disability support worker, an electrician, a supermarket employee and a chef. These are people who have been invested with a great deal of responsibility and trust by parents and our community, and they have abused in the most horrible way.
Since its inception over the last two years, the ACCCE has led to 1,214 charges being laid by the AFP, 161 arrests and 28,000 reports of child abuse triaged. We owe them our great thanks on behalf of all Australians for the tough work that they're doing for Australian families.
I second the motion. I'm pleased to follow the member for Ryan after his contribution and to support him in this motion. It is an important motion in the House. We on this side of the House are pleased to support it and to echo many of the sentiments expressed by the member from Ryan. We don't agree on everything, and the member for Ryan and I have sparred on a few different occasions, but on this we are absolutely united. I acknowledge him as the driving force in establishing this friendship group. I was pleased to support and help him and to co-chair, but I acknowledge his leadership and initiation of this important parliamentary friendship group. I hope that the need for it dissolves quickly, but I fear that is not going to be the case. I hope that as long as there is a need this friendship group established by the member for Ryan stands in this place as a counter to some of the horrific crimes and exploitation that we see of young Australians, some of our most vulnerable Australians.
When I received the call from the member from Ryan to be a part of this and to co-chair this organisation, it was of course an immediate yes, and it was of course an immediate call to action to be a part of and to help support our incredible front-line law enforcement officers. We had our first meeting on 8 December 2020. We were briefed by Assistant Commissioner Gale and Detective Acting Sergeant Laidler. They came into the parliament and gave a briefing on Operation Arkstone and all of the different facets of that operation. They were going into some detail about the level of infiltration of some of these circles that the Australian Federal Police does and that their members do on a daily basis. You could see that even though this is their job, even though they are in some ways hardened by this work and they are two fierce, strong Australian women serving in the Australian Federal Police, there is no doubt—and this was clear in their presentation—that for them and their colleagues turning up to work each and every day and being confronted by the sorts of material and images that they are trying to combat takes its toll. It does. It would take its toll on anyone. Personally, I couldn't imagine being in their shoes, having to get up and go through the daily grind of working in this space, but they do it because they know it's so important. For every child where they intercept and prevent something that will change the child's life for the worse, they are doing incredible work. They are literally saving lives each and every day.
I join the member for Ryan in saying that we don't just thank them for their work for the Australian Federal Police and for the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation but are also in fierce admiration of their work. We are in fierce admiration of the men and women who get up every single day to insert themselves in some of the most dark and predatory behaviours in our country in order to save and improve the welfare and the living experiences of our youngest and most vulnerable Australians. For that we say a deep thank you. In this place, I'm very pleased to follow the member for Ryan in acknowledging them.
The only other bit I would like to say is that one thing that I've certainly come to appreciate and pick up as part of the experience of the friendship group is that it's often not strangers. There is obviously an online presence where there is predatory behaviour by people the young person doesn't know, but, as is so often the case, these crimes are committed by people who are known to the young person. I'm the father of a beautiful little girl, but I also used to work in a classroom, I used to work in child care and I used to work in kindergartens. It was great work and it was a lot of fun, but you also have a real sense of the responsibility and the duty of care that you have in those places. This is, unfortunately, work that must go on. I commend the member for Ryan for his leadership and initiative, and we on this side of the House stand in 100 per cent support of the government's actions in this space.
Last week, a 61-year-old Victorian male was charged by the Australian Federal Police for allegedly paying to watch live-streamed child sex abuse. A 42-year-old woman was arrested in the Philippines for her alleged role as a facilitator. As a result of the investigation, nine children were removed from harm. Last month, a 26-year-old Sydney male was arrested in his Lane Cove home as part of the AFP-led investigation called Operation Arkstone. He is facing child abuse material offences. Since beginning in February last year, Operation Arkstone has resulted in 17 arrests, 843 charges laid and 46 child victims removed from harm. Also last month, a 35-year-old male was arrested in Zetland, New South Wales, and charged with five counts of possessing child abuse material and one count of accessing child abuse material.
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a media report that actually shocked me. For years, proud parents of school children would take snaps of their little ones on their first day of school and post them on social media, yet, in this media report, the AFP were advising parents not to make these photos publicly available, because it might put the child at risk of being groomed by one of the child predators. This was not just a precautionary warning. The AFP had actually seen instances of online grooming in which the predator used information from a parent's photo to get to the child.
We are living in a world in which four out of five children aged four years are using the internet. According to recent research, 30 per cent of these four-year-olds have their own phone or tablet. Fifty per cent of children under the age of 12 have their own personal device and 50 per cent of all children have access to at least three different devices. Remarkably, the same research suggested that many parents were perhaps a little apathetic when it came to their children's online activities. Just three per cent of parents or carers listed online grooming as a concern, 16 per cent sought out information about online child exploitation, and 20 per cent of parents and carers are not comfortable talking to their children about online child sexual exploitation.
Sadly, we are living in a world now where our children have to be wary of online sexual predators. It is unacceptable to me and, I'm sure, to every other parent in this country. That's why the Australian government is investing millions of dollars every year to combat online child exploitation. In March 2018, the government and the AFP established the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation. The centre is committed to stopping child exploitation and abuse and is at the centre of a collaborative national approach to combatting organised child abuse. In the 2019-20 financial year, the centre made 161 arrests and removed 134 children from harm. This is a fantastic result, yet sadly the number of reports of child sexual exploitation is increasing. The following year there were more than 21,000 reports made—an increase of around 7,000.
After the Lane Cove arrest last month, AFP Detective Superintendent Ben McQuillan said this:
"Our investigators have been combing through every image, video and communication since Operation Arkstone began, to find and bring to justice those who carelessly abuse and forever traumatise our children,"…
After the arrest in Zetland, AFP Detective Sergeant Jarryd Dunbar said this:
"Online offenders may believe they are anonymous but they are not. It doesn't matter where they live, the AFP together with our partners across Australia and around the world are keeping a watch on every corner to protect our children,"…
The message is clear: the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, in partnership with other agencies and task forces, with the support of the federal government, will track down and arrest anyone involved in the abuse and exploitation of children.
The more we can educate our kids about stranger danger online, the more savvy they will be and the less likely they will be at risk. I was somewhat heartened during a visit last week to Tullawong State School in my electorate of Longman when I spoke to students about Safer Internet Day. Quite of a few of the young students, particularly those who play games like Roblox online with their friends, were savvy about not interacting with strangers online. One boy even said that he would check with his friends to make sure that the person in the game was actually who they claimed to be. It's a start. The much-needed growth in awareness and education is beginning to come through, but it is not fast enough. Let's all do our part to educate our kids and grandkids when it comes to e-safety. For more information and helpful tips on how to protect your children and grandchildren from this scourge on our society, please go to esafety.gov.au.
I thank the member for Ryan for moving this important motion and recognise his ongoing interest in this issue and the advocacy that he has done in this House on this cause since being elected. It is a cause that is shared by all of us in this building. There wouldn't be a single member of parliament from any political party of any particular persuasion that would not be as equally committed to stamping out this most heinous, most repulsive and most revolting of crimes—child abuse. The motion rightly recognises the outstanding work done by the Australian Federal Police and, in particular, the ACCCE. I'm pleased to support this motion that recognises this vital work and the role that our law enforcement agencies and policymakers across the spectrum play in keeping our children safe from predators.
There were more than 21,000 reports of child exploitation to the ACCCE in 2019-20. All of us in this place agree that the ACCCE and the AFP perform many crucial investigative, intelligence and national security functions in this fight, and we can all agree that this cause should be above politics of any kind. We can have differences of approach. We can discuss the best way to deal with this scourge. But we do it in good faith. We do it knowing that all sides of this chamber are trying to get to the same end goal. The ACCCE's objective to free children from exploitation through its four pillars would be supported by all members—preparing future capabilities and technologies to counter child exploitation, preventing the exploitation of children, intervening earlier in the abuse of victims, protecting victims from further victimisation, protecting the wellbeing of members and supporting authorities to pursue and prosecute child sex offenders and remove victims from harm.
Child exploitation didn't stop with lockdowns during COVID-19. It never takes a break. Unfortunately, this is a crime that is growing exponentially. Officers have continued to be at the coalface, fighting this crime during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, child exploitation cases more than doubled in the first months of COVID-19. The AFP laid 1,078 child exploitation charges against 144 people in the 10 months to May 2020. It's an outstanding job, but it reflects a horrific reality. The officers at the AFP have worked tirelessly throughout 2020 to keep Australian children safe. As the motion notes, recent operations in Australia removed 16 children from harm and arrested 44 offenders, laying 350 charges against them collectively. It's worth reflecting on what those statistics mean in the real world, what the consequences of those actions by the AFP mean to those children. The mind boggles. It's an incredible contribution that these officers have made. The AFP has also assisted with eight international arrests over the 12 months to November 2020.
These officers do an incredible service to our nation and to children across Australia, but they need our support in the work that they do. Child exploitation is a heinous crime and the officers who do this work are exposed to images and to situations that are traumatising, that are horrific, that none of us even like to think about, let alone confront face to face. We really need to make sure that, as a government, we support AFP officers who do this critical work to ensure they get access to the services and support that they need so that they aren't paying a price for doing this invaluable work for the nation.
All of us have a role to play in this fight against child abuse and child exploitation, in this fight to stamp it out. Law enforcement is on the front line against offenders, but all of us—in our communities and in our families, as parents, as family members—have a role to play in having a hard conversation with our families, with our children about these risks. As the member for Longman rightly pointed out in his contribution, it's hard to have these conversations. It's awkward. It makes us feel terrible. But we need to confront this for the sake of our children. So have that conversation with kids about knowing who they're engaging with on the internet, about knowing what the risks confronting them are. It's uncomfortable, it's awkward, but it's a small price to pay in the face of statistics that are, frankly, horrifying and that show the growing nature of this threat around the world. All of us have a role to play in this chamber, in our communities, in our families, and I thank all Australians who are united in their common purpose to fight against this scourge against children in our society.
As I've said in this chamber previously, no group in our community is more deserving of our protection than our children. I'm extremely proud of the government's commitment and tangible action to ensure our children are kept safe from harm and that offenders are brought to justice, and I'm very encouraged by the bipartisan support that we see in this place for this issue.
The Australian government has provided the Australian Federal Police with $68.6 million to drive a world-leading response to counter child sexual abuse. As part of this funding, in September 2018 the Minister for Home Affairs announced the launch of the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, a world-leading centre coordinating responses to counter the online exploitation of children. Collaboration is key to addressing the scourge that is online child sexual abuse. The ACCCE works closely with the states and territories joint exploitation teams—JACETs—as well as with international law enforcement counterparts, industry, nongovernment organisations and research bodies to strengthen the domestic and global responses to these crimes. It was this very collaboration between the Tasmanian JACET, the AFP and the ACCCE that was responsible for a warrant executed against a Tasmanian man in December, who was charged with child exploitation.
We like to think that abusers don't live in our own backyards, but they do. They are our neighbours and in our community and often in positions of trust. Just last week in Hobart, a man who worked at a local childcare centre was charged with producing child exploitation material. In my own northern Tasmanian community, a Riverside man was charged last year with child exploitation after a lengthy AFP investigation as part of Operation Molto. Operation Molto is the most recent ACCCE coordinated national operation, involving police in all Australian states and territories, and has led to 65 offenders being charged with 525 offences and 18 children removed from harm.
That's a very difficult statistic to say out loud, and it brings home the point that these operations are not just about numbers. The fact that 18 innocent children were abused is horrifying and utterly devastating. Sadly, too, as the pandemic has brought a variety of challenges, COVID has also seen a significant increase in the amount of child abuse material downloaded successfully on the dark web. Between April and June of last year there was an average increase of about 163 per cent in activity compared to the same period in the year before.
The government has made the protection of children a priority and has reformed laws to achieve this aim. In September 2019, the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Act came into effect in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It addresses difficulties that operational agencies face in investigating and prosecuting new child sexual abuse related trends. Additionally, I spoke in the chamber last year in passionate support of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Act 2020, which came into force in June last year. This legislated a number of much-needed measures, including mandatory minimum penalties of at least four years imprisonment for the most serious offences and for repeat offenders.
Proper funding and effective legislation both to track down and sentence offenders are necessary but it is imperative that we instil protective behaviour in our children, teaching them how to keep themselves safe online and offline. Recent ACCCE research indicates that only 52 per cent of Australian parents and carers talk to their children about online safety, which is a really scary statistic. As a parent of five myself, I know that I am concerned about the amount of time that my children spend online and recognise that I need to have continuing conversations with them to ensure that they're protected when they're on their devices. The eSafety Commissioner website and the thinkuknow.org.au website, along with terrific organisations such as Bravehearts and The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, are great resources for parents and carers. They have an incredible amount of useful tools and information available to help so that we're all better equipped to deal with the challenges online and to teach our kids to protect themselves.
As an adult, I can think of no greater duty—none—than the protection of children. Labor supported the creation of the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, which aims to tackle the prevalence of digital exploitation and online predation. We are pleased to see that it's getting results, and all strength to its arm.
The centre is mandated to do the following:
1. Reduce economic, social and individual rewards from child exploitation.
2. Reduce harm from complex, organised child exploitation networks.
3. Enhance capability and interoperability between the public and private sectors, and civil society.
4. Enhance community confidence that authorities, civil society, and the private sector are addressing the issue of child exploitation.
In the House an hour or so ago, there was a very good debate on the role that social media platforms have played in spreading hate and disinformation generally. That debate was during a private member's motion brought by the member for Mallee, Dr Webster, who herself has been targeted in the most egregious way on social media.
But many people in the community are affected by what is occurring online. The social media platforms must do better in facing up to their responsibilities. This stuff does not happen in print or on broadcast media at anywhere near the frequency that it does online. Perhaps that's because over the years and decades laws have managed to keep pace with community standards. The same can't be said about the online world. The internet has been part of our world for 30 years now and is inextricably woven into every aspect of our lives, but it's still like the Wild West.
As the elected representatives of our nation, we have a duty to keep the internet as free as possible while ensuring that it remains in line with community standards. That means pretty much extending the same standard to platforms that we expect of newspapers and television stations. However, we have grown accustomed to thinking that this stuff happens on the margins of the net, in the grimy underbelly of the dark web and peer-to-peer portals. But it is happening in full view, on popular shopping websites accessed by millions of Australians.
In recent weeks, I have joined a campaign launched jointly by Victorian designer Anna Cordell and a group called the Collective Shout which seeks to get child abuse material and products off the popular shopping website Etsy. I mentioned this campaign in passing a few weeks ago in the House, but it's worth raising again. Etsy is a very popular, US based website which millions of Australians, mostly women, use to purchase gifts and crafts. Many Australians also sell their own goods on the platform.
Members will be shocked to learn that Etsy, which describes itself as a 'mindful, transparent and humane' business and which caters overwhelmingly to women looking for handcrafted and unique products, is also platforming child sexual abuse material. As The Daily Telegraph reported two weeks ago, alongside handmade baby blankets you can buy rape dolls—they call them 'child sex dolls', but they are rape dolls—resembling children as young as 10. One is listed as having the height and weight of a 12-year-old and is photographed in teenage clothing. The listing promises 'discreet shipping' and plain brown boxes. These dolls are illegal in Australia. Importing one can cost you more than half a million dollars in fines and up to 10 years in prison. As of December last year, ABF has seized 191, up from 145 the year before. Also on Etsy, alongside gifts for Father's Day, you can buy T-shirts and underwear with slogans including 'Daddy's Little—' and I won't include the word, 'whore', and 'Daddy's Little—' and I won't include the word, 'slut', and others.
When Anna Cordell was made aware of the disgusting material that her products were being sold alongside, she left Etsy and started a petition demanding that the products be removed, that the sellers be banned and that Etsy commit to ensuring that its site remains free of such material in the future. To date the petition has gathered more than 33,000 signatures, including my own, and I would certainly encourage members to join us. Unfortunately, Etsy appears to have turned a deaf ear. Some of the material is no longer there, but the sellers are still there. Etsy has not issued any public statement committing to keeping the site clean. This week Anna wrote to the Etsy CEO and board asking, 'How do factory-produced sex dolls and child sexual abuse fit with Etsy's stated values?' She continues: 'I am struggling to understand why, despite the petition, media coverage and widespread condemnation, you continue to remain silent.'
Etsy's board is well credentialed. Some very fine people are on there. But they cannot hide behind the facade of their decency. They are complicit. They know about this now. They've been told that this material exists. They must act. They must get this material off their website. It is disgusting. There's no place for it. These well-credentialed, fine, upstanding citizens on the board of Etsy have nowhere to hide. If they don't remove this material, they are complicit in the crime of selling it.
Firstly, I would like to commend both the member for Ryan and the member for Macnamara for bringing this motion to the Federation Chamber today and indeed commend both of them for starting the parliamentary friendship group on combating child exploitation. I've signed up to that group, and I again commend them for starting that.
As a former police officer, detective and investigator, I unfortunately not only have seen this type of material but also have dealt with the victims of child sexual assault and sexual abuse. I would like to pay tribute to those investigators who deal with it day after day after day, whether it's the Federal Police or state specialist investigators. In my 12 short years as a police officer, whether as a detective or as a police prosecutor, nothing affected me more personally than having to view this material. It was so incredibly difficult as a detective dealing with children who were so young that they couldn't express what had happened to them; they were that small. We as a society, and the structure that surrounds these investigators, must support these officers every step of the way. Otherwise, they will simply fall by the wayside. These are images and situations that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. We owe it to them to support them as much as we possibly can, as much as we owe it to our children to protect them from these monsters.
I sometimes struggle with the concept of good and evil, but with this it's very simple: this is nothing but evil. These people are not the types of people who can be rehabilitated. Yet in society they are just another person, just another businessperson or the person who lives next door. You can't pick them out. I think that was shown in the recent investigation Operation Arkstone that the assistant commissioner spoke about at the parliamentary friends group that we went to. That was in the electorate just next to mine, and I remember reading about it in the local paper. One thing that struck me was one of the mums said, 'My husband said to me something wasn't right; there was something just not right about that.' I have said before that, if you think something is not right, you should go with your gut. I'd rather apologise to somebody for getting it wrong than apologise to my child or somebody else's child for not actually doing something, for not actually taking that step. I think that, as parents, we have that heightened sense of when something isn't right. So don't sit back. Don't stay quiet. If Mum, Dad or a caregiver think there's something wrong then they have an obligation to look into it. They have an obligation to start asking those questions.
You also have an obligation to educate yourself about the Internet, about apps, about the websites that your children are looking at. Something that I cannot comprehend is that over the last 12 months, during COVID, this type of material and people using it increased 163 per cent. It's just unbelievable that we in a society have people who are prepared to engage in this, but it's fact. If we have people who are prepared to engage in that in Australia then we must increase all of our efforts and we have increased all of our efforts to target these people, to put them in the only place that they should be in the absence of capital punishment: in jail for a very long time.
I commend the members for Ryan and Macnamara for bringing this to this place. I will continue to advocate on behalf of not only children but also the investigators.