House debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023



12:06 pm

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Banks from moving the following motion immediately—

That the House notes:

(1) the protection of children from online harm is a fundamental responsibility of government;

(2) in 2021, under the former Coalition Government the eSafety Commissioner commenced work on a roadmap for age verification technology;

(3) this work arose from the recommendations of the bipartisan Protecting the Age of Innocence inquiry, chaired by the Member for Fisher;

(4) in March 2023, the eSafety Commissioner provided its report, which recommended a trial of age assurance technology to help keep children safe online;

(5) the Albanese Government has refused to implement this recommendation, instead leaving the issue of age verification up to the pornography industry through the development of industry codes;

(6) more than 45 children's and women's safety advocates have strongly criticised the Albanese Government for its refusal to implement the eSafety Commissioner's recommendation on this issue; and

(7) therefore private Members' business notice No. 31 relating to a Bill for an Act to amend the Online Safety Act 2021, and for related purposes standing in the name of the Member for Banks being called on immediately and debate on the second reading proceeding for a period of no longer than two hours, after which any questions required to complete passage of the bill then being put without delay.

This is an absolutely outrageous decision by the Albanese government. There is nothing more important than the online safety of children. This is one of the defining issues of our era. Every single parent in Australia worries about this. It's an immensely significant issue.

Back in 2020 the member for Fisher chaired a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry, by members from all parts of this House. One of their key recommendations was to pursue age verification technology to stop children from accessing dangerous content. Our government asked the eSafety Commissioner to investigate this issue. The eSafety Commissioner, the person in this country who has more expertise than anyone else on these matters, spent two years looking into this issue, and in March she presented a report to the government. Her key recommendation was to conduct a trial of age assurance technology to protect children, principally from pornography and other forms of dangerous content, and then mandate and prescribe age assurance technology. That's what the eSafety Commissioner said.

What did this government say to the eSafety Commissioner? 'No, we're not going to do what you, the eSafety Commissioner, want us to do. But do you know what we are going to do? We're going to do what the pornography industry wants us to do.'

Many things in politics can be explained, but what the Minister for Communications did defies all explanation. Here's what the minister decided to do: not implement the eSafety Commissioner's recommendation. No, don't do that. Instead, leave the matter up to the industry! The industry in this case, of course, is the pornography industry. What an extraordinary thing for the Minister for Communications to do. Immediately, the children's safety and women's safety experts of Australia stood up and condemned this decision by the government. Of course, we're talking about such a serious issue, and the government's own National Plan to End Violence against Women and Childrensays:

With pornography now overwhelmingly consumed online and via mobile devices, it is both prevalent and pervasive, perpetuating sexist, misogynistic and degrading views about women. This is a serious concern in addressing the drivers of violence against women and children.

That's absolutely right. That's a reason why this is such an urgent issue that must be debated by the House.

An activist group called Collective Shout organised 49 advocates and experts in children's safety and women's safety to say what they thought about this issue. Here's what they said:

Early porn exposure harms developing sexual templates, contributes to damaging stereotypes, the development of sexist ideas, the normalisation of violence against women and a rise in child-on-child sexual abuse.

This is a very serious matter. Then the experts went on—and this is a damning indictment on the Albanese government—to say:

It is our strong view that the Government has allowed itself to be swayed by industry resistance to an age verification system. Vested interests should not have been put before the wellbeing of children.

Who signed that letter? Forty-nine experts. One of them was Robert Fitzgerald. You know who he is? He was the former royal commissioner into child sexual abuse. He signed that letter, as did the author Maggie Dent; Chanel Contos of Teach Us Consent, who does such tremendous work in this area; Alison Geale, the CEO of Bravehearts; the Daniel Morcombe Foundation; author Steve Biddulph, an expert in this area; Professor Clive Hamilton; Grace Tame of the Grace Tame Foundation; and Anna Bowden, the CEO of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children Australia. They all signed this letter, saying:

It is our strong view that the Government has allowed itself to be swayed by industry resistance to an age verification system. Vested interests should not have been put before the wellbeing of children.

That's what they said.

And you know who else had something to say about it? Anne Hollonds. Anne Hollonds is the National Children's Commissioner. Her job is to stand up for the rights of children, to look after the welfare of children and to basically speak up for kids, who often can't speak up for themselves. Anne Hollonds, the National Children's Commissioner, said:

If child wellbeing was a national priority, we would act on e-Safety's plan to trial ways to protect young kids from online porn. This would help to reduce child sex abuse, youth crime, domestic and family violence.

That's what the National Children's Commissioner said.

But you know who did actually welcome it? The Eros Association, who speaks for the pornography industry. Graeme Dunne from the Eros Association, on the day the minister announced this decision, appeared on the ABC and said, 'We've always advocated for a sensible approach, and that includes what the government is recommending today.' That's what the Eros Association said. So 49 of the most eminent people in Australia—if you were to define 'eminent', do you get any more eminent than the royal commissioner into child sexual abuse? It's extraordinary. Forty-nine of the most eminent experts in Australia—people who are passionate about protecting our children and passionate about issues relating to women's safety—condemn it. The Eros Association says it's good. This is the situation we are in under this extraordinary Minister for Communications.

But it's not only about the Minister for Communications, because there is a very obvious question that springs to mind: what is the Prime Minister doing about this? Is he backing the Minister for Communications on this, against the advice of Australia's top experts? What on earth is going on? There are basically two scenarios here. One is that the Prime Minister doesn't know what's going on and what his minister is doing—

Photo of Dan TehanDan Tehan (Wannon, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Which is pretty damning.

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

which is very, very damning. The other is that he does know that the minister has decided to ignore the eSafety Commissioner, and he supports it. After all, he is leading the government. That's why it is important for prime ministers to be across the detail—and this is an awful, awful detail, what the government has done here.

There are good people in this parliament. I think everyone in this parliament wants to do the right thing on these issues. I know that, when the member for Fisher chaired this inquiry, there were people from all parts of this chamber who backed this 100 per cent. We want a vote on this, because we want everyone to stand with the eSafety Commissioner on this issue, stand against the pornography industry, back this incredibly sensible recommendation and get on with protecting Australian kids.

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

12:16 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. When I was the Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, we undertook this inquiry with the support of my coalition colleagues and, indeed, even with the support of those members opposite. The report that was handed down in February 2020 was called Protecting the age of innocence. Do you know who gave the report that title? It was the member for Macarthur. The member for Macarthur is a great Australian, a longstanding paediatrician who cares deeply about the welfare of children—I do not doubt that for a second. But those members opposite will need to make a call today about whether they support this Minister for Communications and, indeed, the Prime Minister or whether they support doing what is right, because what is right is to introduce a trial that will provide age verification for online pornography.

Young people under the age of 18 can't go into a newsagent and buy pornography. The laws of this country say you need to be over 18. All we are saying—all we have said for many years—is that the online world should shape and reflect what happens in the real world. You can't get access legally to pornography if you are under 18—and for very good reason. And yet on the internet young people are accessing pornography, and we're not just talking about Playboy or Penthouse or that sort of soft porn; we are talking about hardcore, violent, extremist, degrading behaviour against women.

Those members opposite talk the big talk—and they did it yesterday—about protecting women. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a direct correlation between hardcore pornography and domestic violence. Those members opposite would have to acknowledge that. This is a watershed moment for these members in this chamber. Do you support what is right? Do you support women? Do you support standing against domestic violence? If you do, when this comes to a vote you will support the position of the opposition on this. There is nowhere to move. Look at all of the challenges that our young people are experiencing right now and think about all the parents, teachers and principals who have spoken to us in our time as MPs. One of the main things they talk to us about is access to pornography on these things. All they have to do is tick a box to say they are 18 or over.

That is entirely insufficient. There is absolutely no doubt that the Eros Foundation supported the views of the minister in not undertaking this trial. It is no wonder that the Eros Foundation supported self-regulation; that is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

Big porn do not care about Australians. They do not care about young Australians. Big porn are concerned about one thing and one thing only, and that is profit. Unfortunately, for reasons which escape me, this minister is giving them free rein. If anybody can explain and justify the decision of this government, I am all ears. If anybody can explain to me why the Prime Minister would sit back and allow this decision to go unchallenged, I am, once again, all ears.

One of the other challenges we talk about with young people is the falling education standards. We heard in the committee, time and time again, from parents telling us that their kids were sitting up late at night under the doona watching porn on their phones, then going to school the next day exhausted. Is it any wonder that our education standards are dropping in this country? This is a huge problem, and this communications minister needs to step up and do something about it.

12:21 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Some months ago, I had a couple come in and see me. They had four beautiful children, and their youngest son had taken his life. I say this to the parliament knowing that the parents have given me their permission to do so. According to what he'd said to his mum, he took his life because he'd seen things he never should have seen. He was not yet 18. He had his whole life in front of him. He was so disturbed by what he saw that he could see no way out of it. There'll be a hole in that family this Christmas, next Christmas and every birthday. Those parents want to do everything that they can to raise awareness about this and about how pornography, in particular, damages young minds. It rewires people's minds.

Yesterday we had some motions about violence against women. We know, with respect to pornography, that violence against women is portrayed as entertainment. We know that many, many children, before they turn of age, have seen many, many images that are violent and pornographic. We have a responsibility in this place to ensure that we do everything we can, legislatively, to protect children and protect their rights to be children.

I am supporting the motion to suspend standing orders because this is an incredibly urgent matter. It is a matter that is affecting so many families in my community and, I can only assume, in the communities of every other member in this chamber. We need leadership and courage from government and from everyone in this place.

It was the most harrowing meeting with that family. What do you say to a mother who has buried her child? No parent should have to do that. So I would urge the government to look at this motion for the suspension of standing orders. Let us all work together on matters like this and see this as a matter of urgency for the parliament to act.

12:24 pm

Photo of Allegra SpenderAllegra Spender (Wentworth, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll speak very briefly on this, simply to say that I support this motion. I think this is a critical issue for the community, for women and for parents. I think there's a huge level of support from many in our community who feel this is an urgent issue to discuss. I look forward to hearing what the minister has to say on this.

The evidence is clear that porn harms. Porn exposure harms developing sexual templates. There are recommendations from the eSafety Commissioner and many others in support of this. I think it is absolutely urgent that we discuss this today.

12:25 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | | Hansard source

This matter is urgent for the very good reasons that the member for Banks and the member for Fisher have articulated. One of the reasons it's urgent is that the government has before it a template with which to act. This is not a policy approach which is being suggested in a rushed or a slapdash way. In fact, there has been very thorough public policy work done, thanks to the process initiated by the member for Fisher. The eSafety Commissioner—established by the coalition and doing extraordinarily important work—was charged with examining this issue, which is extremely pressing, as the members for Mayo and Wentworth have rightly pointed out. This is an enormously pressing and problematic issue. There is a template in front of us, developed by the eSafety Commissioner after detailed work. What this motion is calling for is that, as a matter of urgency, this parliament should move to essentially reverse the ill-judged approach that the minister has taken. In the interest of allowing the minister some time to explain her position to the parliament, I'll conclude there.

12:26 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this very important issue. I do note the contribution from the member for Mayo, which is heartfelt and sincere. We do have an obligation to do everything we can to keep our most vulnerable safe. I'm sure the member would never have expected that in her role as MP that she would be in that position.

No Australian wants children accessing pornographic material online, full stop. Governments around the world are grappling with this and the challenge is significant. However, Australia is steps ahead with the legislative framework and the powers of the eSafety Commissioner, established under the Online Safety Act. In opposition, we supported recommendations for eSafety to develop the road map for age verification, which was released in August. I thank eSafety for that very important work. The road map made a number of recommendations, including that the government invest in research, education and resources, that eSafety continue to work to implement the Online Safety Act, and that age assurance technologies be piloted in Australia before we seek to mandate them. I note the pilot remains in consideration by government, as we have stated, since August. We will seek further options on a pilot, and my department will be involved in scoping this work, given the need for cross-portfolio engagement.

This is indeed, as the member for Wentworth said, a time when we should be working together, because the road map outlined work that is already underway to implement the Online Safety Act, including the development of enforceable industry codes to deal with children's access to online pornography. These are actually the most effective tools we have right now to effect comprehensive change across the whole digital ecosystem in the near term, which is why I want to see them prioritised.

I do want to explain why the codes process, overseen by the independent regulator, eSafety, is the most effective lever available to deliver improved protections for children and why I want to see it prioritised. The new codes will apply to critical parts of the digital industry, including pornography websites and the many other locations where children find pornography—concerningly, including social media, where they inadvertently find it. This is unacceptable and cannot continue. The codes will also cover parts of the digital ecosystem that can prevent children arriving at risky sites, such as devices, search engines and app stores. I point out that this process was recently used to establish codes in relation to illegal class 1 content—that is, such as child sexual abuse material and pro-terror content on digital platforms.

In August I wrote to eSafety asking that work commence on the codes to specifically address online pornography as soon as practicable. If the codes don't provide appropriate safeguards, the commissioner can reject them and move to enforceable standards, just as she has done recently for two mandatory standards in relation to class 1 illegal content.

I want to make it clear that, contrary to what some of those opposite have said, the regulator does not allow the industry to mark its own homework when it comes to pornography. Industry will face penalties for noncompliance once the rules are in place, and any suggestion otherwise is a misreading of the act.

Some age assurance technologies are already being deployed effectively to prevent a range of harms to children, and that technology is advancing. That's why I have announced that we will strengthen the government's basic online safety expectations with a new expectation of industry to show how they support the best interests of children in the design of their products and to make it explicit that age assurance technologies are an important tool.

I end by stressing for the benefit of all in this place that the pilot remains in consideration by the government, as we've said since August. We will seek further options on a pilot, and my department will be involved in scoping this work, given the need for cross-portfolio engagement. It is important that we implement as soon as possible—which is exactly what I've asked eSafety to do—the process under law passed by those opposite, which we supported, which is already proving effective in making sure we don't have that class 1 pro-terror, child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation material out there. This is being used effectively, and I call on the parliament to work together to support eSafety in this important work.

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion be agreed to. A division is required. In accordance with standing order 133, the division is deferred until after the discussion of the matter of public importance. The debate on this item is therefore adjourned until that time.