Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014, Enhancing Online Safety for Children (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2014; Second Reading

11:55 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

It does give me great pleasure to rise to speak today on the Enhancing Online Safety For Children Bill 2014 because I was privileged to be a part of that policy group that developed this policy response in the wake of growing concern in all of our communities right across Australia.

In opposition the coalition had an online safety working group. We travelled around Australia engaging with key stakeholders—social media magnates, telecommunications providers, schools, parents, law enforcement agencies, state governments and community leaders—to actually understand the issue. I think sometimes those of us that are not like Senator Canavan with four young children might not actually have our finger on the pulse of what is actually going on with the everyday experience of young Australians in the 21st Century in the internet age—the digital natives. I think it was very important that we actually got on the ground, into communities, into schools and talked directly to do those that are not only experiencing the problem—young people and their parents—but also those that are required within the community to actually deal with the fallout of these incidents, the law enforcement and community agencies and, most typically, schools.

I met with groups of Catholic, state and independent principals this week. They talked about the top four priorities for them going forward as they do their best strategic planning for the next six months 12 months. It was about wellbeing and it was about the huge increase within primary schools of having to focus so much human resource, curriculum resource and time and effort on dealing with exactly these kinds of issues: bullying and social practices within our communities that have gone way beyond time and space, that extend into other areas of our everyday lives and severely impact our students' wellbeing.

It is also a great example of the coalition government delivering on an election promise. I think that is always a good day. We have got lists upon lists of those election commitments being rolled out over the last 12 months but this one is particularly close to my heart, as I said, because I was part of the working group chaired by Paul Fletcher, a man with significant experience in this space. We had coalition members and senators from right across Australia and we did travel.

I want to go to cyber bullying itself. Dr Michael Carr-Greg, who is a recognised leading child and adolescent psychologist notes that cyberbullying cannot be beaten by simply logging off the computer. Students need help to learn to become more resilient and to ignore it. We need a suite of systems, strategies, arrangements, curriculum models and support spaces for young people and their families to be able to engage in so that they can learn how to interact as human beings.

For millennia we have been interacting in a physical way in present time and space. This new world, which we are slower to come to but our young people are natives of, requires very different things from your human experience. We all need to actually assist young people to be able to that. We will get to a point where will be like young people will be able to deal with online bullying like bullying face-to-face. But at the moment we are not actually at a space where we have the strategies that we need.

The research conducted by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg shows that one in 10 students are victims of cyberbullying, and he advises that it is a particular issue in years 10, 11 and 12. I have spoken in this place about this before. There is an infamous case in Bendigo in central Victoria of the 'root rater' site, on which a couple of gentlemen in the community were posting online ratings of their activities with young local girls. It was absolutely abhorrent and it was there for all the community to see, for their families to see, et cetera. Through a long process the perpetrator was eventually taken to court and convicted. But given the impact of comments and the time it took to resolve, the impact on the young girls and the community was incredibly detrimental. Despite complaints—and this is evidence we found in our consultations—those social media outlets are not quick to respond to complaints or to take down offending material that is doing very real damage to young people's lives. It is taking up to weeks for offending material to be removed. That is a lot of time to be facing a bullying and dangerous scenario.

There are significant issues not just in the cities but also out in the regions. Dr Sharman Stone, in the electorate of Murray, has been very active in this space, and another great champion in this area, Nola Marino, has conducted some public consultations to respond to a very real community need in the country Victorian town of Shepparton about bullying in the community. Residents in Albury, in the Wodonga area, conducted a march against cyberbullying in response to youth suicide issues. They got the community together to say, 'We've got to respond to this issue.' The coalition in opposition responded to the tsunami of concern among parents, schools and communities.

As we travelled around we heard a lot of things. We learned that kids in primary school knew more than we did about getting around the internet. Whilst Facebook has a rule that you have to be over a certain age to have an account, we had eight, nine and 10-year-olds in Perth tell us that they had Facebook accounts—with or without parental permission. It was all quite easy to do. You just logged on and said you were born in X year and away you went. So the rules and regulations of certain social media sites were not actually being enforced, so we developed a suite of options which are now in front of us in the form of this legislation. We do want to establish the office of the Children's e-Safety Commissioner—a single point of conduct. Various states have different initiatives. Different school systems have initiatives. Communities have initiatives. But sometimes teachers and parents found it very, very hard to think about where they needed to go to get some advice and support to deal with this issue when they were faced with it. Having the Children's e-Safety Commissioner as a single point of contact within ACMA is an excellent initiative.

We needed to create an effective complaints system for harmful cyberbullying material targeted at the Australian child, so the commissioner has two sets of powers. There is the power to issue a notice to a large social media service, requiring it to remove the material. There is also the power to issue a notice to the person who posted the material, requiring the person to remove the material, refrain from posting it, and apologise for posting the material. It is very important when we look at reconciliation within any bullying process to have the bully apologise for their behaviour.

I have noticed, from observing the way young people interact online—as Senator Canavan said, often with people around the globe—that there are ways of censuring bad behaviour within those cohorts. They do self-censure and ban each other from playing various games, et cetera. We have in everyday life social practices that help us to define appropriate behaviour and we all assist each other to keep good behaviour and manners, if you like, and appropriate ways of interacting as human beings. We are all conscious of what that looks like in the physical world, and I think that is developing within the online environment, but there are those cases where we take what is occurring in the physical and put it online, and we do need to have appropriate oversight and enforcement.

The internet has been fabulous for our communities and our economic growth, and I am really excited about the potential that the online environment and the digital economy will provide, particularly to regional Australians—almost giving us the capacity to leapfrog the tyranny of distance and the impact that has had on regional economies—but it has been harmful. So we need to have in place a series of measures to assist to make the online environment as challenging and complex as the offline environment. And I think our measures do that. We know that there are serious effects on anxiety and depression, and there are numerous instances of young people being so damaged by bullying that is occurring online that they are driven to suicide. I am very glad that we are responding to that.

I want to briefly go to the consultation that was undertaken. It occurred between 22 January and 7 March. More than 80 submissions were received and, as I said, we met with industry and schools. I think the $7.5 million that we are contributing to supporting schools for online safety programs is a great initiative. We heard often of instances where teachers had to deal with parents in the parking lot over fallout around Facebook interactions of students—or incidents between parents. We even heard of fisticuffs in one area, where parents were behaving inappropriately because of online interaction.

I will not use my whole time here, but I do want to thank Paul Fletcher and the group for discussing the difficult aspects. We were challenged around the notion of regulation, because we like to deregulate over the side of the House. We like to champion freedom and liberty. We struggled when we looked at this issue. Were we trying to regulate the industry? Were we trying to regulate the internet? That was a very challenging discussion for us internally. I think the measures we have developed have struck the right balance. We accept the fact that we have a federal police force and a state police force charged with keeping communities safe and with ensuring that we all behave in an appropriate manner with each other. So, too, it is appropriate then for government to ensure that in the online environment similar oversight is available.

I would like to thank the Victorian state coalition government whose work in this area was particularly transformative, but I will leave further comment until later. I thank the government for this. I thank the government on behalf of all the young people, particularly in regional Victoria. I thank those who participated in the Bendigo forum. We took their suggestions on board. I note the particular complexities of regional communities in this regard because often those doing the cyberbullying are very much in the physical environment—aunts and cousins; the fish bowl is smaller and can spill over and have more intense consequences. Thank you to the government for developing such a great policy. I really look forward to this being quite transformative in assisting young people to overcome the impacts of cyberbullying and particularly in assisting teachers and parents with the appropriate support structures they need to assist their young people to deal with the issues. I support the bill.


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