Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


Passports Legislation Amendment (Overseas Travel by Child Sex Offenders) Bill 2017; Second Reading

1:44 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate on a very important issue. Before I do, I would like to echo the sentiments expressed by the finance minister on a previous bill: it is pleasing to see the Senate in such a state of productivity, churning through important bills on this very productive morning. This follows a very productive week, last week, where we passed a number of important bills. I am hopeful that this positive trend will continue. I hope we see more productive work of the Senate over the rest of the week and more important bills passed. I echo the finance minister's thanks to all senators in the chamber, from all parties, for their assistance in ensuring the government's legislative agenda passes with appropriate speed through the chamber. Let me also say that I think, once again, it demonstrates the superiority of the Senate over the House of Representatives, which all senators should be concerned about, and I hope we continue to maintain that.

With respect to the bill that is before us today, I think it is appropriate at the outset to particularly acknowledge and recognise the work of my Senate colleague from Victoria, Senator Derryn Hinch, on this issue and on related issues. While it is true that, ultimately, only a government can implement policies like this and only a government can act in a decisive way like this to achieve these outcomes, it would be churlish not to recognise the lifetime of activism that Senator Hinch has devoted to this issue. He has been a passionate crusader for the protection of children from sex offenders for his entire career, and that has come at some personal cost to him, particularly during his time in the media. We should all recognise the particular advocacy and passion that he has brought to this issue and be grateful for it.

Onto the bill itself—as senators will be aware, on 30 May the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice announced that the government would introduce tough new laws to combat the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children overseas by Australian child sex offenders. What this bill seeks to do is to respond to the genuine, widespread and heartfelt community concern about the fact that Australian child sex offenders have been travelling overseas. Sadly, we know that in many cases they do so to sexually abuse vulnerable children in countries where the law enforcement framework is not as strong Australia's, where it is weaker than Australia's and unfortunately they may not have the capacity or ability to monitor the activity of these convicted sex offenders in the way that a prosperous country like Australia with strong rule of law framework is able to do.

The concern that the community holds is absolutely justified; they are absolutely right to hold that concern. We know that last year, in 2016, more than 770 Australian registered child sex offenders travelled overseas. That is a very sobering statistic. I am advised that over half of them were registered by state and territory police as being medium- or high-risk offenders, and one-third of them violated an obligation to notify police of their intended travel. So the community concern about this issue is well founded.

Sadly, we know that these offenders have a high propensity to reoffend, and that propensity is particularly high when they are in countries that do not have the capacity to monitor them and where child sexual exploitation is rampant for a variety of reasons. Registered sex offenders are subject to very tough—as they should be—and onerous reporting obligations in Australia, because we know that they do represent an ongoing risk to children. Regrettably, that is not something that the Australian government can provide if the sex offenders travel overseas and, regrettably, it is not something that every nation is in the same position as Australia to provide.

The existing measures that are in place, which are designed to prevent overseas travel by child sex offenders, have clearly been proven by the statistics to be ineffective. It is entirely appropriate that the government respond to community concern about this issue, and to the demonstrable evidence that suggests this is an issue, to act to address the ineffective aspects of the current regime. The bill seeks to do that in two important ways. By these two methods, it will effectively prevent Australian registered child sex offenders who have reporting obligations from travelling overseas. The first method is the most obvious, which is to deny those offenders a passport. They will no longer be able to obtain a passport, which is obviously a necessary precondition for travel. The second method is to make it an offence for these offenders to travel overseas without the permission of authorities. So we are not just taking away the means of travelling overseas by taking away their ability to have a passport; we are also making it unlawful for them to do so and having penalties for them if they do so, which I think is entirely appropriate.

The passport measures introduced under this bill will apply to the approximately 20,000 registered child sex offenders who have reporting obligations in Australia. That is a very sobering statistic for all of us in this place to bear in mind: 20,000 registered sex offenders who have reporting obligations. Importantly, this bill and these new measures will also apply to future child sex offenders who are registered annually—so, the existing cohort of sex offenders who we know are a problem and any future ones who are added to that list. If offenders who have reporting obligations have good reasons to travel overseas there will be an ability for them to obtain permission from authorities to travel overseas, but only if there are very good reasons and the authorities are satisfied that those are valid reasons. Once their reporting obligations have concluded and they are judged to have abided by those reporting obligations for the duration of their time, they will then able to apply for a passport in the usual way, as other Australians are. So it is not a lifetime ban on travel; it is a ban for the time at which they are judged a risk to the community and have reporting obligations. What these laws will do is in fact make Australia a world leader in protecting vulnerable children from child sex tourism, and that is something I think we should all be proud of.

I will now turn to the detail of the measures themselves. The passport measures part of the bill will amend the Australian Passports Act 2005 and also the Foreign Passports (Law Enforcement and Security) Act 2005. They will do so, so that, upon the request by a competent authority as defined in the Passports Act, the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be required to: firstly, refuse to issue; or, secondly, cancel an Australian passport; or, thirdly, demand the surrender of a foreign travel document when an Australian citizen is on a state or territory child sex offender registry and has reporting obligations. The decision to refuse to issue or cancel a passport will be mandatory and not subject to administrative review, following a competent authority request. This is an appropriate measure as the competent authority has the expertise and the full details of the circumstances of the offender to make such decisions.

The bill will also, as I mentioned before, establish a new offence, and in order to do so it will amend the Criminal Code 1995 to make it a Commonwealth offence for a registered child sex offender with reporting obligations to travel or attempt to travel overseas without permission from a competent authority. The new offence is an important complement to the passport measures—and a necessary one. The new offence ensures that child sex offenders can be prosecuted should they try to evade the passport measures. It is, in effect, an extra measure to ensure that the passport measures alone, if not successful, have an important backup. It will have a particular role to play in helping to prevent Australian dual nationals from travelling illegally on foreign passports. Obviously, the Australian government does not have the power to take a foreign passport off a dual national. We only have the power to restrict their ability to have an Australian passport. So this law, which will make it an offence for them to travel overseas, should help ensure that those attempts to travel overseas are captured by this bill.

There are other measures that the government is progressing to deal with child sex offenders and to respond to these serious community concerns about them. The government is in the process of developing a package of legislative reforms to the Criminal Code 1995 and also the Crimes Act 1914 to criminalise emerging forms of child sexual exploitation and strengthen the sentencing and management of Commonwealth child sex offenders. This will strengthen the laws that we have in place to protect children in Australia. I am advised that these measures will be brought forward in the spring sitting of the parliament.

This bill reflects the very serious way in which the government is responding to the scourge of child sex tourism. These tough measures will send a strong message to child sex offenders that they cannot use overseas travel to sexually exploit and abuse children. Such abhorrent crimes will not be tolerated. I notice that Senator Hinch has joined us in the chamber, and I anticipate he might have a few words to say on this matter, so as we are approaching question time I will conclude my remarks there.


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