Senate debates

Monday, 15 June 2020


Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019; Second Reading

6:33 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm extraordinarily proud to be a member of the Morrison government that's tackling a host of problems for Australia. As the mother of three beautiful children, there is nothing closer to my heart than the care and safety of our precious children. There is nothing more abhorrent than sexual offences against children. That is why I'm especially gratified to be part of a team that's bringing long-awaited and important changes to protections for children against sexual predators.

Our government is resolute in its commitment to protect children from sexual abuse. For far too long these predators have received grossly inadequate sentences for acts of unspeakable depravity. That's why we're introducing the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. It is completely unacceptable that in the years 2018 to 2019, a staggering 39 per cent of the Commonwealth's convicted child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison. And four received fines.

Last year, the AFP received almost 18,000 reports of child sex exploitation involving Australian children and child sex offenders. This number was near double from the previous year. It's time to send a clear message to perpetrators that their behaviour will not be tolerated. This bill will strengthen Commonwealth laws in order to provide greater protections to children by deterring and punishing child sex offenders. The bill has four pillars to achieve this. It contains new aggravated offences for the most horrific types of child abuse committed while someone is outside of Australia, including when a child is subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. It introduces new offences related to grooming activities, which includes websites and platforms designed to host child abuse material. It implements a range of presumptions against bail and presumptions for imprisonment, and it introduces mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious child sex offences.

The Commonwealth has the power to create offences that criminalise conduct by our citizens whilst they are overseas, and the government is not afraid to use that power. We are providing to law enforcement officers the tools to prosecute child sexual predators, no matter where the offences occur. That is why the new Criminal Code contains offences that criminalise the sexual abuse of children by Australian citizens whilst overseas. We are targeting those predators who travel to other countries to prey on vulnerable children and commit abhorrent acts, so that even if they escape prosecution in the country they travel to, they will not escape justice at home.

The bill also provides for the prosecution of predators who commit child abuse through live streaming of these despicable acts in cases where the child is outside of Australia. It includes offences related to the grooming of children for sexual abuse outside of Australia. This is the unfortunate and sickening reality that we are addressing. I'm pleased that our government is tackling the safety of children, not just at home but overseas. I am proud that we are willing to take responsibility for abhorrent acts, even when committed by an Australian in another country. Simply put, it means it will be much more likely that child sex offenders will go to prison, that they will stay there longer and they will find it much more difficult to get bail.

The bill will also introduce mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious of child sex offences and for those who are repeat offenders. This will address the completely unacceptable situation where 39 per cent of convicted offenders did not spend a single day in jail. And there is more positive news. Vulnerable young witnesses will be protected during the justice process. They will automatically give evidence via a video recorded interview during committal hearings. Cross-examination during a committal hearing will not be permitted. This implements an important recommendation by the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

You might ask why we need minimum mandatory sentences for these offences and the short answer is Australians expect it, the brave survivors of these unspeakable crimes deserve it, and our government is determined to protect our precious children. Too often the courts are imposing inadequate sentences for child sex offences and fail to punish, deter or rehabilitate offenders. This must not be permitted to continue. That is why mandatory minimum sentencing for the most serious child sex offenders and repeat offenders lies at the core of the reforms of this bill. Our government is not afraid to handle the tough issues while ensuring the legislation is fair.

There are important safeguards in the bill for teenagers caught up in or participating in sexting. When this bill came before the House previously, the opposition suggested that the government's reforms would see teenagers locked up for five years for sexting. This bill will not target adolescent flirtations over Snapchat, Facebook or other social media sites. This bill does not target that type of relationship between consenting adolescents.

Senator McKim interjecting—

I hear you, Senator McKim. As the mother of a soon-to-be teenage daughter, I kind of wish it did but it doesn't. It targets serious predators aiming to sexually exploit our vulnerable children. The mandatory minimum provisions do not target people under the age of 18. Young people will not be subject to mandatory imprisonment. Police and prosecutors also retain the discretion not to pursue an investigation and must ensure that any prosecution is in the public interest.

Our presumptions against bail measures are designed to further protect children from these predators charged with serious offences. It will apply to those offences that attract a mandatory minimum penalty. This is a presumption against bail. The bail authority will retain discretion to grant bail, where it may consider issues like the defendant's age and community safety. The courts will retain their important power to set non-parole periods for child sex offenders. They will retain the discretion to reduce mandatory minimum penalties by up to 25 per cent. This, importantly, will provide some flexibility to allow for cases involving cooperation with law enforcement and early guilty pleas. However, in the case of suspended sentences, where a conviction is recorded but no time served, there will be an important change. Suspended sentences will only be permitted where the total prison sentence is less than three years. Courts will have the discretion to fully suspend sentences only in truly exceptional circumstances. Importantly, if the total sentence is greater than three years, a non-parole period must be set.

This bill also introduces a presumption against bail for cumulative sentences where multiple charges apply. The bill increases the likelihood of an offender receiving a sentence of greater than three years, because on most occasions offenders are charged with multiple offences. In short, we've assured the courts still using judicial discretion while ensuring that the most serious offenders receive appropriately long sentences.

There is a new aggravated offences category. That's because we are disturbed by the emergence of alarming trends that see offenders inflicting severe violence on children, alongside sexual abuse. The vile behaviour serves to exploit the vulnerabilities of children which stem from their trust and reliance on adults. It's the exploitation of these vulnerabilities which makes this offending so abhorrent and—let's be truthful—so very upsetting. That's why the bill covers scenarios in which the sexual abuse includes cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, or results in the death of a child. These measures, as well as increased maximum penalties for aggregated child sex offences, ensure that offenders are subject to increased prison times and that others are deterred from committing similar crimes.

The Morrison government is introducing grooming offences for third parties. Grooming refers to the preparatory stage of child sexual abuse, where an adult gains the trust of a child, or the trust of other people with influence in the child's life, with the purpose of sexually abusing a child. That's because predators don't just groom their victims; they can target and groom a parent, a teacher, a scout leader or a even a sibling, in a depraved attempt to gain access to a child. It will apply to cases where an Australian citizen travels to a foreign country and establishes a relationship with a director of an orphanage to gain access to victims. This would include predators that take advantage of the anonymity of the internet to develop relationships with people who may inadvertently assist the predator to sexually abuse a child. We learnt from the royal commission into child sexual abuse that parents were groomed without their knowledge by predators seeking access to their children. Importantly, new offences provide law enforcement agencies with the power to investigate online predators and travelling child sex offenders before any abuse occurs. The maximum penalty of a 15-year imprisonment will serve as a strong deterrent to those who intend to use grooming practices to sexually abuse children.

The Morrison government is also committed to tackling child abuse on the internet. There's been a distressing rise in the number of websites that function for the sole purpose of distributing child abuse material and encouraging discussions about child sexual abuse between its members. We've recognised that it's crucial to address the increasing role that technology plays in enabling the online exchange of child abuse material. The bill does this by introducing new offences targeting administrators and facilitators of websites and online platforms that provide access to child abuse material. It bolsters existing offences in the Criminal Code related to the production and sharing of child abuse material. It strengthens offences related to the administration, creation, development, alteration, maintenance, control, moderation, advertisement, sharing or promotion of child abuse material online. The term 'electronic service' is broadly defined, ensuring the bill remains relevant as technology evolves. It reaches to the dark web, and it provides a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years. The offence is designed to ensure that the most serious, malicious and exploitative conduct is pursued through the courts.

In summary, the bill complements a broad package of reforms that the coalition has already introduced. They include the tough new measures to stop child sex offenders travelling overseas to abuse children; Carly's Law, which targets online predators who use the internet to prepare or plan to sexually abuse children; and the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, which implements a number of recommendations from the royal commission and improves the Commonwealth framework for offences related to child abuse material, overseas child sexual abuse, childlike sex dolls, forced marriage, failure to report child sexual abuse and failure to protect children from such abuse. These reforms will be welcomed by law enforcement bodies and law-abiding Australians, especially parents who have a rightful expectation that we do everything in our power to protect our children by ensuring that predators receive longer jail sentences.

This bill first came before parliament in 2017. On 3 September, 2019, Anthony Albanese said that people who engage in violent acts against children should have the book thrown at them, but in the same breath he claimed that these amendments could sometimes lead to fewer convictions rather than more, because judges or juries would take the view that because it's mandatory sentencing all of the circumstances couldn't be factored in. The Morrison government is not afraid to tackle this issue and supports community expectations and, indeed, the expectations of parents across the nation. Australians, rightly, expect that child sex offenders go to jail, and this bill will make sure that that happens.

We've all heard that the Greens and segments of the Labor Party don't support mandatory sentencing on principle, yet they did support mandatory minimum sentences for people smuggling offences during the previous failed Labor-Greens aligned government. Our argument is that this bill is too important not to support it. During the inquiry into Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 Labor senators commented that mandatory sentencing increases the incentive for defendants to fight charges and may increase the risk of recidivism. This just isn't true. When the Western Australian state Liberal government introduced mandatory sentencing for assaults against police there was an impressive 28 per cent drop in police assaults in a 12-month period.

Labor has the chance to right the wrongs of the Shorten Labor opposition and support these important changes. It's time to put children first with the mandatory sentencing of child abusers. Forget ridiculous left-wing ideology positions. They are not relevant in this debate. Sexual predators deserve to be in jail. Our children deserve protection from evil predators, and our government, the Morrison government, is committed to seeing that happen.


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