Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Passports Legislation Amendment (Overseas Travel by Child Sex Offenders) Bill 2017; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
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.
This Bill responds to community concern about Australian child sex offenders travelling overseas to sexually abuse vulnerable children in countries where the law enforcement framework is weaker and their activities are not monitored.
This concern is justified – in 2016 more than 770 Australian registered child sex offenders travelled overseas. Half of whom were registered by State and Territory Police as being medium to high risk offenders. And a third violated an obligation to notify police of their intended travel.
These offenders have a high propensity to re-offend in countries where they are not monitored and where child sexual exploitation is rampant. Registered child sex offenders are subject to reporting obligations in Australia specifically because of their ongoing risk to children.
Existing measures are clearly ineffective.
This Bill will address current deficiencies and will prevent Australian registered child sex offenders with reporting obligations from travelling overseas by:
(1) denying offenders a passport; and
(2) by making it an offence for offenders to travel overseas without permission from authorities.
The passport measures introduced under this bill will apply to the approximately 20,000 registered child sex offenders with reporting obligations in Australia. It will also apply to future child sex offenders registered annually.
Once an offender's reporting obligations have ended they will be able to apply for a passport. If there are good reasons to justify overseas travel an offender can seek permission from the authorities for such travel.
These laws will make Australia a world leader in protecting vulnerable children from child sex tourism.
The Bill will amend the Australian Passports Act 2005 and the Foreign Passports (Law Enforcement and Security) Act 2005 so that upon request by a 'competent authority' as defined in the Passports Act the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be required to: refuse to issue or cancel an Australian passport or demand the surrender of a foreign travel document when an Australian citizen is on a State or Territory child sex offender register with reporting obligations.
The decision to refuse to issue or to cancel a passport will be mandatory and not reviewable following a competent authority request – this is appropriate as the competent authority has the expertise and full details of the circumstances of the offender to make such decisions.
A new offence
This Bill will also amend the Criminal Code Act 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 relevant authority.
The new offence is an important complement to the passport measures. The new offence ensures that child sex offenders can be prosecuted should they try to evade the passport measures. It will have a particular role to play in helping to prevent Australian dual nationals from travelling illegally on foreign passports.
Other measures to deal with child sex offenders
This bill is just one of the measures that the Government is progressing to address the serious community concerns regarding child sex offenders.
The Government is also developing a package of legislative reforms to the Criminal Code 1995 and the Crimes Act 1914 to criminalise emerging forms of child sexual exploitation and strengthen the sentencing and management of Commonwealth child sexual offenders.
This will strengthen the laws we have to protect children in Australia.
I expect that this will be brought forward in the Spring sitting.
This Bill reflects the seriousness with which this Government is addressing child sex tourism.
These tough new measures 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.
The opposition will be supporting the Passports Legislation Amendment (Overseas Travel by Child Sex Offenders) Bill 2017. This bill is intended to prevent Australians, including dual nationals, listed on a state or territory child sex offender register with reporting obligations from travelling overseas to sexually exploit or sexually abuse vulnerable children in overseas countries where the law enforcement framework is weaker and their activities are not effectively monitored. It goes further than the existing provisions, which currently provide for a child sex offender's passport to be refused, cancelled or surrendered on the basis of a competent authority's assessment of the offender's likelihood to cause harm.
The government argues that the existing process is impractical, with the states and territories not utilising it. Labor strongly agrees that the principle expressed in the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, that countries must protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. In our platform, Labor commits to act against the exploitation, including sexual exploitation, of children either in Australia or overseas. Labor also has a platform commitment to support international campaigns to end sexual exploitation of children, including sex tourism and trafficking.
The opposition recognises that this bill provides a means to sharply reduce the opportunity for reportable offenders to engage in sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children overseas. Whilst this bill will provide increased power to the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the minister's delegate, this is only to be available following a request by a competent authority, such as a court, sex offender registry or the police. Currently there are 20,000 registered child sex offenders and an additional 2,500 offenders are added to these registers each year.
The bill also insert a new offence into the Criminal Code which will apply to an Australian registered child sex offender with reporting obligations who travels overseas without prior permission from the relevant competent authority. Whilst these are strong restrictions, the amendments contained in this bill will not amount to a permanent travel ban for persons who are listed on the register. Child sex offenders who are listed on a register will only be subject to passport restrictions for the period that they are subject to reporting obligations under the register. The reportable offender may also seek permission from the relevant competent authority to travel overseas.
We all agree that sexual abuse and exploitation of children is a scourge at home and abroad. Labor supports legislative action that aims to limit the capacity of registered child sex offenders to travel overseas, where reporting and investigative practices are often not as robust as they are here in Australia.
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.
This is one of the greatest days of my life—to stand here and speak on the Passports Legislation Amendment (Overseas Travel by Child Sex Offenders) Bill. I want to pay tribute to Anthony Foster and his daughters Emma and Katie and his wife Chrissie. Anthony Foster was a great fighter against child sexual abuse. His family has experienced a great tragedy and personal loss, and he died only a few weeks ago and was quite rightly awarded a state funeral in Melbourne.
The current situation goes back less than one year. In July 2016 I was fortunate enough to be a senator-elect, and my first public appearance as a soon-to-be ex-journalist was at the Melbourne Press Club. Just before I got up to speak, Michael Rowland, who was the MC, said to me, 'Do you know Rachel Griffiths, the actress?' I said. 'Yes—I have known her since she was a teenager.' He said, 'She says she knows you and she gave me this to give you.' As I walked up to the microphone he handed me this note, which said:
Firstly, congrats—so proud of you being alive and making a difference. I want to reach out to you regarding a child trafficking and human rights issue. I have talked to Julie Bishop, who was setting it up with Brandis to discuss—but you would be our key advocate. We want to take passports permanently from convicted sex offenders. Child sex tourism is on the rise as local opportunities, schools et cetera, are shrinking. We are constantly dealing with victims of Australian offenders.
She concluded by saying:
If we can take a passport off a bankrupt, why can't we stop our paedophiles travelling to Myanmar? I'd love to discuss this with you. Congrats … How are we going to get this done?
I read that out to start my speech that day and I said I did not believe it could be true—surely people who are on the child sex offenders register cannot be allowed to go overseas? I checked with Foreign Affairs Minister Bishop, the Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, and the Australian Federal Police, and I discovered that that year 800 men on the child sex offenders register had gone overseas and about 350 of them had gone to places like Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia on what I called deliberately—because this is what they are—child rape holidays. Many of you will have been to these places. A couple of years ago I went to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and you see middle-aged Caucasian Australian men there with young local kids and you know they are not there to go to Angkor Wat and look at the temples. That is why I started moves to get this passport ban on sex offenders brought into place. I discovered, as Senator Patterson said, that 20,000 names—mostly men, a few women—were on the register and more than 3,000 of them were on the register for life.
This passport ban is just the start. As has been alluded to, in the spring session we plan more legislation to try to cut down on cybercrime, on men who now, if they cannot leave the country, will start using their credit cards and Skype to hire children, sometimes from their own parents, in the Philippines to have live sex acts sent between Australia and the Philippines. That will come up in the next legislation. I know we are going to question time, so I would like to speak for a short time later in conclusion on one of the most important issues I have ever been involved with in my life.