MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST;Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Act 2010 – 12 May 2010

Today I want to speak on an important initiative by the Rudd government—that is, the move to help keep our children safer by introducing the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Act, which came into effect on 14 April 2010. Children are vulnerable and need our protection, and I do not think there is one person in this whole place that would disagree with that. As adults, we have an obligation to every child we come into contact with to make sure they are safe, healthy and happy. To put it simply, children just do not have the knowledge and experience to ensure their own safety.

This legislation has two main purposes. Firstly, it is designed to strengthen existing offences. Secondly, it introduced a number of new offences to the protection framework in place for children. State and territory governments have a responsibility to ensure that our children are protected, but there are also Commonwealth responsibilities. Those responsibilities apply both in Australia and internationally. The Rudd government takes those responsibilities seriously, and that is why we had this legislation enacted. The system has been reformed to ensure that Australia has comprehensive laws covering those areas that are the responsibility of the federal government.

Prior to this legislation, laws covered sexual offences against children committed overseas—that is, child sex tourism, as it is known. They also covered offences that are perpetrated using carriage services, such as the internet and mobile phones. This legislation has improved the law in relation to child sex tourism in a number of areas. It has simplified the operation of existing offences, increased penalties and created a number of new penalties.

As co-convenor of Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect, or PACAN, as it is most commonly known around this building, and along with a number of other senators and members, I attended a briefing last year by the Australian Federal Police in regard to child sex tourism. The information provided by Andrew Cassidy and Commander Stephanie Taylor was both informative and very disturbing. Hearing the statistics from people who deal with this horrific crime day in, day out certainly reinforces the seriousness of the issue. I must say that it is difficult to maintain the illusion that our children are safe, even without being briefed by experts. Not all of the community is aware of these concerns, and it is such an important issue that we need to bring it out into the open and make sure that people are aware of it.

Time and time again we hear of children being abused by a variety of people. Unfortunately, it can be their schoolteachers or even their parents. Children are abducted, abused and even murdered. If this happens to one child, it happens to one child too many. We really have to take a stand on behalf of the children of Australia.

In a world that relies heavily on technology, we hear of adults creating false identities online to lure children and of people posting pornographic images on websites. As at 1 April 2010, the Australian National Child Offender Register, or ANCOR, had 11,091 people registered. While that number is small in comparison to Australia’s population, I still consider it to be a number much too large. Anybody that works to reduce these horrific acts would agree with me that one child that is abused in any way is one child too many.

It is even more concerning to note that the register does not include people who were not ordered to be on the register or those that no longer have to report, so the numbers quite possibly are considerably higher. ANCOR provides for people registered as class 1 to be on the register for 15 years, class 2 for eight years and repeat offenders for life. In my home state of Tasmania, there was a recent case where the offender was not placed on ANCOR due to the small age gap between the offender and victim and because the acts were not predatory in nature. I find that fairly disturbing. But others are placed on the register for only two or three years according to the discretionary rights of the courts.

The nature of the offences committed that lead to a person being placed on ANCOR varies between states and territories. For example, what is a registered offence in Tasmania may not see a person who commits the same offence in South Australia placed on the register. Regardless of the offence, a person placed on ANCOR has violated a child in a way that will damage that child for life and I will speak on that issue later. ANCOR makes it easier for police across the nation to keep track of offenders even if they no longer live in the state in which the offence was committed. ANCOR requires offenders to provide a variety of information about their lives including personal details, employment status, vehicles registered in their name and travel plans just to name a few.

Child sex offenders placed on ANCOR move through a number of stages with some people eventually being removed while others are registered for life, as I said. As politicians we have the power to act to make a difference for our children and we must do so. The Rudd government is determined to do what it can to ensure the safety of Australian children. The legislation that was introduced has new offences criminalising dealings in child pornography or child abuse materials overseas. Australian authorities are now able to prosecute Australians engaged in these activities while overseas. The improvements bring our overseas offences in line with domestic offences and ensure that abhorrent crimes against children by Australians will be punished consistently.

The legislation has strengthened internet offences by introducing tougher penalties for child pornography and abuse materials and the new aggravated offence relating to online child pornography networks. The penalties range from 10 to 25 years in prison. The legislation includes new offences of exposing children to indecent material and engaging in activities of a sexual nature over the internet. In his media release announcing the introduction of the bill to parliament, the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Brendan O’Connor MP, stated:

These reforms will help law enforcement to combat the highly organised, technologically sophisticated rings of child sexual abusers who take advantage of the opportunities and anonymity that the Internet provides to cause horrific damage to their child victims.

New offences regarding using the postal service for child pornography or grooming or procuring a child are also included. This is recognising that although many child abusers access the internet, some offenders are still using the good old-fashioned postal system. The legislation will ensure a consistent approach to crimes regardless of what medium is used.

The legislation made minor amendments to a number of acts. These include the Australian Crime Commission Act 2002, the Crimes Act 1914, the Surveillance Devices Act 2004 and the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979. These amendments were necessary to allow law enforcement agencies to use existing powers applicable to current offences for the investigation of the proposed new offences. The Crimes (Child Sex Tourism) Amendment Act 1994 has allowed individuals, companies and corporations to be charged and sentenced to a term of up to 17 years of imprisonment and heavy fines for participation in sexual acts or for encouraging, benefiting and profiting from any such activity. Since the original law was passed in 1994, 24 individuals have been charged under this legislation. This legislation has given authorities even more power to act against people committing offences against children. The Rudd government is moving with the times to ensure that our children receive the protection they deserve. This legislation resulted partly from Operation Achilles which was a worldwide investigation that saw arrests made in Australia, the US, UK and Germany.

Senator Bernardi —It took you two years.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Order! Thank you, Senator Bilyk. Please go ahead without interruption.

Senator BILYK —I would have thought this issue was important enough for people to listen to.

Honourable senators interjecting—

Senator BILYK —I am astounded that people care to interject while I am talking about an issue as important as child sexual abuse. As I was saying, Operation Achilles is an example of how authorities across the world work together to protect the community. Cooperation is essential to achieve the best possible results when it comes to the safety of our children. It is essential when it comes to punishing people who have perpetrated violent crimes of any nature. This legislation also includes a new scheme to allow for the forfeiture of child pornography or abuse material or articles containing such material derived from or used in the commission of a Commonwealth child sex offence.

Now that I have discussed the legislation, I am going to talk about the damage that abuse can cause to our children because some of those on the other side that have been interjecting obviously do not really understand. Of course, there are the physical scars. Some heal with time while others do not. Emotionally children can experience many problems and they may have issues with trusting people, with being intimate and with their sexuality. These problems often—in fact, usually—continue into adulthood. Child abuse is widely seen as the cause of mental illness in adulthood. This could include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorders as well as multiple personality disorders. Abuse can lead to the victim abusing others and to suicide, although I am not saying that that is always the case. Everything possible must be done to protect children from abuse. We must also act to provide help to victims and to do our best to minimise the harm and lifelong consequences.

The Rudd government takes the welfare of our children seriously. That is why we are pleased that the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Act has been passed. This legislation was needed to give the courts more power so that they can sentence offenders to longer terms of imprisonment. It was needed to make activities that were not covered by law illegal. I reiterate: we must act to keep all Australian children safe. It is our duty to do so. We also have a responsibility to ensure that Australian citizens do not commit crimes against children while they are in other countries, and we must punish those who do. So I am pleased and proud to be part of the Rudd government and of a parliament that is looking out for the interests of children.

Debate interrupted.