I moved a Motion in Parliament for Minimum Jail sentences for assaults on Emergency Services workers.
Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria): I move: That this house: (1) acknowledges the selfless dedication and commitment of the state’s emergency workers to ensure community safety; (2) reaffirms that emergency workers have the right to be protected, just as the Victorian community expects them to protect us, from injury and harm; (3) expresses its concern at the continued proliferation of attacks on these workers; (4) confirms its commitment to the need for mandatory minimum sentences for assaults on emergency workers; (5) reinforces a very clear message to all Victorians that violence against emergency workers will not be tolerated; (6) calls on the government to consider the need for further legislative changes that: (a) better safeguard emergency workers from assaults; and (b) more effectively prevent the perpetrators of such assaults from avoiding mandatory minimum sentences in Victorian courts. This motion, which I am introducing on the problems that are yet again compromising the enforcement of minimum jail sentences for assaults on emergency workers, is reasonably lengthy in content; however, it is quite straightforward in terms of its intent. Fundamentally its purpose is to prompt a discussion in this place about, and ultimately to pave the way for a solution to, the wholly inadequate punishments that continue to be applied in Victorian courts to the perpetrators of the terrible ongoing acts of violence against the likes of our state police officers, paramedics, firefighters, SES workers, youth justice custodial workers and hospital staff who provide emergency treatment.
Following legislative changes in both 2014 and 2018 from both coalition and Labor governments, Victoria is supposed to have a regime under which it is almost always compulsory for offenders to be jailed for at least six months where they are convicted of committing such an attack. In fact, to paraphrase from a 20 September 2018 government media release, last year’s changes were meant to do each of the following things: crack down on people who attack and injure emergency workers by ensuring they are given a custodial sentence; further limit the use of community correction orders; compel courts to impose a custodial sentence and leave them unable to sentence offenders to a non-custodial outcome, even after determining that special reasons apply; provide only a very narrow exception for cases involving offenders with a mental impairment; and send the strongest possible message that it is unacceptable to assault and injure such workers and, if you do, you can expect to go to jail. Given there has been this longstanding agreement across the political divide in Victoria about the need for strong and uncompromising punishments against anyone assaulting emergency workers, my motion is not intended to revive old debates about the policy itself. Rather, it is focused on why and how a widely agreed and accepted policy is not even coming close to being enforced—and has not been for many years—and what we need to do as a consequence.
Now, I imagine there will be some in this debate, particularly from the government, who might be keen to draw distinctions between the concepts of mandatory and statutory minimum sentencing. I imagine there may also be some who might say something to the effect that they cannot do much more in this area until there is a conclusion to the Director of Public Prosecutions appeal in the recent case of James Haberfield. However, that reaction would misunderstand the extensive history of cases of offenders avoiding mandatory sentences that goes well beyond just Haberfield alone, not to mention the community outrage at the leniency of the punishments consistently applied to these offenders. Frankly, it would also seem to run counter to many public comments made by the Premier himself, including, for example, on 22 May 2018, when he stated: … if you attack and injure an emergency services worker, jail will mean jail. It’s as simple as that … and: for anyone who wants to avoid going to jail it’s very simple—don’t attack and injure a paramedic or a police officer or a staff member at a youth justice facility or prison. Through this motion Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party is not asking that appeal processes be ignored or disrespected or that another change in law specifically be made as soon as this afternoon. What we are doing is giving all sides of this Parliament the opportunity to make it very clear if they agree that these sentencing provisions, in their current form in the Sentencing Act 1991 and Crimes Act 1958, are still not working as intended. From there, we are also asking them to indicate whether they accept that consideration urgently needs to be given to strengthening these provisions whatever the outcome might ultimately be of the appeal in the Haberfield case, including a genuine mandatory minimum sentencing regime that actually works. In doing so, we hope to give a voice to the many thousands of interested Victorians who are keen to know which of the state’s politicians want judicial decisions in cases like these to be more in line with community expectations and which of the state’s politicians are less interested in tackling this fundamental problem. Among those thousands of Victorians, I include the leaders of the state’s Police Association and ambulance union, who I believe are quite rightly pleading with us at a critical time to reinforce the message as forcefully as we can from Spring Street that no attack on a Victorian emergency worker should ever be tolerated. Indeed it would profoundly disappoint me if there was a single member here who did not support serious penalties always being applied to those convicted of assaulting emergency workers. There is simply no credible reason that such attacks should be excused, over and over again, by way of something less than a mandatory minimum jail sentence. Yet not only does there appear to have been little slowdown in the rate of these incidents, but remarkably the state’s courts are frequently thwarting community expectations in relation to them; and, at least from the outside, there is a mounting perception they are affording less recognition and rights to victims of crime than to those who are committing the crimes themselves. We know that victims of crime are often feeling that their rights are not based above those of offenders, and from the many stories that I have heard from victims I would have to say there are many times when that is true.
I have already cited the Haberfield case a few times. This was a case in which a 22-year-old was not even sent to jail at all after choosing to consume a succession of party drugs and then violently twisting and placing a female paramedic in a headlock and repeatedly punching her and a colleague and pinning them in the back of an ambulance, all for simply trying to treat him. However, mainly for the benefit of those who are not aware how pervasive these assaults are, let me also cite a few of the other cases just in the past year alone in which people convicted for perpetrating serious violence against emergency workers have likewise not attracted a mandatory minimum sentence.
Jade Harrison, who rammed a police car and also very nearly ran over innocent bystanders, all whilst being on bail and driving unlicensed, and yet only received a community corrections order and less than a six months jail sentence;
Orion Harding, who, while heavily intoxicated, violently attacked two paramedics and then actively resisted arrest, but received a sentence of community work on a corrections order and a $500 fine;
Abdul Albulushi, who was involved in two road rage incidents before attempting to steal a policeman’s gun and then biting another officer, but who received less than six months in jail;
and Glenn Main, who received a $5000 fine after repeatedly bashing a police officer in a pub and then resisting arrest.
In the interests of time, I will avoid referring to a variety of other such incidents or any of the many cases currently gradually making their way through the judicial system at the moment; or to the frequent attacks, in particular, on custodial workers in the Malmsbury and Parkville youth justice centres, including another wave of them at Malmsbury just in recent weeks. Instead, I repeat that none of those offenders who I just mentioned received the minimum sentence that is supposed to be mandatory in each of these situations. None—not one of them. All of that of course is alarming enough, but regrettably it also leads to many further problems, including a significant weakening of any deterrent value for others potentially inclined to engage in similar behaviour in the future. In such an environment should it be any wonder that there were more than 2300 assaults on Victoria Police officers last year, according to Police Association Victoria?
In turn, the Victorian ambulance union estimates that an average of up to 13 paramedics daily—that is close to 5000 annually—are physically or verbally assaulted on the job. Given all of this background, and in my party’s view at least, there is little option for us as MPs but to critically ask ourselves why actions so repugnant have become so commonplace? I believe, as part of that, we should closely consider the idea of funding detailed research to better identify the reasons for these assaults and what can be developed in the way of primary prevention and early intervention in an attempt to reduce at least some of this offending in the future.
All of this also leads to other broader questions that we should all contemplate—namely, when something is going so wrong in the practical administration of a very clear policy principle through our justice system, what is our job if it is not to step in and correct it? Indeed what does it say about us as a society and as a Parliament if we cannot even protect, in their own moment of need, those whose collective job it is to protect all of us, every minute of every day, from injury and harm? I have a very close connection to this, as I am married to a police officer, and I see day in, day out, the cases that he has to attend. I see from friends who have lost their lives or taken their lives the impact that they can have on emergency services workers. For our part I believe the major concerns of our party within the special reasons positions provisions in the sentencing act. It has surely been borne out enough times and on enough different points of law in defence arguments that these exemptions still remain too wide and subjective. Equally, we feel some discomfort about the number of cases, not only in this field but throughout the Victorian justice system, in which people seem to be all too easily escaping the full consequences of their actions by relying on what appear to be questionable mental impairment defences. We are also troubled by some of the practical implications for mandatory sentencing—the impact of plea bargaining, especially where charges are downgraded to make them potentially easier to prove.
All of that said, we are obviously happy to consult and/or compromise with anyone here if it will result in meaningful improvements that can be broadly agreed upon. Several months ago, and well before the Haberfield decision, we questioned the Minister for Police and Emergency Services about why the minimum mandatory sentencing principle was not being reflected in court judgements. We are now even more concerned than we were then, and in fact, even if we go to the Haberfield case alone, it actually already provides further, demonstrable reinforcement to us as to why additional legislative reforms are now required. Sadly, I do not think you could get a clearer indication that there is a problem with the current laws when you have the Premier and the Chief Magistrate at near-complete odds in their public statements as to whether the correct judicial decision was reached in Haberfield’s case. It is worth reflecting on the point that in late August, at the time of Haberfield’s sentencing, Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen said that, irrespective of any decision to appeal, it was clear that Magistrate Zebrowski applied the law as he saw it to the facts in order to reach the sentence he imposed. He also said, and I quote: It would have been wrong for him to do otherwise. In such circumstances it is difficult to have any confidence that similar decisions will not be made again. That is regardless of whatever the outcome of the appeal in the Haberfield case might be. There continues to be spacious wiggle room for discretionary decisions to be made on a range of fronts in relation to the current laws. Multiple avenues can therefore be used to prevent mandatory minimum sentences from being applied. That state of affairs is unacceptable.
In closing, I will restate my wish that all of us here come together in a non-partisan way to express our concern at the continued repudiation of the very clear and surely unmistakable expectations of the Parliament and broader community in relation to this area of sentencing. It remains an issue that is too important to let the normal political divisions come between us, and it is one that we need to collaboratively and proactively address and resolve. Certainly, in the case of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, we want to send the unequivocal message to the state’s emergency workers—and want it to be heard far and wide—that we salute your bravery, your courage and your selflessness in looking after Victorians every day that you are at work. We support and admire you. When it comes specifically to those of you who have been assaulted and who deserve to see those who attacked you genuinely brought to justice we unashamedly take your side. I commend this motion to the house.