Naturally, this is a particularly important debate to Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. To us this will undoubtedly be one of the most significant bills we will consider in our time here. As I said in my inaugural speech nearly two years ago, the one thing above all that drove me into politics was the need for better parliamentary representation of victims of crime. This was on the basis especially of my experience with the Enough is Enough campaign, which I co-founded with Carol Roadknight in 2015 after two particularly horrifying cases in Wangaratta of sexual assault and murder.
Like Mr Grimley, I also come to this debate as a representative of Derryn Hinch, who over the years has been very outspoken in his advocacy for victims of sexual assaults, especially children. I should say that in the process he has fallen foul of gag laws and been incarcerated for doing so, multiple times.
Accordingly, this piece of legislation spans areas of policy as well as matters of basic principle and dignity that touch the very heart of our party and me personally. Obviously, I was delighted when I first learned the government was introducing legislation to improve the capacity of living sexual assault survivors to consent to being publicly identified. It has been was my expectation at that stage that it would be focused primarily on reversing previous legislative changes that had unintentionally constrained this ability for some victims and that it would thereby return their agency and control. Sadly, however, that has not quite turned out to be the case. Certainly, I had not anticipated that we would be facing a situation where restrictions on the speech of those living survivors would be replaced by new restrictions on the speech of the relatives of deceased victims and anyone else trying to report on those tragedies. This is a very bittersweet development, and it is one about which I will speak in much more detail in a few moments.
Before that though I would like to thank everyone who has approached Mr Grimley and me about this bill and also the many friends and contacts of our party, including victims and families of victims, who have responded to our calls and emails. I pay tribute to all of you and not least every victim and family member who has personally advocated either publicly or privately on this bill and its repercussions. It does not give me any pleasure to say that what has resonated for me throughout those conversations has been a significant level of concern, anxiety and distress among sexual assault victims and their families about this legislation. They have told us repeatedly that they believe this legislation completely disrespects the rights, memories and legacies of rape and murder victims’ families—those of Jill Meagher, Eurydice Dixon and Aiia Maasarwe in recent years, through to all the others before and after them.
I should add that I have personally stood on the steps of this Parliament as an advocate with others in this place—Ms Crozier and Mr O’Donohue—holding a placard bearing the names of far too many victims who have been sexually assaulted and murdered, and they too are remembered and hold a special place in my heart. As a society we should have learned so much over recent years about the importance of shattering the culture of silence around sexual violence and the accompanying stigma for victims. I say this not just because breaking the silence assists in the validation, healing and support of victims, including connecting them to other victims; I also say it in reference to the way in which the sharing of survivor stories and perspectives frequently improves community understanding, including of the often-unbearable levels of trauma associated with these experiences. In my view changes to this legislation can only begin to be effective when they are genuinely grounded in the real-life insight that comes from listening to and respecting these accounts.
Additionally, such legislation should always be constructed so that it does not work to the benefit of perpetrators but instead recognises and actually prioritises the rights and interests of victims, and that is something I have always tried to do in this place. Accordingly, it is very difficult for me to agree with any approach that would make it harder for these stories to be told or would cause victims of sexual homicide to be treated differently and their cases to be reported differently than other homicide victims.
At this point I do also want to thank the Attorney-General’s office, with whom we in the Justice Party have had many discussions about these issues surrounding the bill. We had hoped these conversations might lead to some changes to what we regard as the most troubling elements of the bill. Unfortunately that ultimately did not prove to be possible, but we are sincerely grateful they afforded us that potential opportunity. I should also add that most of the other components of the bill are worthy of support. Amongst these are the new initiatives on prison contraband.
In relation to the victim-survivor elements of the bill, whilst I disagree with how they are seeking to achieve this practically, I do understand the government is wanting to protect those who wish to remain anonymous. These are of course often complex tensions in this area of law between trying to balance the interests of those victims of sexual offending who wish to speak publicly and those who do not. All of those interests need to be contemplated incredibly carefully. It is not unreasonable to have a suppression order made at sentencing if victims or families want to remain anonymous.
I have to say that at the moment I believe there is a very widely shared dissatisfaction across most victims and victims’ families with this bill. The main concern is that the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act 1958 has never previously referenced deceased victim-survivors specifically. If this bill is passed, then it explicitly alters that situation with its multiple references to deceased victims, having the effect of clearly criminalising public disclosure of their cases. The government says it is not changing anything that has not already been in place since the early 1990s, but I do not agree with that interpretation—and more importantly neither did Judge McInerney in a crucial test case of this very point in the County Court last Friday.
Given the lack of such prosecutions in this area in any Australian jurisdiction, our party is also struggling to discern any urgent or compelling reasons for these new provisions. In other words, Mr Grimley and I believe the status quo for deceased victims should remain and that all references to deceased victims should be removed from the bill. In our view that would reverse the most serious flaws in this bill. We also believe there needs to be an adjustment to the minimum age limit created in this bill for people wanting to publicly reveal their identities without needing the approval of third-party medical professionals. There is no obvious reason to us why the bar should have been set as high as the age of 18, especially when the general age of consent in Victoria is 16.
We suspect the bill is going to add some further confusion to the already vexed issue of who should be regarded as a family member in deciding whether details about a deceased person who was a victim of sexual offending should be published. We think another drawback of the bill is that it fails to establish or identify any clear conduit through which a survivor can provide consent to media outlets in a general sense. Most of the changes for living survivors in this bill have been drafted well, and they effectively correct the unintended consequences of the legislation passed in 2019. However, whilst they create some important new conditions around survivors providing tailored, specific consent to a publisher, it is not clear how this consent might be provided for more than one publisher at a time. That is inefficient and unwieldly enough for the media, but it also sets the stage for potential frustration and retraumatisation for victims in requiring them to deal with every single request for permission individually. This has not been afforded the consideration it deserves within the bill. The government has made it clear on many occasions we must always reduce any further potential harm to victims of crime.
Without specific guidance or a public education campaign it is also very confusing as to whether any of the material can even continue to remain online beyond the commencement date of this bill. It also creates ambiguity about whether the likes of other advocates, campaigners, activists and/or academics will have to delete their own past work and commentary relating to rape and sexual assault cases, let alone republish or refer to anyone else’s. There is therefore a potential minefield in many different respects. Our feeling is that if the new section 4A is to be retained it needs to be substantially rewritten to adequately deal with all of these likely new problems.
The bottom line in all of this is that, in the absence of any changes on at least some of those many points, it has left us with what we regard as some very invidious choices about how to vote on this bill. In essence, we are being asked to try to identify and then support a least-worst option. We can remove the prohibitions on living survivors or we can retain the freedom for deceased victims, but under the current wording of the bill it can only be one and not the other. Accordingly, there is not going to be a fully satisfactory outcome in those circumstances for many victims and families of victims who were hoping for a much broader consensus here today.
In the end, in Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party we have taken our cue from the views and voices of those victims and relatives of victims. There has been an overwhelming and near universal lead from them that we should oppose this bill. They have advanced that position to us largely as a result of their own deep respect for deceased victims. Whilst I know the government has a different interpretation of the bill’s possible impact in this area, these victims and Victorian families also believe the changes will potentially now affect every sexual assault victim through the possible erasure upon their death of their identities, portfolios and histories from the public domain.
To everyone who has helped us reach our position on this bill, I again say thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you and we in Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party do miraculously reach the outcome that we all seek today. Nonetheless I will exit this debate on a more optimistic tone by asking victims and their loved ones not to be discouraged. I ask you to retain hope by continuing to advocate to the government and by continuing to work with the members within this Parliament who believe in your cause. We can eventually get to the place we all want to be on this legislation, with full rights to speak enshrined in Victorian law in respect of living and deceased survivors. As a victim of serious sexual assaults, I will advocate for and with you until I draw my last breath. In the meantime, I thank the house.