Acting President, Members here will know that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party has, for some time, been pushing for the type of action that is reflected in this Bill.
Even if they haven’t heard that in at least four different speeches we have made on it to the House in the past eight months, or read it in our various media releases and articles on the subject, they will almost certainly remember the debate we had here on 16 October.
That was when we introduced a motion for debate, across the Legislative Council, on the subject of assaults on emergency workers. That motion specifically lamented the lack of practical enforcement in the court system of the Government’s minimum sentencing policy for injuries caused to emergency workers, and accordingly called for further legislative action.
To us, it had certainly become apparent by then that there was an unmistakable and urgent need for changes to this area of law that better safeguarded emergency workers from assaults, and more effectively prevented the perpetrators of such assaults from avoiding minimum sentences.
In recent years, the major parties have (to their credit) tried their best to establish a meaningful minimum sentencing framework for attacks on these workers.
The aim of these attempts was perhaps best reflected in Daniel Andrews’ comment of 22 May 2018 that “if you attack and injure an emergency services worker, jail will mean jail. It’s as simple as that”.
However, as we all know, neither of the two major and well-meaning sets of legislative changes made by the Coalition and then Labor, in 2014 and 2018 respectively, has proved particularly successful.
Unfortunately, when their cases have come to court, numerous people even found guilty of such offences have still received either non-custodial sentences or less than the statutory six-month jail terms.
So, within the context of all that history and commentary, I thank the current Government (and especially Attorney-General Hennessy) for the work that has gone into developing and now introducing this new Bill to the Parliament.
Through that work, and the work in the background of the Emergency Worker Harm Reference Group, they have now acknowledged that unmistakable imperative for changes to again be made to these laws.
Mr Grimley does have some amendments, which we believe will be very important in monitoring this legislation’s effectiveness in the future.
I also can’t pretend that I’m fully confident that the Bill addresses some other outstanding issues in this area of law, either – and that’s a point to which I’ll return shortly. However, it will clearly deliver an advance on the present legislation, and that’s an eminently good thing.
The Bill’s introduction is also something that should be welcomed by everyone in the context of the appalling continuation of outrageous numbers of assaults on emergency workers.
As a society, it’s very clear that we must find ways of eradicating (or, at the very least, dramatically reducing) these assaults.
Violence that is deliberately committed against anyone simply doing their job is completely abhorrent. In the case of emergency workers (whose work, every day, entails them putting their own wellbeing at risk in order to protect the rest of us), it is especially repugnant.
I made a number of points about the frequency of these assaults in my speech on 16 October, in particular, so I won’t go through those again today. However, I will re-state that, self-evidently, violent attacks on emergency workers remain far too persistent, commonplace and widespread across all corners of the State.
It was only last week, in fact, that we heard reports of yet another one on multiple paramedics in my own electorate, in Shepparton.
I would hasten to add, of course, that these problems are not unique to Victoria – and that other jurisdictions, domestically and internationally, are grappling with a number of the same challenges as well.
In this respect, it’s also worth noting that, at an Australian level, the ACT last month became the latest to join the list of State and Territory legislatures with formal laws specifically dealing with attacks on emergency workers.
To turn specifically to the content of the Bill before us here today, it incorporates sensible changes in a number of respects.
These include the new requirements that all of these cases be heard in the County Court and Supreme Court instead of the Magistrates’ Court, and that the Office of Public Prosecutions be responsible for prosecuting them.
We also agree with the narrowing (albeit that it’s not necessarily an extensive one) of the ‘special reasons’ exemptions for impaired mental functioning.
Principally, these new limitations focus on cases (like the infamous one involving James Haberfield) where a combination of self-induced intoxication and an underlying mental illness were said to have led to the offending.
Through the changes in this Bill, perpetrators of these assaults will no longer be able to avoid a minimum custodial sentence where this combination of factors led to their offending even if the most significant cause was intoxication. The Government’s decision to bolster the wording of Section 5(2GA) of the Sentencing Act also makes sense.
Albeit that we interpret that wording only as providing greater certainty and clarification around the law as it already exists. That is, we find it hard to completely agree with Ms Hennessy’s Second Reading Speech comment that it now creates, in its own right, an additional layer of considerations for minimum sentences.
It seems very likely, to us, that the inclusion of this new wording is actually a direct response to point 15 of Justice Tinney’s sentencing remarks in the DPP v Haberfield appeal.
Additionally, we like the new reverse onus of proof that is being placed on each of the offenders in a group attack on an emergency worker (or
workers) – meaning that, for any one of them to avoid a minimum sentence, they must explicitly be able to prove that their individual role in the offending was not significant.
However, in Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, I regret to say that we do still feel some disquiet at the wording and likely practical operation of some elements of these laws.
In particular, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the ‘special reasons’ exemptions in Section 10A of the Sentencing Act, as a whole, still remain too broad.
I say that particularly in the context of two factors that should be very well known by all of us now when it comes to the subject of this Bill. Namely, that attacks on emergency workers are fuelled, very often, by alcohol and/or drug use – and that mental impairment defences still remain too attractive to lawyers and their clients in these circumstances.
Similarly, there have seemingly been a growing number of cases in Victorian courts in recent years in which lawyers have sought to raise what they argue are the previously-undiagnosed mental illnesses of their clients – and that remains particularly problematic in this specific area of law.
At the very least, as a means of addressing some of those concerns, we would still like to see the qualification of (quote) “substantial and compelling circumstances that are exceptional and rare” applied to more parts of Section 10A.
Just quickly, one further observation I might make is that, every time this area of law is the subject of change in the Parliament, it seems that more and more layers and more and more complexity are being added to it when it’s my feeling that the opposite should probably be occurring.
Multiple Acts, Sections, notes, clauses, and cross-references already exist, and it’s confusing and cumbersome to say the least. Through this Bill, that is occurring again, including from the addition of extra levels of emphasis to various existing provisions.
It’s as though more and more extensions keep being made to a house that is already looking a little disjointed and dishevelled instead of reverting (or at least renovating) our way back to a more simple design.
After all, it’s not like we don’t already have a straight-forward template on which it could be based. The Western Australian regime has existed for far longer with more effectiveness and less controversy. That is based on a simple design, essentially inside one core section of one Act.
Anyway, I won’t keep heading down this path.
Principally because I don’t want this speech to be interpreted as deliberately negative or discourteous to the Government about what is clearly a
well-intentioned and sensible Bill in the main.
Their members have recognised the need for change, and responded to it. Accordingly, this is legislation that is aimed at making worthwhile and important changes – and, overall, I sincerely welcome those changes.
Acting President, I will conclude by saying, in that same vain, that I would also urge Members to support Mr Grimley’s amendments – which should enable us to know more quickly and easily in the future whether, indeed, the changes in this Bill are proving to be effective.
Like the Government, we absolutely hope, of course, that that will indeed be the case – and that people are more suitably punished and deterred for these despicable and cowardly assaults.
In the meantime, I thank the House.