Change could speed bushfire rebuild

Bushfire Recovery Victoria data shows 458 homes were destroyed or damaged in Victoria and almost 18 months later it’s estimated that fewer than three per cent of the people displaced have moved back into permanent housing.

Adolescent violence study targets home setting

Adjournment debate

My matter is for the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence. It complements other speeches that I have previously made here in the (Legislative) Council about the problem of adolescent violence in Victoria – and the need for wrap-around, systemic, holistic approaches to this form of violence.

Let me add that I have also certainly valued my various face-to-face conversations with Minister Williams about this topic – and I know that she is very well aware of its significance. 

My matter tonight follows the very exciting news last month that ANROWS (Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety) has been funded to undertake a detailed project identifying and tracking the needs of families from marginalised populations who may be experiencing adolescent violence in the home.   

This work will build on ANROWS’ own comprehensive ‘Positive Interventions for Perpetrators of Adolescent Violence in the Home’ report from last year.  It will also supplement the 2015 ‘Opportunities For Early Intervention’ study by the Centre for Innovative Justice, and the full chapter on adolescent violence within the final report of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.  Each of those documents has very clearly identified the need for more considered and systemic responses to adolescent violence. 

There’s certainly not time tonight to talk about all of the considerable implications and impacts of adolescent violence in the home – or even all of the key ones, for that matter.  Suffice to say, that the manifestation of violent behaviour during adolescence can, subsequently, be very consequential if not effectively addressed.  It is often a precursor to further antisocial and cognitive problems, and sustained periods of criminal offending.  

One of the reasons that these problems recur is that most current interventions and responses continue to focus on specific adolescent violence incidents themselves rather than setting them in the wider context of all that is happening within the relevant family. 

Frankly, that’s why the ANROWS project is so well targeted.  Specifically, its purpose will be to compile a range of evidence to aid more effective intervention – especially through a whole-of-family, collaborative practice framework that relevant individuals and organisations can ultimately administer.

If it can indeed achieve that, the benefits should be substantial and far-reaching.

The action I seek is an outline of the extent of the Victorian Government’s involvement and interaction with this project. 

I ask that particularly as I would like to gain some insight from the Minister about the degree to which the project’s findings are likely to have a bearing on Victorian Government policy and services in this field in the future. 

Girgarre brings botanic garden vision to life

Member statement

It was my absolute pleasure to attend and speak at the opening of the Gargarro Botanic Garden in Girgarre.

The Girgarre community really lives up to its motto of ‘small town, big spirit’. That spirit was fully evident in the way this community developed its vision, planning and fundraising to bring the Gargarro Botanic Garden to fruition. This project aims to be an exemplar regional botanic garden that reflects the dry landscapes of the Campaspe region with indigenous flora in a setting that will be functional for the community, a beautiful tourist spot for visitors and a place for social connection, relaxation and discovery. This was a great opportunity for me to meet and chat with local residents, and I congratulate Athol McDonald, Jan Winter, Doug Gray, the steering committee members of the Girgarre Development Group and the local community, who all contributed their time, thoughts and money to planning what will be a magnificent landscape as the stages of this project progress. A special mention goes out for the impressive work of landscape architect TCL, who converted the vision of the community into a practical design, and I encourage everyone to get online and view their video, which shows how this project will unfold. Make sure too that you plan a trip to experience the Gargarro Botanic Garden, Girgarre and the wider Campaspe shire for yourself.

Adjournment – Dookie Rail Line

My matter is for the Minister for Transport Infrastructure, and it is about the prospect of restoring the Shepparton to Dookie rail line in Northern Victoria. 

Sadly, this issue has been a sore point for local people (especially in our agricultural sector) for around 14 years now.  That is because there has been no official service on the line since 2007, at which time all activity on it was suspended because of a severe drought and accompanying track deterioration. 

I should acknowledge that I am not the first Member of Parliament to raise this issue – as the MLA for Shepparton, Ms Sheed, also did so in a constituency question in 2015.  That question was met with the response that the Government was liaising with GrainCorp on the possibility of re-opening the line as part of a broader statewide process of considering rail upgrades.   However, the line ultimately wasn’t re-opened and, publicly, there has been barely any statement by someone in authority about the matter since. 
That lack of progress in 2015 was obviously disappointing, especially amid calls for action at the time from the likes of GrainCorp, the Dookie rail group, and the Rail Freight Alliance. 

However, it has been even harder to comprehend subsequently in the midst of some huge grain hauls in recent years – including the current season, during which GrainCorp has received a record 135,000 tonnes of grain.  Across various other areas of the State, these quantities of grain have been moving faster and far more efficiently by rail.  By contrast, from Dookie, they are typically being transported by trucks in a process that often spans several hours and is frequently compromised by traffic congestion on local roads.  As local grain grower, Steve Ludeman, told the Stock & Land recently: “95 per cent of growers would be keen to get (this) fixed”. 

For my part, I would also point out that rail line upgrades in regional and rural Victoria generally deliver many other benefits, too – including lowering the numbers of truck trips on our roads, thereby reducing road congestion and trauma (and maintenance requirements), as well as significantly reducing carbon emissions.   
Set against this background, the action I seek is clarification of the Government’s current position on the Dookie rail line’s restoration.  I request this clarification in view of the significant potential benefits that its restoration could deliver to many people and organisations, not only in the agricultural sector and not only in and around Shepparton and Dookie but also across Victoria more widely. 

Spent Convictions Bill 2020

I will begin by saying that I am pleased with most parts of the Spent Convictions Bill 2020; however, I am disappointed with others.

Firstly, I would like to say I am a full member of the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee. As other speakers have said, it was the work of that committee on the spent convictions inquiry throughout 2019 that provided the impetus for the introduction and design of this bill. In the course of that committee work we spoke to many people and analysed and contemplated numerous challenging issues, questions and complexities in these areas of policy and law. Overall, I have to say, I emerged from the committee process very moved by the spirit of cooperation that was evident throughout our work and genuinely pleased that we had come together so effectively during that inquiry. As individuals, some did not come to address these issues from the same starting points, and notwithstanding, there was ultimately a short minority report written for inclusion in the final report. In that sense I do want to take this opportunity to personally thank and pay tribute to the committee staff, led by Lilian Topic, and my fellow full members of the committee, Ms Patten as chair, Dr Kieu as deputy chair, Ms Garrett, Ms Vaghela, Ms Lovell and Mr Ondarchie.

For my part I will readily confess that I approached the inquiry with some scepticism about what the introduction of a spent convictions scheme might mean, particularly for businesses and for victims of crimes and their families. In hindsight I also think that the compilation of our witness lists for the hearings could have engaged more victims of crime and representatives from employer organisations. Otherwise, the committee process broadly did exactly what a committee process should do. It certainly opened my eyes and made me see and think about the specific issues involved from a number of different views. It allowed me the opportunity to consider other people’s perspectives, and it ensured that many of the initial concerns and apprehensions were somewhat allayed. For my part what also became increasingly evident was that in many cases the system of criminal record checking in Victoria does generate a stigma for people who have committed a minor offence.

In the absence of a spent convictions regime, this stigma stays with many Victorians—if not on a lifelong basis then certainly beyond the time and/or penalty that they have paid through the legal system for their offence. It is true not only that some of their opportunities in life are disproportionately affected but also that these difficulties have become more prevalent as the use and general ease of access to criminal record checks has grown.

Even before the committee hearings themselves had begun, the need to address these stigmas was something I discovered from reading about other jurisdictions’ use of spent convictions schemes. I learned that their existence in common-law countries actually stretched all the way back to 1974, when the UK introduced legislation called the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. What I also found to be highly informative and instructive were the personal stories from the many witnesses that appeared before the committee. These were often genuinely powerful and moving accounts, and they certainly affected my thinking in ways that I had not necessarily expected.

As individual members we put our political and ideological differences aside and we approached the inquiry constructively and collaboratively. We genuinely tackled the various issues involved in a multipartisan way. I have to say, too, that I do not think I have heard a single person be anything other than complimentary about our dedicated open mic sessions, which allowed people on an impromptu basis to tell their stories. To be part of those sessions was actually a very moving experience.

By the time the inquiry ended I was confident that our committee’s work would pave the way for a bill that could adequately take up some or all of our 10 recommendations without causing any particular controversy or difficulty to anyone. Some of our recommendations, as we clearly stated in the final report, did require further consultation and in-depth thinking from the government; however, I genuinely felt they were sensible recommendations that everyone could get behind. In the main they enabled a careful and reasonable middle ground. They balanced people with minor convictions being able to make a fresh start, free of criminal taint, against the reasonable interests of many members of the community, particularly potential employers, to have full access to what are ultimately matters of public record.

However, sadly my expectations from back then have not completely been met by what has become the reality now. I say this only in relation to a reasonably small set of provisions. Nonetheless, I am surprised by some of the content of this bill. That is because in my view one aspect of it in particular moves some distance beyond what the committee concluded and recommended. There are also other facets of this that are problematic for a party like mine, which prides itself on prioritising community safety and representing the best interests of victims of crime.

In relation to the content of the bill, I realised that the Attorney-General’s office had some different perspectives to mine. I also do respect their position and arguments, and I do greatly value the time and advice they offered to Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party in discussing this legislation. Unfortunately, though, we have not quite met in the middle on all of that, and I am left with what I regard as an unavoidable conclusion, which means I cannot support this bill in its totality without amendment. That is a truly very hard thing for me to do and say today. I wanted to be able to fully, unequivocally support this bill, and I certainly spent enough hours and drove enough kilometres to participate in the committee meetings on it to desire that result.

Most of all, Mr Grimley and I struggle to support the concept that every serious crime for one class of people will now immediately be wiped from widely disclosable criminal records. This is not something that the committee recommended in any way, and indeed if the majority had recommended this, then I would have written a dissenting report. It is not that I do not understand the thinking and the argument being advanced here; I do. I acknowledge that some people genuinely believe that those below the age of 15 are insufficiently intellectually and morally developed to truly appreciate the difference between right and wrong. However, there is also a very wide range of professional studies that do not support that view at all.

I also struggle to see the consistency in such an argument, given that many of the same people who are advancing it are also supporters of the introduction of a discretionary process for people aged 15 and over to apply to magistrates for their convictions to be spent. I simply do not agree that it is a credible position to say that every single person under the age of 15 sees the world in the same way and perceives the differences between right and wrong in the same way and yet then also assert that, among those aged 15 and over, almost every case is different and needs to be judged on its own individual merits.

As the bill stands it will instantly remove from disclosable records all crimes committed by people under the age of 15. This includes sexual offences, violent assaults, manslaughter and murder. That does not sit well with me at all, and I think it disrespects the victims of these crimes and their families. Such heinous crimes are not trivial matters, and they should not be forgotten about or shielded from the view of most Victorians, irrespective of the ages of the perpetrators. There is enough of an outcry as it is about the comparative overuse in Victoria of suppression orders. That was one of the main reasons, after all, for the establishment of the Vincent review and the development in recent times of the government’s own open courts legislation, yet through this bill we are now moving in the opposite direction again and precluding most of the community from ever finding out about every serious crime committed by any 10- to14-year-old.

Rather than including this directive in the bill we should be focusing on establishing and investing in earlier intervention to prevent these young people offending and reduce the risk of them becoming involved in the youth justice system. I have worked with young people who have had no regard for the law, no regard for others, and with interventions up the wazoo they have still committed extremely serious indictable crimes. That is because the interventions are too little, too late and are not extensively targeted to meet the needs of the young person and their family. On these points and for other reasons Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will be supporting Mr O’Donohue’s amendments. Unfortunately if those amendments do not pass then we will also reluctantly have to oppose this bill as well.

Mr Grimley and I are also nervous about the implementation of the new application process to magistrates that will potentially see various other kinds of convictions being spent beyond those that will now automatically qualify. We do accept that this process will not start for another six months and that there have been a series of criteria devised to carefully prescribe which kinds of offences can be considered. It is also our hope and understanding that the government will be looking at the practical operation of this process very closely as part of its statutory review at the 12-month mark of this new regime. However, not administered carefully, this process clearly remains prone to many potential problems. One of the most obvious is the capacity for what might be described as the delivery of a double benefit to some offender. Initially favourable sentencing for the offender, including through plea bargaining, can now pave the way potentially for their convictions ultimately to be spent as well. These decisions could also presumably be made by many of the same magistrates who are often making decisions to not sentence such offenders to a long or indeed any prison term in the first place.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of all, though, is that this new application process will now allow magistrates to approve the removal from disclosable records of crimes for which there was no term of imprisonment. That includes sexual crimes. Something about which Mr Grimley, Derryn Hinch and I often talk publicly is the number of offenders who escape prison terms altogether in Victoria even when found guilty of serious offences. This is indeed something that infuriates many thousands of Victorians. It is a practice evident across a variety of crimes, but one that has been particularly manifest in recent times in the cases of child pornography offences and also violent and sexual offences. Our reading of the bill is that on the basis of current sentencing practices in Victoria, swathes of child pornography offenders will now likely have their crimes hidden from other Victorians. That is disturbing in many respects. Many of the offenders who have already escaped what were meant to be mandatory prison terms for assaulting emergency workers will theoretically now be eligible for their convictions to be spent too.

That is also concerning for us. I realise there would have genuinely been some difficult decisions and choices involved for everyone assigned to the legislative task of creating a spent convictions regime from scratch. In the main they have actually done a very good job. However, I am also left to observe that there has been enough of a drift away from the original recommendations of the committee that it has rendered decision-making on this bill for MPs more difficult than it needed to be—although some we know will still consider voting with the government on this bill.

The balance has accordingly shifted too far in my party’s view. We should not forget that there are very few victimless crimes, no matter whether they are minor or more serious offences. Those victims of crime also often have to wear the consequences for the rest of their lives, and they do not get a free pass or the ability for it to be automatically erased or wiped away from their life.

I am sorry, my fellow members of the Legal and Social Issues Committee, that I find myself having to take this stance. However, as much as I did not want to have to be in this position or to be needing to make this choice, I have in the final analysis no option here but to err on the side of victims of crime and of prioritising community safety as a whole. I thank the house.

Justice Legislation Amendment Bill

I rise today to speak on the Justice Legislation Amendment (System Enhancements and Other Matters) Bill 2021. As many other speakers have already said in the Assembly and here in the Council, the overwhelming majority of the bill is uncontroversial. Most of the changes being legislated here will prolong the use of audio, audiovisual and other electronic devices to alleviate potential COVID-related problems associated with in-person activity and contact. Accordingly, much of the bill is compatible and consistent with the government’s broader COVID response.

As I have done before, I would also like to commend the government on sensibly extending the time frames around child reunification processes. However, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party does continue to have reservations about some of the other measures and processes to which the bill will give further expression. Since the advent early last year of the COVID-prompted changes to the operation of the justice and corrections system, we have repeatedly expressed our concerns in relation to foreseeing and predicting their likely practical impacts while also commenting on those practical consequences as they have materialised. From the arrival in the Council of the very first piece of legislation of this type on 23 April last year, I have spoken repeatedly of, and I quote, ‘my particular concerns in the area of early release and reporting conditions’. I have also raised the prospect from that day of, quote, ‘even more delays’ in the justice system. These delays regrettably have subsequently become all too apparent. It is good to see that many members of the legal fraternity and the media have recently been raising their voices about these important issues, especially through the early months of 2021.

When it comes to the functioning of courts in particular we should always think carefully about making and entrenching changes that have a clear potential to create adverse consequences. This may actually be an opportune moment for me to circulate my amendments.

Through these amendments I really am seeking to do two things. The first is to flag that this facet of the bill is actually a very significant one. The removal from juries of the power to determine mental unfitness to stand trial is a significant and consequential step, and I believe this needs very careful thought and scrutiny from the Parliament. I would argue that this change needs detailed consideration in its own right and as a part of a specific mental impairment bill rather than part of an omnibus bill. I would argue that its importance has really become blurred here in amongst dozens of other justice-related provisions.

The second thing that I am trying to achieve through the amendments is to ensure the shift from jury to judge-alone determinations happens only as an interim step for a maximum of six months at this stage pending further consideration. There is a separate bill called the Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Amendment Bill 2020 that is yet to come to the Council, and that fully legislates for this change. I believe we should be waiting for the debate on that bill to occur before essentially fast-tracking this particular change now on an indefinite basis.

I have to say that among all of the issues that victims of crime and indeed other members of the community raise with Mr Grimley and me, outrage at the handling of mental impairment cases is undoubtedly one of the most regular and significant of them. Accordingly, I know that there will be many Victorians who will be quite upset to think that juries are being removed, potentially permanently, from the process of determining an offender’s fitness to stand trial. There is already great trepidation among victims of horrendous crimes in Victoria, in particular not only about the use of mental impairment defences in relation to those crimes but also about the deliberation in very few hands of the decision-making powers about whether an accused was mentally impaired at the time of their offending.

Allowing the passage of this change in the bill without amendments will exacerbate these issues and frustrations. I imagine the government is going to tell me that what they are doing here is merely bringing forward part of that other bill and that the change is also being made on the basis of a Victorian Law Reform Commission recommendation. However, I would say a number of things in response to that.

The first is that this recommendation about judge-only determinations is now nearly seven years old. I would argue that it not only predates but has also been overtaken by various subsequent developments in the handling of mental impairment cases in Victoria. Moreover, if we are going to transplant a part of that other bill into this one for the purpose of hastening its implementation, then other elements should arguably have received the same treatment too. I say that particularly in respect of notification processes for victims, which remain appalling in this area and in desperate and urgent need of change. In short, I think it would be more appropriate to consider the shift to judge-alone determinations in more detail in the future, rather than quickly making it a fait accompli now. Essentially my amendments allow the shift to occur for the next six months. However, they also obligate the government to ensure that a continuation of judge-alone determinations after 26 October can only occur either after the Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Amendment Bill has been brought to the Parliament after its very long period in limbo or after a separate legislative change requiring parliamentary approval is created for this purpose instead. These are therefore commonsense amendments in my view that will allow for more detailed review of this change before it is made indefinite and/or permanent. I will leave my discussion of those amendments there for now.

In coming back more broadly to the matters associated with the bill, I will revisit a comment made by Ms Hennessy in April last year, when she was talking about the justice-related measures in the first COVID omnibus bill and therefore many of the same measures that are being legislated again in this bill which we are debating today. She said that they were being introduced to enable justice processes to be ‘quickly adapted to changing public health requirements’. I think it is really important that we do not lose sight of that rationale.

In keeping with that justification and especially at a time of no community transmission, I would again urge the government to think about adapting to what are, quite plainly, less dire public health requirements and concerns than those of 12 months ago. As I have said before in this place, there needs to be a return to conventional processes, hearings and trials in the courts as quickly as reasonably and safely possible.

Another problem that continues to provoke widespread concern is the ongoing 14-day quarantining of incoming inmates of Victorian correctional facilities. I have to say that this is becoming an increasingly difficult approach for many Victorians to comprehend in periods when there is no community transmission of COVID. Indeed there are now significant levels of concern across many sections of the community about this practice. In fact it is quite something to see a unified approach to the desire for the removal of this quarantining now coming from those on the one hand who regard it as degrading and akin to a form of solitary confinement and those on the other hand who are angered that the policy is allowing prisoners to benefit from a very generous emergency management days system that is significantly cutting their stays in prison. On the latter point, at last count around 5000 convicted criminals had benefited from this policy and been released early from prison.

More broadly, to the government’s credit, I do applaud Ms Symes’s actions in recognising the urgent need to implement what was a significant package to assist with trying to return the state’s courts and tribunals to something close to business as usual. However, there is still much to do, and unfortunately this also means there is still much more to spend. There is also much to learn from other jurisdictions, including the UK, New South Wales and Tasmania, as other people have suggested today.

Even if the various COVID rules and restrictions in Victoria were to be abolished immediately, then we would already be confronting years worth of delays and backlogs in the system that would have to be overcome. So a continued entrenchment of what were originally mooted as only temporary COVID measures across the justice system will mean that these problems will only be accentuated, and resolving them will only become an even bigger task.

We are talking not only about a very serious and sustained financial impact but also about gigantic ongoing ramifications in a legal sense as well. It is absolutely true in this context that justice delayed is justice denied, as many people have spoken about today in their contributions. I think victims of crime in Victoria are again the ones on the receiving end of that, most manifestly as they watch so many offenders enjoy early release, receive even more lenient sentences and/or walk away from having to go through trials or hearings altogether. Whilst I would also urge people to support our commonsense amendments, I will reaffirm that Mr Grimley and I support the remainder of this bill. We will do so because the overwhelming majority of the changes in it are uncontroversial. However, I will end my contribution by saying that as a Parliament we also, collectively, surely cannot allow the many and varied problems being created by COVID-related law and policy changes to persist for much longer.

Adjournment – Men’s Referral Services

My matter is for the Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, and it relates to a 17 August 2020 media release from the minister titled ‘Keeping family violence in sight during coronavirus’. That release observed that the COVID lockdowns and restrictions of the past year have been accompanied by an increased risk of family violence and abuse, the Men’s Referral Service was fielding an 11 per cent increase in calls compared to the previous year and the government had therefore allocated significant funding to the arrangements for taking perpetrators or potential perpetrators from their homes to other short-term or long-term accommodation instead. However, I have unfortunately been hearing some troubling anecdotes about how this approach is now being practically implemented. In particular I have been told about cases where not only are vexatious calls being taken about people allegedly causing or threatening family violence but also this then creates serious problems for them in being able to access alternative accommodation. Particularly in my electorate of Northern Victoria it seems they sometimes have literally nowhere to go.

For now, I will illustrate this with a reference to one recent case of which I am aware from a town in my electorate of Northern Victoria. In this case an accused perpetrator of family violence not only denied all such claims against him but was immediately removed from his home and then taken to a police station at which multiple phone calls were made to the Men’s Referral Service in an attempt to try to find housing for him. However, there was simply no answer to any of these calls. As a consequence, the man spent the entire night not only in complete despair and at his wit’s end about what had been alleged about him but also forced to sleep on the floor and chairs in a cold police station. My understanding is that it also took a considerable time during at least the following day for accommodation to be found.

Obviously there are a lot of different questions to potentially be posed about all of this. I realise an adjournment matter does not allow me that flexibility so I will instead concentrate on seeking one main action instead, and this is to ask the minister, in view of the queries I am increasingly fielding about this, if she could provide an explanation of the hours during which the Men’s Referral Service actually takes calls and why it does not seem to be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service.

Adjournment- Intervention orders

My matter is for the Attorney-General regarding the high number of intervention orders that continue to be sought and granted, even since some
well-intentioned law and policy changes in 2010.

Constituency question- Small business support

My question is for the Minister for Small Business and it relates to businesses struggling to meet the criteria for business support.

Members Statement- Benalla Volunteers

Northeast Victoria is still recovering from the 2019-2020 bushfires which devastated many farming properties and is still having an impact on these farming community’s livelihoods.