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Parliamentary Debates – Sexual Offences Against Children Bill 2010

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Photo of Sophie MirabellaSophie Mirabella (Indi, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | Link to this | Hansard source

I rise to support the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Bill 2010 this evening in the House. It is a bill that aims to strengthen the existing child sex tourism offence regime and makes amendments to child sex offences committed outside Australia. The coalition will always support any measures that increase penalties for those who commit sexual offences against children. Anyone who preys on children, no matter where those children live in the world, deserves to feel the full weight of the law. Let’s make it clear: any Australian who engages in that sort of behaviour while overseas represents an ongoing threat to Australian children on their return home. It is therefore in the interests of all Australian families to crack down on these people and to ensure that they do not find refuge in the laws of other nations, some of which have softer laws in this regard.

We face many challenges in the changing world. The World Wide Web, while a wonderful innovation in communications that has been touched upon by other speakers, does provide pitfalls for children and, unfortunately, opportunities for those who prey on children. Social networking on the internet continues to grow very rapidly, and avenues for inappropriate contact with children have opened up at a similar pace. We hear stories of unfortunate contact between these adults and some of the underage children on which they prey. We almost get daily stories in the media about them. It is no different elsewhere in the world. Governments all over this planet face challenges in ensuring that laws keep pace with changing trends.

It was back in 2005 that the coalition government included offences for using a carriage service, such as internet or mobile phone, for child sex related activities, including it in division 4 of the Criminal Code. It was the coalition that created the NetAlert program, which offered a free internet filtering scheme for all Australian households. This actually allowed parents greater control over their children’s internet activities. This is an area of great concern for parents. They want to take on the responsibilities of parenting and want to have the tools to help them do so. Many obviously are not as technologically savvy as their much younger offspring, but this at least gave them an opportunity and an empowerment to do something about it. It was NetAlert that the Rudd government, in its wisdom, decided to scrap in favour of its Big Brother style mandatory filtering system, which has drawn an enormous amount of criticism from industry and across the community—and across, I must say, a diversity of organisations and community groups.

While I do strongly support this bill in principle, I know the shadow minister has flagged some issues in relation to the practical application of the new child sex offences outside Australia. This government does not have a very good record when it comes to matching rhetoric with practical results. So I certainly hope that this bill is going to be more than just window-dressing and that it will be able to have a practical application. I do find it somewhat ironic that we are looking to crack down on offences committed outside Australia, when I do not believe we do enough to combat offences committed right here in Australia.

It is my very strong view that we do need to strengthen sentences for those who commit crimes against children, particularly those who commit paedophilia. We only tend to discuss this issue when it makes front-page news or when there is some particularly gory story. Last year in this place I raised the case of convicted paedophile Dennis Ferguson, who was at the time forced to move out of his latest abode. I noted that it was only a matter of time before we once again saw an outraged local community, concerned mums and dads and grandparents, holding placards and rallying against having Mr Ferguson as a neighbour. Each time this happens we see public opinion divide into two camps. The much larger one believes that this repeat offender ought not to be living in any community with children—understandably, certainly not theirs. The smaller camp decries vigilantism and claims that this person has a right to live in the community, having done his so-called time.

I believe we need to stop for a moment and look at the concept of what it means to have done his so-called time. What does our society consider to be an appropriate sentence to fit the crime of sexually penetrating—but let us call it what it really is, of raping—a small child or three children? The offensive example of Dennis Ferguson is a case in point. This particular fellow planned his crime while doing time in Long Bay jail for a range of offences that included various assaults on children and indecent assaults on females. When he was released from jail he and his partner tracked down a fellow inmate’s three young children aged six, seven and eight. He abducted them from their home in Sydney and flew them to Brisbane, where he held them prisoner and repeatedly raped them until the police arrived some days later. The judge in Ferguson’s trial said that the chances of rehabilitation were zero, but he was sentenced to just 14 years—14 years for a crime so premeditated and so vile, a crime that no doubt imposed a life sentence on those most vulnerable victims, those three small children.

Sadly this is not a one-off case. We appear to have a somewhat double standard when it comes to sexual offences. If they are perpetrated against an adult without their consent, it is an aggressive act and very serious business. If they are perpetrated against a child, it is that less talked about child molestation thing, the thing that so many people feel uncomfortable about discussing. The focus seems to shift to the sexual deviancy of the perpetrator and away from victim. While it is difficult to get a clear understanding of the sentencing of child rape vis-a-vis adult rape, as many jurisdictions classify them all as sexual offences, there is evidence that we do not afford our children the same level of sentencing protection as we do adults.

The Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council provides statistical information on sentencing. It found that in Victoria from 2006-07 to 2007-08 the average effective sentence term for cases with sexual penetration of a child aged 10 to 16 was just 1.9 years for a single offence. It was just 3.3 years if the child was younger than 10. In fact, if there had been up to 10 sexual offences committed against the child, those averages rose to just 4.8 years and 5.2 years. The median length of imprisonment for rape of an adult was five years, with sentences varying from two to 20 years. I am not for one moment arguing that one crime is less heinous than the other—they are both abhorrent. But I do believe that we have a very special duty of care to protect the most vulnerable in our community and the most innocent, and children are on top of my list.

When I rose in parliament last year to raise this issue I pointed out that it is not something that people like to talk about, because it is disturbing and distasteful. I am very pleased, though, that attitudes in recent years have changed and there are more people prepared to talk about it. I pay tribute to a lot of the victims who, although it is a very painful process for them, have assumed a public advocacy role on this issue. When we look at it from an economic position, it is estimated that child abuse costs our nation about $4 billion a year. The social price we pay, of course, is much higher and impossible to estimate. Women who have been abused as children have considerably higher risks of experiencing sexual violence in their adult lives than the rest of us—54 per cent compared to 26 per cent for all women. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that the sexual offences that come to the attention of police are only a small proportion of the sexual offences that actually occur in the community.

It is appropriate and important that the government strengthens laws in relation to child sex offences committed by Australians overseas and I support this bill, which aims to do that. I am glad that the bill also introduces new offences for the steps leading up to actual sexual activity with a child. It is all the better if we can raise convictions for predatory behaviour before actual offences occur. As a lawyer in a former life, I am all too familiar with the ability of someone who the average person in the street would consider guilty to escape a conviction through the clever advocacy of a lawyer. By tightening these laws, including those relating to activity that leads to a heinous crime against a child, we are closing some of those loopholes.

At the same time, I strongly believe that tougher sentences right across the board in relation to child sex offences need to be looked at. We have seen in all sorts of criminal areas that, where the penalty is rather light, the disincentive does not exist to deter people from behaviour that we consider socially unacceptable. We need to have tougher sentences. This is not just some populist view. This is the desire of so many parents, grandparents and others out there in the community. They do not believe that sentencing is tough enough, particularly in the area of child sex offences. I believe the way we view the crime of paedophilia needs to be rethought. The terminology we use to describe crimes against children needs to be stronger. As I said last year, the outrage we feel as a community should not be confined to when a paedophile moves into our neighbourhood; it needs to be ongoing and vigilant. I also believe that the concepts of trust, protection and love within a family need to be reinforced in our society and that the value of children and good parenting needs to be underscored and supported.

Many related issues, such as the premature sexualisation of children, are also a concern. That is a growing issue that we need to address as a society. While lingerie is being targeted at four-year-olds and highly sexualised imagery is being used to sell all sorts of things to the tween market, we really need to look at how the old ‘sex sells’ adage is being applied to children. This is a disturbing and terrible trend. We need to be more vigilant and, as a society, care more about the impacts that is having on younger and younger children, particularly girls. Paedophilia and its associated industries and activities are not an easy issue with a quick fix but a problem that we have started to acknowledge, that we need to acknowledge and that we need to discuss more openly.

I am glad that the federal government is moving to strengthen the existing regime in relation to child sex offences committed overseas and I commend the bill to the House. I sincerely hope that it will lead to the conviction of those who prey on children and, in that way, make our local communities safer and save some of our children from the life-changing negative impacts of having their freedom, liberty and innocence taken away from them. But, let us be honest, it is just the tip of the iceberg when dealing with this issue. I once again would like to take this opportunity to call on all governments around the country to take a closer look at their laws and to take steps in relation to child sex offences. They have vast departments and many lawyers working for them. They need to do the hard work to ensure that sentencing laws in relation to child sex offences more appropriately fit the crime and more appropriately reflect community attitudes. Perhaps this is one of those areas where lawyers, particularly those who work for government, could put aside their obsession with the so-called rights of criminals and perpetrators and think for once to bias their work in favour of that very vulnerable, innocent group in society, children.

The protection of our children is absolutely the highest responsibility we have as legislators. That may not make the front-page news. That may not be what drives many ambitious politicians. But children are the future of this nation. If we let them down in this very basic way we are not worthy of the office that we hold. I look forward to continuing to work for and support the strengthening of our laws on this issue.

Debate interrupted.

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Written by Greg Naylor

25 February 2010 at 11:40 pm

Posted in PERSONAL

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