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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1776

Ms VAMVAKINOU (7:03 PM) —It is a pleasure to follow the member for Farrer and my colleague the member for Werriwa in speaking to the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Bill 2010. I rise this evening to speak in support of this bill. I would like to take this opportunity initially to welcome the efforts of the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Brendan O’Connor, for introducing this very important piece of legislation to the House.

The bill before us is important, because not only does it recognise the need to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse; it also identifies the rapidly changing circumstances and media through which these crimes occur. This bill serves to strengthen our commitment to enforcing existing mechanisms that serve to prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, and in doing so it most certainly strengthens Australia’s international legal obligations towards the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which legally obliges all states to protect the rights of children at both the national and international levels. The legislation before us carries on from a fine tradition as far back as the Keating Labor government’s introduction of an extensive legal framework against child abuse. I am very pleased that this government has not only seen fit but is very willing to assume its national and international responsibility through a strengthening of the Commonwealth child sex related laws.

This issue is of particular importance to Australia. We are located in a region where many neighbouring countries are home to large numbers of children growing up in circumstances of dire poverty and disadvantage, and as such we have a very important role to play in effectively tackling sexual crimes against children, which are primarily built on the exploitation of the most weak and the most vulnerable. Indeed, the member for Farrer talked just a little while ago about her experiences in Cambodia, and I am sure that we all find that most repulsive and unacceptable.

That is why the new offences introduced in this bill are of great importance in tackling this very difficult and disturbing issue. As there are currently no offences applying extraterritorially to Australians dealing in child pornography and child abuse materials overseas, the introduction of the new offences outlined in the bill serves to close the gaps within existing legislation. Any Australian possessing, controlling, producing, distributing or obtaining child pornography or child abuse material anywhere and at any time is subject to Australian Commonwealth law.

The proposed reforms to the existing child sex tourism regime are of great importance because they ensure that Australians who commit crimes overseas will remain subject to our Commonwealth laws. By making specific reference to procuring and grooming a child overseas for sexual activity, this bill ensures that our federal law enforcement agencies are able to tackle effectively all avenues through which the child sex tourism industry attempts to operate. This issue lies at the heart of our national judicial framework, because not only does it serve to perform the normal functions of law that operate within Australia but it is specifically designed to address issues of the particular vulnerability of those which it is designed to protect. Our society, like others around the world, will be judged on the basis of what we do to protect our most vulnerable. As the line of reasoning goes, ‘The test of morality of a society is what it does to its children.’

The introduction of this bill is, as I said, a reflection of the federal government’s responsiveness to the position and attitude of the Australian public towards this issue. There is an intrinsic demand amongst all Australians that the government take all appropriate measures against the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, wherever it may occur. It is hard to imagine that, not so long ago, talk about the issue of child sex abuse was virtually non-existent. This silence was not a reflection of any absence of child sex related crimes but merely something that was not strong in the public discourse. It was only when a legitimate focus by the public on the issue of child sex abuse was able to be translated into the political realm that government initiatives, such as the one on which I am speaking and on which other honourable members have spoken before me in this House, have come about. It was only after this government initiative that legislative instruments aimed at protecting our most vulnerable were introduced into the Commonwealth’s judicial framework.

As Associate Adjunct Professor of Psychology Dr BJ Cling, of St John’s University in New York, said:

By the early twenty-first century, the issue of child sexual abuse has become a legitimate focus of professional attention …

She goes on to say that:

… the systematic study of psychological trauma … depends on the support of a political movement

As such, this bill is a reflection of the political will of this government to ensure that the protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse remains a legitimate focus of both public and professional attention. It says to the people of Australia: it does happen, it does matter and it is of interest. It says to the perpetrators of such horrendous crimes that the Australian government and its people will continue to strive to ensure that there remains no sanctuary anywhere in the world from which crimes against the world’s most weak and vulnerable can be committed. The reforms outlined in this bill are tough precisely because they serve to be just and fair to the children whom they are designed to protect. It says to these criminals: if you partake in the devastating act of sexual exploitation and abuse of children, you will be subject to the maximum penalties that are available under the law.

We know that the widespread use of modern technology serves as a basis for our nation’s development into the future, but unfortunately the widespread accessibility of the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies also means that, where there is a market, those technologies can be exploited for criminal purposes. As sexual crimes against children have become a widespread form of criminal activity, the reforms introduced in this bill serve to reflect the multifaceted nature of these crimes. As such, through these reforms, the Australian government aims to employ a full range of mechanisms aimed both at strengthening the existing instruments in place to keep up with technological advances and at introducing new ones as a comprehensive measure against child sexual offences in areas of Commonwealth responsibility.

Non-governmental child protection organisations have long pressed for reforms to be introduced. As Minister O’Connor has already outlined, the Save the Children organisation noted, during a broad consultation process on these proposed reforms, that the measures introduced in this bill would:

… definitely strengthen Australia’s capacity to prosecute would be child sex offenders.

Adding to Save the Children’s assessment, Child Wise also lent its support to measures that would see Australia:

… be the leaders in international best practice in relation to the legislation and policing of child sex tourism.

In a world where social upheavals are common and environmental disasters, such as the catastrophic earthquake visited on Haiti in January of this year, are becoming more prevalent, the breakdown in the social order has a disastrous effect on children first and foremost. Releasing a new report, Anne Veneman, Executive Director of the United Nations child welfare agency, UNICEF, also confirmed the view that mass displacement and the breakdown of the social and economic order increase the vulnerability of children, who ‘are at high risk of being separated from their families and more vulnerable to sexual and other abuse, including trafficking and abduction’. These findings are underscored by the Haitian communications minister, who recently acknowledged that, with his government’s priority focused on food and shelter, stories of sexual assaults in makeshift encampments would remain unaddressed.

That is why the responsibility falls upon countries such as Australia to strictly enforce laws against child sexual abuse and exploitation in order to deny child sexual predators a haven from which to procure or groom a child overseas for sexual activity or to prepare or plan for sexual activity with a child overseas. As we send aid abroad to assist nations to rebuild and recover from tumultuous events, we need to ensure that we are also investing in protecting those who are most vulnerable to such chaos and disorder.

I would like to end on the following note. Our children inhabit a world which we help manage, a world that offers them a wealth of opportunity, yet a world in which the preservation of their innocence rests on our ability to help create a better and safer world for them. That is why the introduction of legislative amendments such as these goes to the heart of what we here in the House, as elected representatives, aim to provide for Australia and for the world’s children. Keeping our children safe from predatory sexual behaviour through legislative instruments such as the one before us today serves to do just that. I commend the bill to the House.