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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 48


Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) (9:38 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The number of recent false alarms involving packages or letters containing apparently hazardous material has highlighted the need for tough penalties to deter such malicious and irresponsible actions.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Anti-hoax and Other Measures) Bill 2002 will ensure that those who create public fear and alarm by sending hoax material or dangerous substances are properly penalised.

The bill gives effect to an undertaking made by the Prime Minister on 16 October last year.

The Prime Minister expressed the government's concern about the increasing number of security incidents involving letters and packages and undertook to introduce new laws to target persons who seek to exploit community fears by sending hoax material.

Complementing these measures, the bill also contains new offences dealing with the use of postal and similar services to make threats, engage in harassment and send dangerous articles.

These new Criminal Code offences are a significant improvement on the existing outdated offences in the Crimes Act 1914, which they are intended to replace.

The proposed new offences cover the misuse of any postal, courier or other similar service within Commonwealth constitutional power and not just Australia Post.

The proposed offences also increase the penalties for the misuse of those services to more appropriate levels to properly reflect the seriousness of the harm involved.

Anti-hoax and other offences

The bill introduces a new hoax offence directed at those who send an article with the intention of inducing a false belief in the recipient that the article is an explosive or a dangerous or harmful item or that such an article will be left in any place.

The new updated offence will extend to all postal and similar services, rather than being limited to Australia Post.

The maximum penalty for the offence will be increased from five to 10 years imprisonment.

The new offence will apply retrospectively, commencing at 2 p.m. on 16 October 2001.

This is the date and time on which the Prime Minister undertook to commence these new measures.

Any person who has engaged in sending hoax material since that time can expect to find themselves subject to the full force of the amendments.

The new offence will send a strong message to those who may be tempted to make spurious threats that this behaviour is not acceptable.

Such actions can have significant consequences, as demonstrated by a number of incidents late last year and early this year in which mail centres and offices had to be decontaminated, security measures enhanced and emergency services diverted from other duties.

The cost of this conduct can also be counted in the fear engendered both in the recipients of the hoax material and in the general community.

The bill will create two new offences concerning the use of a postal or similar service to make a threat to kill or threat to cause serious harm with the intention of causing the recipient to fear that the threat will be carried out.

Under the bill, making a threat to kill attracts a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment and making a threat to cause serious harm carries a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.

Threats would be covered by the new offence regardless of whether they are express or implied, conditional or unconditional.

The penalty of one year imprisonment that currently applies to the use of the postal service to make threats is clearly inadequate where serious threats are concerned.

Intimidating or frightening people into believing that they will be caused serious injury is reprehensible.

The proposed new threat offences will ensure that this conduct is subject to substantial penalties.

The offence of using a postal or similar service to menace, harass or cause offence is to be extended to all postal and other like services and the penalty increased from one to two years imprisonment.

The offence would cover material designed to make a person fearful about his or her safety or wellbeing as well as material containing offensive or abusive language.

The bill makes it an offence for a person to use a postal or similar service to send an article in a way that gives rise to a danger of death or serious harm to another person where the first person is reckless as to the danger of death or serious harm.

The new offence will carry a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.

The proposed offence is concerned with potential rather than actual harm and will apply regardless of the degree of risk involved.

In addition to the general dangerous goods offence, the bill contains a further offence specifically relating to the use of Australia Post.

The offence will apply where a person sends an explosive or a prescribed dangerous or harmful substance through Australia Post and attracts a penalty of 10 years imprisonment.

Australia Post deals with a high volume of mail in accordance with stringent terms and conditions and therefore requires a more prescriptive offence.

Conclusion

Protecting the safety, security and integrity of Australia's information infrastructure, including postal and courier services, is a priority for this government.

The measures contained in this bill will ensure that these important communication services are not compromised by irresponsible, malicious or destructive behaviour.

By introducing tough penalties for such behaviour, the government is making it clear that it views the misuse of the postal system as a serious matter and that offenders will be vigorously prosecuted.

I commend the bill to the House and I present the explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr McClelland) adjourned.