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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2158

Mr ORGAN (10:16 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2004. This bill seeks to criminalise a person's use of the Internet—in particular, to access, transmit to themselves, transmit generally, make available, publish or otherwise distribute material that directly or indirectly counsels or incites suicide with the intention that they or another person will use the material to counsel or incite suicide. To do so attracts a penalty of 1,000 penalty units, currently valued at $110,000. The reasoning behind the government's approach to this bill is explained by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration, who stated in his second reading speech:

Currently there are a range of easily accessible Internet sites and Internet chat rooms that provide explicit instructions on methods of committing suicide and, in the case of Internet chat rooms, sometimes contain actual discussions where one person or even a group of persons urge another to commit suicide. Studies have shown that in some cases such Internet chat room discussions have led to a person attempting suicide, sometimes successfully.

The proposed offences reflect the harm that can be done by those who use the Internet with destructive intent and they will assist in preventing the use of the Internet in this way to encourage vulnerable individuals to take their own lives.

According to the parliamentary secretary, safeguards are in place to protect people from prosecution where they discuss but do not promote suicide. The parliamentary secretary states:

Advocacy of, or debate about, law reform on voluntary euthanasia or suicide related issues that takes place on the Internet will in no way be affected by the proposed offences, because these types of communications would not carry the requisite intention. For the same reason, the offences are unlikely to capture material such as research papers dealing with suicide related issues or suicide prevention, or support material.

On that basis, it is useful to consider just what `intent' means in Australian law so as to be sure that this bill will not have any unintended consequences; otherwise this bill will have purposes that are unintended by the government that will in turn impact on the community. Section 5.2 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act defines intention in three ways:

(1) A person has intention with respect to conduct if he or she means to engage in that conduct.

(2) A person has intention with respect to a circumstance if he or she believes that it exists or will exist.

(3) A person has intention with respect to a result if he or she means to bring it about or is aware that it will occur in the ordinary course of events.

The first definition is the most straightforward. It requires a person to want to do something to satisfy intent. The second and third definitions are not so narrow, as they require a belief of something existing now or in the future or, in the case of the last of the definitions, an awareness that it will occur in the ordinary course of events.

When I typed the search term `suicide: how to' into the Google search engine I received a massive 3.21 million responses. AltaVista found 12.7 million responses and the ninemsn web site search engine recorded some 2.6 million hits. On that basis, people and, in particular, Internet service providers would appear to be satisfying intention in this context as this result will certainly occur in the `ordinary course of events'. Under this bill it will be an offence to transmit, make available, publish or otherwise distribute material. So where does this leave Internet service providers throughout Australia? It seems clear that they may be inadvertently committing an offence under this bill.

As importantly, though, this bill seems to have its work cut out for it. Laws condone or prohibit behaviour. From the amount of suicide information on the Internet, it seems that this bill, if it results in an amendment to part of the Criminal Code, will not come close to achieving its aim of reducing suicide related material. So the question must be asked: is this yet another instalment of government window-dressing? Does the government know that this bill will have no real effect on the amount of suicide related material on the Internet? Is this another tired old pretence of doing something while the opposite occurs?

It reminds me of the way in which the war on drugs is being waged. People are imprisoned and demonised, and there is no real effect on the production, distribution or supply of drugs. But it makes a good news filler. Instead of punishing those people that offer information or advice about suicide, the government would do better to get to the cause and then treat the cause. The causes of suicide are neatly summed up by the Australian Institute of Criminology research paper No. 52, `Social factors in suicide in Australia', by Riaz Hassan. In 1996, he wrote:

Every day there are about 6 suicides in Australia, and a further 180 attempts. Notwithstanding the enormous personal and family emotional costs, and the great financial costs, suicide is a significant concern for the criminal justice system.

Since 1964, suicide rates in Australia for females (except teenagers) have fallen dramatically, and for men over 30 have fallen significantly. For teenage boys the rate has tripled, for men in their early twenties it has almost tripled, and for those in their late twenties it has increased by more than two-thirds. Young men of these ages are also the prime focus of the criminal justice system.

When we combine this with Institute findings for the period 1990-95 that 43 per cent of deaths in custody or custody-related police operations were the result of suicide (again predominantly young men), and Institute homicide data for the period 1989-93 which indicate that 7 per cent of identified offenders committed suicide after a homicide event, we have a picture of despair, despondency and “aimlessness” which cries out for preventive programs. The criminal justice system can focus on part of the problem only, and collaborative work with other agencies is needed in order to have any effect on the incidence of suicide.

So it seems that the best way to reduce suicide would be to reduce the occurrence of despair, despondency and aimlessness. That means providing people with a purpose such as employment and education and not ignoring people in need, year after year, as this government continues to do. Most pointedly, the government has chosen to squander the budget surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy rather than spend it on education and employment for those in poverty—and for those who are subject to despair, despondency and aimlessness, refer to the above. The government has made a conscious choice to give money to the wealthy and ignore poverty, even having the gall to dispute that the phenomenon exists.

So there is a relationship between what the government can do and what the government is currently doing with regard to the issue of suicide. On that issue the Catholic Health Australia 2004 federal budget submission implored the government to:

Urgently fund suicide prevention and volatile substance misuse prevention programs to address the current situation in regard to youth mental health issues.

It argued:

It is unconscionable that such deficiencies in health care provision continue to exist in many indigenous communities in Australia, particularly in an environment of significant budget surpluses.

I could not agree more. More importantly, the Greens do not encourage suicide but we certainly think it appropriate for people to be able to choose the time of their death. Part of our position means allowing people to access information that provides guidance on euthanasia. There are good reasons in doing this. Suicide can be painful or traumatic or, as we have seen, death can be peaceful and timely. That is what we would wish for all people. To achieve the latter, we must allow people to be able to research what options are available to them so that they can make an informed choice. That may mean looking on the Internet, particularly for those people that are bedridden or immobile. For these reasons, the Greens oppose this bill and call on the government to put vastly more resources into suicide prevention and eradicating poverty in this country.