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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2825

Mr SLIPPER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) (10:39 AM) —in reply—I would like to thank the honourable members who have made a contribution to this debate on the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2004. This is a very serious topic, and the amendments in this bill address an issue that can cut the heart out of Australian families. The Howard government is committed to dealing with people who use the Internet to push people over the edge and commit suicide. Those who reach that stage of desperation have a life ahead of them. It is not acceptable that they should be treated just as pawns in a game played over the Internet.

A 1997 study entitled Cybersuicide: the role of interactive suicide notes on the Internet reviewed cases of interactive Internet notes involving individuals who later committed suicide. The citation is: Baume, Cantor and Rolfe, Crisis, 18/2, 1997. The study indicated that there is potential for the Internet to influence suicidal behaviour. The authors observed that the Internet makes it all too easy for self-destructive individuals to incite others to kill themselves. A 1999 study entitled Cybersuicide: the Internet and suicide reported on two suicide attempts in which information about the methods used was obtained from the Internet. The citation is: Alao, Yolles and Armenta, American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 11 November 1999. The study suggested that both cases illustrated the danger of having Internet access to certain information. The authors noted that it is extremely easy to access information about suicide on the Internet. They described a number of sites that provided detailed information on various methods of suicide.

While the member for Sydney might highlight some of her concerns, I think that families right across the nation are concerned about suicide. I think it is one of the major issues that we as a civilised society confront. Anything that any government can do to discourage suicide is, I think, a step very much in the right direction.

In this bill the proposed offences target the accessing, transmission and making available of material that counsels or incites suicide with intent to use that material to counsel or incite suicide, and the accessing, transmission and making available of material that promotes or provides instruction on a particular method of committing suicide with intent to promote that method or intending another person to use that information to commit suicide. The offences are intended to complement existing customs regulations prohibiting the physical importation and exportation of suicide kits and information related to those kits.

The decision to deal with suicide related Internet material in a bill that is separate from the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2004 stems from misunderstandings about the nature of the proposed offences by some who have commented on the provisions. Contrary to what some have said, the proposed offences will not cover Internet material that advocates or debates law reform on voluntary euthanasia or suicide related issues. My personal position on voluntary euthanasia is that I am opposed to it. In a debate in relation to the Northern Territory laws I voted to overturn those laws, and I do not apologise for that. I do accept that debate on voluntary euthanasia is a legitimate debate in our society. The concerns expressed—quite genuinely, I believe—by the member for Sydney in her contribution are concerns which she ought not to have with respect to the provisions of this bill.

It is important to recognise that Internet material such as research papers dealing with suicide related issues, suicide prevention and support material will not be caught by the proposed offences. It is unfortunate that these concerns have been raised very late in the day. The government started consultation on the telecommunications offences bill in March of this year—quite a number of months ago, during which only half-a-dozen submissions expressed any concerns about the proposed suicide related material offences. Following consultation, aspects of the proposed offences were tightened up in response to some concerns. The offences now cover only conduct in relation to Internet material that counsels or incites suicide—that is, urges suicide—where there is an intention to counsel or incite a person to commit suicide, or Internet material that promotes or provides instruction on a particular method of committing suicide, where there is an intention to promote that method of suicide or, alternatively, where there is an intention that another person use that method to commit suicide.

The telecommunications offences bill was introduced in the other place on 24 June this year and it has taken until very recently for some non-government parties to start raising objections. Indeed, the bill was not referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee following its introduction in June.

The member for Cunningham mentioned in his speech his belief that Internet service providers and Internet content hosts may be caught by the offences. I want to reassure the member for Cunningham that they will not be caught by the offences. The intention fault element for the possession offences applies to the conduct of using the material to incite or counsel suicide, or promote or provide instruction on suicide. This means that the ISP or ICH must mean to possess the material as well as use it in this way.

The member for Sydney in her speech also claimed that the law was not likely to make a difference. She might be right in that in many cases it may make little difference, but I think the member for Sydney would have to concede the point that, if some lives are saved, then these amendments are certainly worth pursuing. That is one of the reasons the government is particularly keen to see this bill pass into the statute books of this nation as soon as possible.

I mentioned that my belief is that voluntary euthanasia is a matter for legitimate community debate. After I introduced this bill in the parliament, in the Sunshine Coast Daily on 5 August this year the Sunshine Coast branch of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Queensland claimed that this bill was the thin end of the wedge and suggested that the next thing could be a complete ban on all matters pertaining to voluntary euthanasia. They went on to claim that the bill was `ludicrous' and that all it amounted to was censorship—imposing censorship on things which, according to them, are not right. Mr Michael Traugott, from the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, is quite wrong. As I said, voluntary euthanasia is a matter of legitimate debate. Each of us has a different view in relation to it. As I have said in the substantive portion of my speech, this bill's aim is discouraging suicide and it does not seek, in any way, shape or form, to inhibit debate in the community on the issue of voluntary euthanasia.

I find it personally disappointing that we have last-minute and misinformed speculation that could interrupt progress on such an important issue and impact on the lives of many Australian families. I think it is a matter of regret that this bill may be referred to the Senate committee, as was suggested by the member for Sydney. I believe that this bill is a really important bill. I believe that many Australian families want to see this bill become law as soon as possible. With an election a matter of months away, if that, I think it would be eminently regrettable if there were any delay in the passage of this law, because such a delay could well cost lives. I think that would be a very real tragedy, and so I implore the opposition in the other place to support this bill, to support Australian families, and to join the government in doing whatever we can collectively do to try to discourage suicide in our community. I commend this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.