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Thursday, 10 November 2016
Page: 2433


Senator WATT (Queensland) (11:05): It has been extremely worthwhile listening to the various contributions to the debate on the Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor ) Bill 2016 this morning. It is very clear from those contributions that every single speaker and no doubt every single member of this chamber is 100 per cent committed to child protection and doing everything that they possibly can to keep children safe, whether it be from predators online or in a physical sense or in any form whatsoever. I want to make very clear at the beginning of my contribution that I and Labor certainly believe that the intent of this bill is laudable. There are probably few things that as elected representatives we can do which are as significant as ensuring that we have laws in place that do protect every child no matter their circumstances and that prevent them from having truly horrible things occur, which either destroy their lives or take their lives, as was the case with Carly. Her life was taken from her, which is about the worst thing you can possibly imagine happening to her and her family.

I am aware that this is the fourth time that this bill has been put forward by Senator Xenophon and his team, and it is clear that it is a cause that he and the rest of his team are very dedicated to. I want to recognise their extremely sincere intentions in bringing this bill forward to this chamber again. I also want to recognise that they have done so on the back of some really commendable lobbying efforts from people who were directly affected by this terrible incident and from many others who have a deep interest in child protection. So, again, I want to recognise the very sincere objectives that lie behind this piece of legislation. I will say a little bit more about some of the people who were affected by these events later in my contribution.

This bill seeks to amend the Criminal Code 1995 to make it an offence for a person over 18 years of age to misrepresent their age to someone under 16 years of age for the purpose of procuring a meeting. Obviously, we know enough about the actions of sexual predators on children to know that often their predatory actions do not just occur in one stage, that often there is a very long lead-up time in which they seek to groom a child. They make contact with them, lull them into a false sense of security and try to befriend them. It is only after that long lead-up time that the really truly criminal actions ultimately take place.

This law does go further than existing laws that are designed to protect our children from online predators by removing the need for police forces to prove sexual intent before intervening to stop a predator from making contact with a child. The intention behind these amendments is to enable police to intervene at an earlier stage in that grooming process than they are currently able to do to stop an online predator. At first, when I saw that those were the objectives behind this legislation, I, like probably many other senators, thought that this sounds like the right thing to do. If we can intervene earlier to catch sexual predators and prevent them from making contact with minors then obviously that is going to stop events like those that occurred to Carly from occurring to other people. But, as with most legislation, it does take more than a cursory look to see how it is going to operate in practice, which I will deal with in my contribution. Labor does have some concern about how this law would operate in practice. We are keen to keep talking with other parties about how some of those concerns might be overcome. These amendments are a significant broadening of the existing law and they carry with them a maximum jail sentence of five years.

This bill has become known as Carly's Law in honour of Carly Ryan, a 15-year-old girl who was tragically lured to her death in 2007 by an online predator. A number of other speakers in this debate have provided significant detail on the events surrounding Carly's tragic death. I will not repeat that myself—I recognise that a number of people have done so already—other than to say that Carly's case is undoubtedly a tragic one. Over a course of nearly two years she was courted by a man online whom she believed to be an 18-year-old musician from Melbourne named Brandon Kane. He was in fact a much older man—nearing 50, I believe—Gary Francis Newman, who eventually, over a period of time and over repeated use of online contact, managed to lure Carly to a secluded beach where he sexually assaulted her and murdered her.

There is no doubt that the law failed Carly. I again want to recognise that her mother, Sonya, has dedicated her life since Carly's death to law reform in this area. I am not sure if Sonya is currently in the gallery, but I understand that she was present earlier today. I think she might be with us know. I do want to recognise very sincerely, Sonya, the efforts that you and your many supporters have put into trying to stop this kind of thing happening to other children in the future.

Like many other people in this chamber, I am a parent. I have two young children: a nine-year-old and a six-year-old. They are really only beginning to enter the online world and already I am having concerns about what they are watching, what they are going to experience and people making contact with them who we do not know and who they do not know. In preparing to give this speech, I was very much reflecting on my personal circumstances. Sonya, I cannot imagine the grief that your family has had to go through since Carly's tragic death. Again, I do very sincerely want to commend you for the work that you and your supporters have put in to prevent those kinds of things from happening to my children and others like mine.

The Carly Ryan Foundation, which is run by Sonya, has become a highly effective advocacy organisation for cybersafety and has only fact sheets and counselling services to reduce the harm of online bullying and predatory behaviour. As I said, I am a parent myself and I am sure there are many others in this situation as well. We do worry about the safety of our children online. Every Saturday morning my nine-year-old son is allowed to get up early and hop on the iPad. He watches YouTube videos and all sorts of other things. You are never quite sure what it is they are coming into contact with. I know many other parents share that concern about what their children are being exposed to and who might be contacting them. We know that all parents want to do everything they can to stop their children being put in danger by people with bad intentions online.

I have brought to this speech my experiences and feelings as a parent, but in my brief time as a state member of parliament in Queensland I organised cybersafety workshops for parents in my electorate. I remember being surprised by how well attended they were. They were on a weekday evening, which is probably not the most convenient time for many working parents, but every time that I or other members of parliament put those workshops on we were guaranteed a very strong attendance rate from local parents. Again, that reflected both the level of concern that I think a lot of parents have about this issue and the lack of knowledge that many parents have about how to combat bad things happening online to their children. I know that many of the parents who attended those workshops that I staged certainly came away with a lot more information. I have no doubt that the work of the Carly Ryan Foundation, led by her mother, has also really increased the level of education and knowledge that many parents have about what they can do to keep their children safe online.

As a Labor representative, I also want to say that we care very deeply about protecting our children from online predators. The advent of online technologies and platforms has fundamentally changed the world of policing. Tragically and quite creepily, this has also changed the way that predators target vulnerable children. As I have already said, increasingly sexual predators are not necessarily using a one-off, random attack in which to find victims. That of course does happen as well and needs to be dealt with as well. But, more and more, we are seeing these kinds of people undertaking very prolonged steps involving multiple contacts with children, particularly online, before they have the opportunity to exploit children in this most evil way.

Many parents, as I have already said, see the task of keeping their children safe online as extremely difficult—understandably so. The online world is endless and it is unknowable, with threats that are seemingly invisible. As I have said, I freely admit that I am not the world's most technologically advanced person. I do not think I as a middle-aged man am alone there. Many of us do not fully comprehend how online systems work and how we can best take steps to keep our own children safe when they are operating in the online world. The online world is sometimes a realm that seems beyond the reach of the law, but fortunately it is not. There are things we can do in a legal sense to help keep our children safe online.

Labor have been concerned about child safety online for a long time now, both in opposition, as we currently are, and in government. When we were in government, Labor expanded child protection operations in the Australian Federal Police to assist in protecting children and in investigating online child sexual exploitation. We implemented a range of cybersafety education activities, and we formed the Youth Advisory Group on Cybersafety. I think all of them were excellent initiatives. I am not trying to be partisan about that. I am sure that this government has done many very worthwhile things in this space as well. But those were a number of excellent initiatives that were undertaken by the last federal Labor government to try to strengthen some of the protections that exist for children, particularly online.

Again reflecting on my personal background, having worked in the Queensland state government for a number of years, I know that similarly a number of initiatives were undertaken by that government to enhance protection of children online along with dramatically increasing the funding that was provided to child protection agencies to keep children safe from those who would seek to abuse them.

Labor have been in discussion for some time with the Nick Xenophon Team about this bill. We are certainly looking for ways to work cooperatively to see how the aims of that party and the people who sponsored this bill can best be achieved. We recognise that we need to be ever vigilant about online threats and ensure that our laws keep up as those threats evolve. As I said, technology does evolve. Different platforms are being created every day. I heard Senator Griff referring to a number of different social media platforms, many of which I had not heard of, so I can only imagine how many others there are out there that, when they fall into the wrong hands, can be extremely badly exploited such that ultimately children are the victims.

Having said that, Labor have a number of concerns with the bill as it currently stands. However, we are confident that those issues can be worked through in further negotiations. I understand that Senate committees have reviewed this bill previously, and the reports of those Senate committees have raised concerns about the breadth of the scope of this bill and the danger that it could unintentionally catch behaviour that should not be deemed as criminal. I have no doubt whatsoever that the motivation behind this bill is completely sincere and is directed at ensuring children are kept safe from sexual predators. But I think we need to make sure that the law really does achieve those aims and does not necessarily catch other people that it was never designed to catch in the first place. When you legislate there is always the risk of unintended consequences, and we want to be really sure that this bill does not go further than it needs to go in order to achieve what are extremely worthwhile aims. The most recent Senate report on this bill, which I think was handed down in August last year by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, urged that further consultation be undertaken.

One aspect that Labor does have concerns about, building on concerns that were raised in the inquiry into this bill, concerns the amendment which, in broad terms, removes the need to prove sexual intent in contact that is made with a child in the circumstances we are looking at. I know that in the inquiry the Attorney-General's Department raised concerns that, for instance, an 18½-year-old could misrepresent their age to a 16-year-old in an attempt to gain an invite to a birthday party. We know that kind of thing happens all the time. It is probably not the intention of this bill to catch and criminalise that kind of activity, but we do have concerns that in the bill's current form that would be a risk. We are very keen to talk further about those kinds of risks, to see whether we can focus this bill a little bit more and prevent those things being caught up. I think we can all agree that that is not necessarily the kind of behaviour that we want to see criminalised. There might be very good reasons for keeping 18½-year-olds away from parties involving 16-year-olds, but I do not think that is the intention of this bill, which is undoubtedly to prevent older sexual predators—older in the sense of people who are 18 and above—from making contact with minors. That is the kind of thing that we want to work through a little more as this bill is being considered.

Senators on the committee also raised the concern that there is the potential that someone with an intellectual impairment, who may not fully understand the consequences of their action and who may not have evil intent, might unwittingly finding themselves foul of the law. I think also that that kind of thing is the intention behind this bill, but we need to make sure that the drafting is such that people in that situation are not also caught up.

More consultation is needed with the Australian Federal Police and the Attorney-General's Department in order to determine where they believe more powers would be helpful and in what ways those powers can be given without creating any undesirable outcomes. I was not involved in the inquiry into that bill—it was before my time—but I understand that the Federal Police had some concerns and doubts about whether this legislation was necessarily the right way to address the problem that we are trying to solve.

It is a challenge to ensure that, in broadening the Criminal Code in this way to remove the need for police to prove sexual intent before intervening in a potential online predator case, unintended consequences like this are not created. The other thing we need always to do when we bring in new legislation is have a really hard look at existing legislation to see whether existing offences and existing legislation, while they might not be defined specifically as new legislation, effectively achieve what we are trying to achieve. I would be very interested in having a good look at whether existing legislation, particularly in the area of grooming children, might achieve this. It might require a little bit of tweaking, but I think we need also to have a good look at that as part of our consideration of this legislation.

Having said that we have those concerns, we think that many of them can be overcome with consultation. I know that that consultation is ongoing between different political parties and between different government agencies at the moment. I am very hopeful that, once that consultation occurs, we can come to the right outcome.

In conclusion, it is absolutely important that we leave no stone unturned in the never-ending battle to keep our children safe. If Carly's death has exposed a loophole in the law then we absolutely should look at how we can close it and make sure that that kind of thing does not happen to other children in the future. As I said earlier in my speech, we can have no greater duty as adults, or indeed as parliamentarians, than the duty to keep our children safe. We acknowledge that the online world has made that duty harder to uphold. We on the Labor side will do all we can to help address that. Labor looks forward to working productively with the Nick Xenophon Team and other interested parties to make sure that we can have the very best legislation that we can.