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Thursday, 10 November 2016
Page: 2437


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (11:24): I want to acknowledge the highly deserving and important intent of this legislation before us today. This bill, the Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor) Bill 2016, seeks to make it an offence for people over 18 to misrepresent their age to someone under 16 for the purposes of procuring a meeting with them. It removes the need for police to prove sexual intent before intervening to stop a predator making contact with a child. I think this is a very important principle, and I know so from my own personal experience.

It is hoped that police will be able to intervene at an earlier stage to stop an online predator earlier than they are currently able to do. I note that in the case of Carly's circumstances, the predator who targeted her had multiple identities reaching out to children. In that sense, you can already see what an abhorrent set of activities there is there, but you would not necessarily be able to prove any sexual intent behind it. I do not know if perhaps there may have been, but it strikes me that there is plenty of other evidence to demonstrate the intent of the predator in this case without needing to prove that it is sexual. And while I do not know the details of the case, I can see that kind of example is useful for the purposes of considering the law. It is significant in that it broadens the existing law to enable police to intervene in that way, and that it carries a jail sentence of five years.

This bill, also known as 'Carly's law', is a very important tribute to Carly Ryan, who, as a 15-year-old, was lured to her death by a predator. And it reminds me that Carly's murder, at the time when it was first reported, brought back what was a significant memory for me as a child—that was, potentially becoming a victim of a paedophile. I was 12 years old, on holiday in Adelaide, when a man came up to me and asked me for my name and address to enter a competition. I thought it was a bit odd that he wrote it on a piece of paper and not on a printed form. Nearly 12 months later, I received a phone call at home in Perth. It was the same man's voice on the phone—it was creepy, and at the time I could remember thinking, 'This doesn't seem quite right'—telling me that I had won the competition and he needed to come and give me my prize. I said, quite politely, no; I was too far away. I was at home in Perth and I was relieved that I was far away. But it really reinforces to me this idea that prolonged multiple contact is the kind of thing that a predator in this circumstance would be seeking, and that he had hung onto those details for some 12 months before making that phone call to me.

I knew it was not right, but I was embarrassed at having naively given my details away and I told no-one—not even my parents. So it is shocking to me how many women, and some men, in my own circles have been victims of sexual assaults in their adolescence—many from predators within their own family or social circles, and some from outside predators. Given that quite innocent experience I had as a child, where that possibility of intent was directed towards me, it does not surprise me that it can and does happen. That was more than 30 years ago, and it is terrifying to me to consider how the internet in today's day and age can be used by people to create false identities or circumstances to lure adolescent children to them. That is the kind of example that was apparent in the incident that happened to me as a child, that a false identity in some circumstances can be used to lure a child into a net with very harmful intent, so I understand why parents worry constantly about the safety of their children online.

I as a parent want to be able to do all that I can to stop children being put in danger by people with bad intentions online. We know that we need to encourage parents to know what their children are doing online and elsewhere, and I really do endorse all of the education and strategies that parents, children and communities need to put in place. The government has done a lot of work on that, as I know Carly's mother, Sonya, has. As my own childhood shows and, indeed, as Senator Kakoschke-Moore said in her own speech, parents simply cannot know all of the time what their children are doing.

Carly's case is indeed a tragic one, and I find it is completely abhorrent the way the man who murdered her misrepresented his identity for that evil intention. I really would like to acknowledge Carly's mother, Sonya, for her dedication to law reform in this area. I know she is in the chamber and I would like to welcome her to this place. Your foundation has become a very effective advocacy organisation for cybersafety. Indeed, without that advocacy we would not be debating this bill here today.

As a parent, I can certainly understand how difficult the task is for parents in keeping their children safe online. I know, as someone who is engaged in social media on a daily basis, that I am not keeping up with the way young people use that technology in all cases today. So I want to thank you in particular for the work you do, Sonya, in providing online fact sheets and counselling to reduce the harm of online bullying and predatory behaviour. I really want to encourage the community to use those resources. I and we in Labor and, I am sure, all parliamentarians here care very deeply about protecting our children from abuse, exploitation and, indeed, even more horrific circumstances.

Our concern for child safety online has been apparent for some time in both government and opposition. We did some important things in government that included expanding operations within the AFP to assist in detecting and investigating online child exploitation, and I want to pay tribute to those in the AFP who do that difficult work. I know it includes things like needing to watch many hours of graphic imagery to work out if it is portraying children participating in exploitative acts, and that is difficult work for people to be engaged in. So I really want to pay tribute to officers of the AFP and in our state police forces that work to protect our children.

We have worked on a range of cybersafety education activities and indeed have formed the Youth Advisory Group on Cybersafety, because actually we cannot keep young people safe without asking young people themselves about how to do that. It is not possible to keep up with the current culture of how young people use technology without really engaging with young people themselves. I would like to commend the Nick Xenophon Team for their work on this bill. We are looking for ways to work with you to see how its aims can best be achieved, and it is a privilege to be able to do that.

I think it is really important that we are vigilant in this place about online threats and wider threats in our community to ensure that our laws keep up as those threats to our children evolve. I do acknowledge there are some concerns with this bill, as Senator Watt and Senator Farrell expressed, but I express my confidence that these can be worked out. Those concerns included how we do not want to unintentionally catch innocent behaviour that should not be deemed as criminal in the scope of this bill, and that is why the Senate report from last year argued for more consultation. We know that the Attorney-General's Department raised examples about how someone could innocently misrepresent their age in an attempt to get an invite to a birthday party, and we would not want to see that kind of activity criminalised, as misguided as it might be.

Senators on the committee also raised concerns about people with cognitive impairments unwittingly finding themselves falling foul of the law through their naivety. We also need to be careful to protect people with cognitive impairments who are older than 18. In this case, this law only applies to misrepresenting your age to children, to those under 16, but indeed there can be vulnerable citizens older than 18 who can be exposed to sexual exploitation because they have cognitive impairments or a naive attitude. It is quite gobsmacking to see the amount of online predatory behaviour that takes place when it comes to financial and a whole range of other exploitation.

So I look forward to more consultation with the AFP and the Attorney-General's Department to look at what powers should be helpful and how those powers can be created without creating any undesirable outcomes. It is a challenge, 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, to ensure that unintended consequences are not created, but I think it is an important principle. I believe that we need to look at removing that need to prove sexual intent. If I think back to the circumstances of my own childhood, where I was clearly being targeted by someone with some kind of intent, clearly that contact was highly inappropriate. But, as to whether it would have been possible to prove some kind of sexual intent, I would not necessarily think you would be able to prove such intent in those cases. So the capacity for legal intervention despite not proving sexual intent is critically important.

I note that this bill has been put forward a number of times by Nick Xenophon, and I commend the Nick Xenophon Team for having dedication to this important cause. I am really pleased with the fact that we are working through the issues and making progress to seeing the bill's principles implemented. We on this side of the chamber believe that the challenges in this bill can be overcome so that it can be implemented with some further consultation. So it is terrific that we can see that consultation between political parties and agencies is now occurring.

For me as the assistant shadow minister for families and communities—which includes responsibility for child protection—it really is an honour to be participating in this debate, and I look forward to engaging with other senators who have an interest in this area, such as Senator Hinch, about our duty as parliamentarians to keep our nation's children safe. We acknowledge that the online world has made that harder to uphold, and I want us to look at what we can do to help.

I think about this as a mother. I was innocently watching Peppa Pig with my two-year-old toddler, only to find that some people like to turn Peppa Pig into inappropriately sexually explicit material which is somehow interspersed with the kind of content that children might be accessing. I do not really care what people's fetishes are—if they want to dress up as Peppa Pig or whatever—but we do need to be able to protect our children from exposure to this kind of content. I was shocked and appalled to find that my toddler was exposed to this; they are amazing in how quickly and easily they can flick through apps and find the content that they want to look for. So I will be vigilant in supervising his use of YouTube as a result of that.

So the online world really does expose our children to an array of content and, indeed, interaction with individuals that really does give parents cause for concern. We know that the answer to that is engaging with parents, as Sonya highlights, and educating ourselves, but it also lays a great onus on us as lawmakers and as governments: for administrators of agencies like the AFP, Child Protection and our courts to do their part of that job, and for us to provide them with the right laws to do so. Parents cannot be everywhere at all times. We do need to empower them and to encourage them to work with their children to keep them safe online. But as my own experience as a child shows, I did not tell my parents when I had been put into a risky situation—I did not disclose that to them.

In closing, I want to say that I very much look forward to working productively with other members of this place to see this bill progress.