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Tuesday, 3 March 2015
Page: 1030


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (18:17): I am pleased to provide some comments tonight on behalf of the Australian Greens. I also refer to the report that Senator Cameron referenced, High-wire act: cyber-safety and the young. That was a really useful exercise, and I want to acknowledge our former colleague in here, former senator Dana Wortley, from South Australia, who chaired this inquiry. I think it was later picked up by Senator Bilyk. I think this was the first time this parliament had engaged with issues such as those canvassed in the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill and that Senator Cameron has just gone through at length. One of the most valuable things about this report is that it involved kids directly. We were told, first of all, that nobody really uses the term cyberbullying—it is just bullying. In fact, it is a bit of a giveaway if you are dealing with someone who is not really certain what they are talking about and they are appending the word 'cyber' to things. It is not simply a case of cyberbullying being of some completely different character—it is just bullying. The problem is that it is full spectrum and it can follow you home—it can follow you all the way into your bedroom and, in some instances, there can be absolutely nowhere to hide. We discovered that some things that might seem immediately intuitive are not as appropriate as they first appear. For example, if a kid is quite clearly being bullied through these media platforms the intuitive thing to do is to cut the connection and get them off the platforms in the first place. That was described to us as being like amputation—you lose your entire social network and you are cut off not just from the malicious behaviour but also from sources of support, from your friends and people who might otherwise be able to look after you.

The report has been a useful exercise, but one of the things I will note is that of the 32 recommendations that this committee put to the Australian parliament not a single one of them related to the establishment of an e-safety commissioner. One of the things I want to highlight tonight concerns the risk of invoking state arbitration of what could effectively be seen as schoolyard disputes. There is a reason that there are not any recommendations in this report that go to that—although Senator Xenophon at the time was canvassing, for example, an online ombudsman and the Labor Party at the time was canvassing an internet filter. But some of these things that might look like a magic bullet for issues as subtle and fine-grained as kids being abused are no substitute for more complex, more nuanced education programs. In fact, if there was any way at all that I could summarise the recommendations that did appear in this report, which we worked on the months, it would be to refer to education and empowerment. This is empowerment of kids to take control of the platforms and the devices through which they are being bullied and abused, and education for the kids themselves, which is obviously part of empowerment, as well as for parents and the entire school community so that teachers, counsellors and chaplains are aware of the ways in which this very old behaviour of victimising and bullying and picking on kids is being channelled through communications platforms that are likely to be totally unfamiliar to legislators, to the people who drew up this bill and to the people who will debate it tonight. So education and empowerment is the key area, and you will see a number of recommendations that went to that—not in a vague, airy-fairy sense but with some quite specific proposals for ways in which we can help kids protect themselves.

The second issue concerns privacy, and probably the less said about this government's attitude, supported by the Labor Party, to privacy the better. The government are proposing a bill at the moment which would effectively obliterate privacy, so they should read recommendations 4 through 12 and maybe rethink their mandatory data protection proposition. Probably the least said about that the better. The last issue concerns inequality. A sense that came through very strongly from those who gave evidence to us was that if kids are being bullied in real life it is entirely likely that they are also getting bullied on online platforms. Inequality actually plays a huge part in that. Access to educational opportunities feeds into the whole debate around inequality in Australian society, which, again, might seem a bit counterintuitive.

The joint select committee conducted three separate roundtables. We heard from industry, academics, law-enforcement agencies, non-government organisations, parents, professional bodies and unions. We held seven hearings in total. As I said, I think the most significant contribution was made by young people, who were consulted by two online surveys in which the views of 33,750 young people below the age of 18 years were heard. Then some school forums were hosted, as well—not conducted by the committee but by people trained in running those kind of forums. The need for kids and young people to be in control of their own online experience is through better education, knowledge and skills. That was the first big one. There was enhancing privacy and, then, helping parents, carers, teachers and those who deal with young people to become more informed so that they are not doing things like, for example, confiscating a phone, which then cuts a young person off from the rest of their social life.

The first recommendation of the report was that the then Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth consider the feasibility of assisting preschools and kindergartens to provide cyber safety educational programs for children as of their development activities. Again, that is not as dramatic as being able to announce the launch of a new commissioner. In conversations with the minister—and I thank him and his staff for providing the briefing on the bill—I found it very difficult to read. I guess time will tell whether this person is going to be deluged—whether they are going to need a very big call centre, indeed, as kids seek to mediate schoolyard disputes using the powers of the Commonwealth government—or whether it is going to be dead silence. Whether there is actually to be much work for this person to do at all, I find that, actually, a very difficult matter to read.

I also struggle to understand whether a measure like this is actually going to be as valuable. It is just going back to some of the bread-and-butter stuff—less glamorous, to be sure—that would actually help kids protect themselves and those around them. Teachers, carers and parents, in particular, can actually help give them the tools that they are going to need.

One of the recommendations was that the Attorney-General work with state and territory counterparts to develop a nationally consistent legislative approach to add certainty to the authority of schools to deal with incidents of appropriate student behaviour to other students out of school hours. There is that question there about the continuum of this malicious behaviour. At what point do schools cease to be responsible? The school or the teaching community might consider themselves responsible if something horrible is occurring on a playground on school premises. But, of course, these social networks extend in a very diffuse way after school has finished. In my understanding—and the minister might like to correct the record if I have got this wrong—that has not happened. Senator Nash, I do not know whether you have carriage of this one for the government or whether it would be somebody else.

Given that I think most of us in the course of this debate are going to be relying on a high-wire act on this report that was tabled in June 2011, can the government tell us—and this is not a partisan thing, because you have been here for only 18 months or so—how many of the recommendations of this report were actually taken up by this government or the previous government before you jumped out and introduced an initiative that was not recommended. That would be something that everybody in this debate would be interested to know.

The report did explicitly deal with the desire to have an online ombudsman. So it was not an e-safety commissioner, as such, that was being discussed. The proposal Senator Xenophon put forward—and he will correct the record if I have this wrong—to have an online ombudsman is probably a bit of a analogue, I guess, for where we have ended up. A fairly large range of organisations opposed this proposal—the ACT Council of P&C Associations, the Australian Library and Information Association, the Australian Federal Police, the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia and even the department at the time. Tech organisations, such as Telstra, Yahoo!7 and the Internet Industry Association did not outright oppose it but they did express concern at the time.

It goes to the issue of whether you want broad and deep initiatives to help kids protect themselves in real life against the very real threats that nobody would downplay, or do you want to cut a ribbon on a new public servant and a call centre? I guess we have to leave that question hanging there, because the idea did not actually get much favour when it was canvassed in some detail in 2011.

That is where I will leave it. This is a really serious issue. I look forward to hearing further from the minister and her staff tonight when we get to the committee stage, because I understand some amendments might have been circulated. This is one of those examples where it was well worth your time being on a committee—even though it went for months. People left their politics at the door and just engaged with kids, parents, people in the field, within the teaching community and in the wider field—psychologists, researchers and their staff—and came up with what we, collectively, thought was a damn good report. So I would like to know if we are going to get a commissioner. I hope we can hear back over the course of time how much work there is for this person and whether they are finding themselves mediating schoolyard disputes or whether there is actually a really valuable role to be played here.

I am vastly more interested in what happened to the body of this work. What happened to these recommendations that were put forward? This was a unanimous report with crossbench, Labor and coalition contributions that were valuable right across the board. What happened to this work? The e-Safety Commissioner is not in this document but a lot of other really valuable stuff is. I would be very interested to follow that up as the debate progresses.