Combating Child Exploitation

Combating Child Exploitation

I rise to speak in support of the Combating Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. 

The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released in 2017 was nothing short of sickening, disturbing and horrifying. The safety of children should always be put first; however, for much too long, those with the power to stop child sexual abuse turned a blind eye and allowed an unthinkable theft of innocence to occur. A survivor named Faye told the royal commission: 'Nothing takes the memories away. It happened 53 years ago and it's still affecting me'. The royal commission resulted in 17,000 survivors coming forward and nearly 8,000 of them recounting their abuse in private sessions of the commission. Finally, voices were heard and silence was broken. We are grateful to the survivors who gave evidence to the commission, as they allow us now as a parliament and as a nation to confront a hidden trauma, an abomination hiding in plain sight for too long.

A survivor named Rodney asked the question so common to many survivors. He wonders about 'the person I may have become or the person I could have become if I didn't have all of this in my life'. Another survivor, Aiden, spoke of not getting justice because his abuser had died. He said, 'I was bereft because I was robbed. I was robbed of my day in court. I wanted to tell the world what he did, and that was stolen. That was him again taking control.'

Last year, during the national apology address, the Prime Minister posed the eerie questions: why weren't the children of our nation loved, nurtured and protected; why was our system of justice blind to injustice; and why has it taken so long to act? It is an unfortunate reality that sexual predators target the most vulnerable in our society. The sexual exploitation of children is among the vilest reality in our society. During the time I served as a Commonwealth prosecutor, I saw firsthand how abhorrent these actions are and the difficulties so many prosecutors face in their efforts to deliver justice. The crimes of ritual sexual abuse happen in far too many places: schools, churches, youth groups, scout troops, orphanages, foster homes, sporting clubs, charities, and in the family home as well. It can happen anywhere a predator thinks they can get away with it and where the systems within these organisations allow it to happen by turning a blind eye.

Last year the Australian Federal Police received almost 18,000 reports of child exploitation involving Australian children or Australian child sex offenders—18,000!—and that's a statistic that had almost doubled from the previous year. Where failings in legislation are identified, they must be immediately rectified, especially when it touches something as important as the safety of children.

As a government, we must always be vigilant and continue to review our laws to ensure that they capture new and emerging forms of child sexual abuse and set a standard of bringing justice to all wrongs against children. This is exactly what the government has sought to do by introducing the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. The changes and improvements made by the bill implement key recommendations given by the royal commission into child sexual abuse and respond to concerns expressed by the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

As the Minister for Home Affairs has said, if Australia is to be a civilised society, then it must be committed to ensuring children can grow up free from the evil of sexual abuse and exploitation. The government's position when it comes to the protection of children is absolutely clear: we have zero tolerance for this kind of abuse—indeed, for any child sexual abuse in whatever form it takes. The bill acts on this position by introducing two new offences into the Criminal Code to criminalise the actions of Commonwealth officers where they exercise care, supervision or authority over children and fail to report child sexual abuse or negligently fail to reduce or remove the risk of child sexual abuse to children.

The Commonwealth has a responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children who are under its care. The royal commission, shockingly, found many instances where those entrusted with the protection of children did the least to protect them. When a child spoke up they weren't believed, and that allowed crimes to continue with impunity. One survivor named Anne said, 'My mother believed them rather than me.' Another survivor told the Prime Minister that, when he told a teacher of his abuse, that teacher joined in as an abuser.

Too often those who knew about abuse had the power to act and yet failed to do so. Rather than reporting abuse, they turned a blind eye or, even worse, took actions to cover it up. This can only be described as detestable. There should be no tolerance for child sexual abuse, and Commonwealth officers must fulfil their obligations to protect children. Following the recommendations of the royal commission, the offences introduced in this bill will incentivise the reporting and prevention of child sexual abuse by criminalising these failings. Moreover, the government's stance on child sexual abuse doesn't waiver, whether it occurs on our shores or whether it occurs overseas.

Australians love to travel, and that's a great thing, but there are some amongst us who travel overseas with the intention of engaging in the most sickening of practices—and that is child sex tourism. The concept is a disgusting thing. The disgraceful practice is remarkably common worldwide, and it's no coincidence that this government strongly believes that our work protecting children doesn't stop at our borders. The bill extends Australia's zero tolerance stance on child sexual abuse to make it easier to hold accountable Australians who abuse children when they are overseas. Conditions of poverty, discrimination, violence, low levels of education and lack of law enforcement in a number of foreign jurisdictions facilitate these horrible acts. So this bill will further protect children overseas from the actions of Australians who seek to travel to a foreign jurisdiction to abuse children in a way that amounts to persistent child sexual abuse. It will remove difficulties associated with prosecuting repeated instances of abuse. At the moment, you need to show three instances of abuse in order for it to be proven as persistent. It will now be two, once this bill is passed.

Shockingly, it is a common practice for sexual deviants to travel to foreign jurisdictions to exploit children. We need to give our law enforcement officers the tools they need to bring these people to justice. The bill ensures children across the world are protected, by stopping child sex offenders from travelling overseas without permission, and that will disrupt and ensure that we prevent and investigate the abuse of children globally.

The royal commission also highlighted the saddening reality that it is often the worst offences that are among the most difficult to prove—a bit of a cruel irony. But when sexual abuse of children has been repeated, or is ongoing, the child victim commonly has difficulty in identifying, isolating or distinguishing between particular occasions of abuse. This bill will address the problem by reducing the number of occasions that need to be isolated in order to prove the offence of persistent child sexual abuse overseas.

The bill also strengthens existing forced marriage offences and closes the loophole which allows offenders to escape culpability by claiming they have been legally married to a child. It is a shocking statistic that more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday in circumstances where they weren't able to give the appropriate consent, with more than one in three of those women being married before the age of 15. It doesn't need to be explained how the practice of child marriage is morally reprehensible and seriously harms the wellbeing of its child victims, particularly the wellbeing of girls and young women, because that's who child marriage disproportionately affects. Although child marriage should be illegal in almost every country, many struggle to enforce it. This government, though, believes it is its responsibility to curtail the harm done to children by ensuring that Australian citizens who involve themselves in this practice will be held accountable. Children trapped in marriage are subject to physical and mental abuse by its very nature. They are often exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, rape and forced pregnancy, things they couldn't possibly have had the capacity to consent to at those ages. This legal loophole, which currently permits girls as young as 10 to potentially be married, must be closed.

While technology brings incredible gains to society, it also poses a significant threat to the safety of our children online. Carly Ryan thought she had met her dream boyfriend online; instead, in reality, it was Garry Newman, a 50-year-old predator masquerading as an 18-year-old musician. He lied, seduced and lured her to a secluded beach where he bashed her, suffocated her and threw her into the water to drown. The Carly Ryan Foundation was established in her honour by Carly's mum, Sonya, to create awareness and to educate children and parents using the internet. She works to expose the thousands of multiple identities paedophiles use to lure young children to harm, and I honour her and her work arising from such horrendous hardship.

This bill will ensure that Commonwealth legislation is comprehensive and technology neutral, by giving a future-focused response to all forms of child pornography material and child abuse material. This means that Commonwealth legislation will be better able to remain in step with technological advancements. Every time child abuse material is viewed, the child portrayed in the material is revictimised. As such, new offences relating to the possession or control of child abuse material in the form of data stored on a computer or data storage device are introduced in this bill. And, of course, we should never forget that in these digital forms of material we have real children depicted who are suffering real harm.

It has been especially sickening to hear of the new trend on the internet of child sex dolls, which are being used to simulate sexual intercourse with children. These are horrible things to have to talk about. They are made to be lifelike and may even have built-in functions like voice and movement capabilities. This abhorrent trend and the way that it attempts to normalise this kind of proclivity must be robustly stamped out in Australia. The bill explicitly criminalises and introduces mandatory sentences for the possession, importation, posting and ordering of these dolls in a childlike form.

While some have raised concerns over the sentencing arrangements in this bill, the bill ensures that the courts will retain a considerable amount of discretion. Let's not forget: it's the protection of children from vile abuse that we're talking about. The community, and especially the survivors of abuse, expect this parliament to take meaningful action and ensure that there are real consequences for those who engage in offending of this kind. Survivors have said that an apology without action in this place is not much more than a piece of paper; it is just words if not backed up.

Acting on the recommendations of the royal commission with concrete action gives practical meaning to the apology delivered by the Prime Minister last year. That's why the government has implemented every single recommendation of the royal commission. It has not rejected a single one. We are actively working to make every recommendation law. The National Redress Scheme has commenced. The National Office for Child Safety has been established. Just last week, the government tabled a bill in the House that introduces mandatory minimum jail terms for serious child sex offenders and a presumption against bail to help keep offenders in custody as they prepare to face trial. As Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, I look forward to hearing from but, importantly, listening to more survivors as the bill goes through those committee stages.

The Combating Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 is just another example of the steps this government is taking to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation. Each year, to ensure that we are held accountable by the Australian people for action, the government is now required to report to the Australian people through the parliament on the progress we are making on the recommendations. Protecting the innocent and vulnerable is one of the most important priorities of any government, and sentences for heinous acts of child sexual abuse must reflect community expectations. Legislation dealing with this must keep up to date with transformations in technology.

This bill will go a long way to ensuring the safety of children by giving Commonwealth prosecutors the tools they need to bring perpetrators to justice. While it can't change the past, our action in this chamber should demonstrate that there is a sincere desire to ensure that survivors are heard and that, as far as possible, they are healed. The challenge for all of us is to act in the present, learning those lessons that prevent abuse from being repeated, and work together for the long term to keep children safe, trusting them when they ask for help and doing all we can to respect their innocence. I commend the bill to the chamber.