The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019 is a bill that is close to my heart. As a mother of three girls, I know how terrifying the prospect of child exploitation, starting from the online world, is to parents.
As a barrister and former prosecutor, I have dragged ordinary people before the courts to answer charges of the most abhorrent behaviour—acts that make me feel sick to my stomach to recall them. Over and over, I heard defence counsel say crimes about child exploitation images are victimless crimes. Victimless crimes? It made me so angry because in every picture there was a real child—a barbaric moment of their short lives was captured and circulated among the most repugnant people on the internet for their own gratification.
Sadly, those image based offences are not the worst offences. Child abuse is ordered over the internet—barbarism inflicted to order, in exchange for cash, upon children anywhere in the world. Children are abducted and held prisoner for this vile business, and their innocence is sold by their parents, the people who are supposed to protect them. Grooming of children over the internet for sexual abuse is too common, too easy, yet it is so hard to counter in a time when digital connectivity has never been greater. Indeed, with more children of late being at home and learning and spending their recreation time online, the risk has never been higher. Last year there were 18,000 complaints made in Australia about crimes of this kind. That was double the year before. Authorities are expecting that number to increase again this year.
I have worked with and I deeply respect those people who continue to work to protect all of our children from these kinds of nasty paedophiles. The police officers in Task Force Argos, based in Queensland, my home state, are right up there with the best in the world. They work with and are trusted by their international counterparts, because these crimes have puzzle pieces spread all over the internet and all over the world. To the girls and boys of Task Force Argos: thank you very much. To the champions at the AFP, my former employer: thank you. Your enduring these horrible crimes every day makes our community safer for all of our children. At a personal level, I know it often takes a really serious personal toll on each and every one of you.
Here's something that victims, parents, investigating officers and prosecutors have to deal with every day: the penalties imposed for these offences are too often too low. In 2018-19, 39 per cent of convicted Commonwealth child sex offenders did not spend a single day in prison—not one. I think the mums and dads at home would be horrified to hear that statistic. It's important we value the discretion we give to judges to weigh up the circumstances of the case, but it's not as though the need for these penalties to be taken seriously is a message that is new. It's not something anyone could be taken by surprise on. Thirty-nine per cent spend not a single day in prison. Despite the innocence of children stolen, it just does not wash.
So what does this bill do? Well, it does four things, broadly speaking. Firstly, it introduces new offences related to grooming activities and websites and online platforms that are designed to host child abuse material. Secondly, it introduces new aggravated offences for the most horrific types of child abuse engaged in while someone is outside of Australia, which again, sadly, is far too common, where an Australian travels to another country and inflicts upon a child—who is not Australian, usually—cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Thirdly, it implements a range of presumptions against bail and presumptions for imprisonment, meaning it will be more likely that child sex offenders go to prison, that they stay there for longer and that it is harder for them to get bail. Finally, it introduces mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious types of child sex offences and for those who are repeat offenders, to address the completely unacceptable situation we face at the moment of 39 per cent of offenders last year not spending a single day in jail. The bill also implements recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to protect vulnerable witnesses by allowing them the automatic right to give evidence via a video recorded interview and prohibiting their cross-examination at committal to minimise the number of times the horror of their experience need be revisited upon them.
This bill complements a wide range of reforms that have already been brought in by the coalition in this field. We brought in tough new measures to stop child sex offenders from travelling overseas to abuse children; we brought in Carly's Law, which targets online predators who use the internet to prepare or plan to sexually abuse children; and we have brought in a range of recommendations arising from the royal commission that I mentioned a moment ago that improve the Commonwealth framework for offences relating to child abuse material, overseas child sexual abuse, the use of child-like sex dolls, forced marriage, the failure of people to report child sexual abuse—a very important recommendation arising from the royal commission—and the failure to protect children from such abuse.
We have heard some interesting remarks from those on the Labor side today about how committed they are to this bill, but none of that hides the facts. The first of those facts is that Labor refused to support this bill when it was last before the parliament, in 2017. So they might talk the talk but they definitely don't have a record of walking the walk. And, as they foreshadow their plans to bring in amendments to this bill today to remove those aspects that are directed at increasing the penalties that are inflicted upon convicted child sex offenders, we see more evidence that they don't quite have the stomach to do what needs to be done today either. They say they don't support mandatory sentencing on principle, and I understand that mandatory sentencing is a very serious measure, but it strikes me that offences don't get all that much more serious than these. In any event, those opposite are not consistent in their application of their opposition to mandatory sentencing on principle. If they truly oppose mandatory sentencing, why, under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, did they support introducing mandatory sentencing for people who engage in people-smuggling offences? If people smuggling is serious enough to justify mandatory sentencing and to allow the principles of the Labor Party to be set aside, well, why not this? Why not the safety of your children? Why not the safety of my children? I have no qualms in standing up for the measures in this bill any day of the week. So let's go to what they are.
The first thing that was said by those on the other side about mandatory sentencing, both in the committee report and before the chamber today, was that there is very little evidence that mandatory sentencing increases public safety. They say that's the reason why they don't support it on principle. Well, if that were the case, they wouldn't have supported mandatory sentencing in the past. It's also not borne out by circumstances where mandatory sentencing has been effective. I'll give you an example. When the Western Australian state Liberal government introduced mandatory sentencing provisions for assaults against police and other officers, in just a 12-month period—almost immediately—there was a 28 per cent drop in assaults against police. Twenty-eight per cent is an awful lot of difference. That's just one of many examples. To say that there is zero evidence of the value of this sits very uncomfortably with the Western Australian experience as well as with Labor's past conduct.
The other thing we can say about this is that the academic opposition to mandatory sentencing that is often proffered is that it's insufficiently flexible to provide reasons for people to cooperate with the justice system. What's interesting about that is that the arguments about mandatory sentencing that have been brought to this chamber today have ignored the fact that the way these mandatory minimum penalties have been structured in this bill isn't the kind of flat mandatory sentencing that is analysed in the academic context. In fact, this bill provides for considerable flexibility so that there remain incentives for people to plead guilty to their offences, for instance, and for people to not reoffend. Those mandatory elements kick in at the second offence. So it really is a shallow analysis to say that the academic arguments proffered against mandatory sentencing apply here.
Let me explain how it's going to work in this context. If a total sentence is three years or less, a court retains the ability to fully suspend a sentence but only in very limited circumstances—where it is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances. Those opposite suggest that the removal of flexibility is going to see people refuse to plead guilty because their particular circumstances aren't going to be able to be taken into account, but there is flexibility in the bill for those sentences of three years or less. Those sentences that are of more than three years are the really serious ones, and I'm pretty comfortable that, for very serious child sex offences, a mandatory penalty to be served in custody passes the pub test.
The real-life stories here should be enough to bring tears to the eyes of those opposite, those who are scoffing now at the fact that this stuff is unacceptable. I'll give you an example. A Brisbane man named Gordon Chalmers was an academic, a teacher who connected well with his students. He's alleged to have committed 931 offences against children. His tactics were explained by the police officers involved in that case. He'd pretend online that he was Justin Bieber and strike up a conversation with children—girls as young as 13. One hundred and fifty-seven children fell into his trap. But he wasn't Justin Bieber. He was a polite, bookish, 42-year-old husband and a father of two who allegedly sent messages in the voice of Justin Bieber. He listened. He was a friend to those children online. Then, after isolating them and turning them to distrusting their parents, he'd ask for a naked selfie or a brief pornographic act. He convinced those children to do things they would never have done otherwise, and then, once he had that digital image or video in his hand, he would use it to blackmail them into real-life abhorrent acts. This isn't in any way unique. This is the reality that parents face now.
I'm proud of the work this government's been doing to try and help parents understand what they need to do to protect their children and the role that every parent must play in being vigilant, making sure they know not just what their children are doing online but the ins and outs of how those programs and apps are used. But this isn't a problem that's going away, and this government is prepared to fight it every day of the week.