SPEAKING ON A BILL | JUSTICE LEGISLATION MISCELLANEOUS AMENDMENT BILL 2018

Mr MELHEM (Western Metropolitan)  — I also rise to speak on the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018. I am pleased that this bill will have the support of the house — I certainly hope it does. It is a bill to provide the very support which is needed by emergency workers who put themselves in harm’s way to attend to our citizens, people who need them in the most vulnerable of times. The last thing ambulance officers, paramedics, police officers or firefighters, all of whom are emergency services workers who attend to crises and to saving people’s lives, should expect is to be attacked.

We need to send a strong message to the community at large and to offenders that it is not okay to attack emergency workers, who are attempting to save lives, and that if you attack an emergency worker, you will be given special treatment. That is what the bill does. Yes, we are giving special treatment for special offences. We are making an exception so that if you attack an emergency worker, you will be dealt with a bit differently to any other person. That is not because we believe we should discriminate between humans. Everyone should be equal; that principle is sound. But what we are saying here is that you will be harshly dealt with if you attack emergency workers.

As Mr Rich-Phillips said in his contribution, the previous government made some amendments to that effect in the last Parliament, but since then there have been a number of court cases which have shown some weaknesses in those amendments. This government is learning from that and trying to make sure we close other loopholes and strengthen the intention of the Parliament to make sure our emergency workers are protected.

I can think of a number of cases, but I refer to a recent case in Sydney where ambulance workers were under attack from the family while they were trying to save a particular individual’s life. The ambulance union submitted that they got it wrong, but I suppose that is an example where the paramedics attending the scene need to understand that sometimes parents and loved ones may be under enormous pressure because they could be about to lose their loved one. What the emergency workers or paramedics are trying to do is to save the lives of the very persons they love. Tension is quite normal in those situations, and people do things without thinking them through.

What this bill does — and a fair bit of education should go with it — is basically to educate people at large that it is not okay to go and abuse or attack a paramedic who is trying to save you or save your loved one. You have got to let them do their job without applying any fear or intimidation or even attacking them.

We have seen a number of cases in hospitals. A very well respected surgeon lost his life over a smoking argument, and that was a huge tragedy. When nurses in hospitals attend to patients — in some cases they are elderly patients — they sometimes get abused not by the patients themselves but people related to the patient. As far as I am concerned it does not really matter what the excuse is. No-one should be abused or threatened at work for doing their job.

People should be able to go to work without being subjected to any harassment or physical or mental abuse. So there are a number of examples this bill is trying to address to make sure that our nurses, doctors, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, State Emergency Service and other emergency workers should not be subjected to any attacks or any abuse, whether it is physical or mental, when they are attending, doing their job and saving lives. That is why these amendments in the bill will address some of these points and give the judiciary some guidance in relation to how these cases should be dealt with.

This is a commitment given by the government to make sure that we will continue to work with unions and through the emergency worker harm reference group, which the Premier established some 12 months ago, and we will continue to work through that to make sure that the intent of this legislation is implemented. I will just go briefly through what the bill will specifically address. The bill will ensure that courts cannot impose a community correction order (CCO) for further serious offences including carjacking and home invasion. Also the community correction orders regime we inherited was too broad, so CCOs have been applied in situations where custodial sentences were much more appropriate.

Mr Rich-Phillips talked about the estate agents, so I will not cover that. Also the bill talks about improving the experience of victims and witnesses. The bill makes a range of important improvements to criminal trial processes to reduce delays and protect victims and witnesses. These reforms again build on the government’s significant investments in the statewide intermediaries scheme — skilled communications specialists who will work with victims and help them give evidence to police and in court.

There are also other changes in the bill. Coronial appeals will make it easier for families to have coronial findings reviewed, and the changes will ensure that the Coroners Court has the power to set aside findings in historical cases.

The bill will also ensure special reasons exemptions will apply to all statutory minimum sentence provisions and will be substantially narrowed by the bill to only apply in genuinely unique circumstances. The restriction of special reasons will include changes that mean impairment due to alcohol or drugs can no longer be used as an excuse, the psychological immaturity of a young person cannot be used as a special reason and it also clarifies that if substantial and compelling circumstances are relied on, they must be truly exceptional and rare.

The bill will also give new powers to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to appeal sentences. So the bill will strengthen the DPP’s appeal rights so that they can appeal whenever special reasons are found to exist. This change addresses a gap in the legislation.

The bill will also prevent the use of community correction orders for an additional seven serious offences, implementing a commitment in the 2018–19 community safety statement. Under our changes a custodial sentence will be the only sentencing option for two additional category 1 offences, including aggravated home invasion and aggravated carjacking. The offences of home invasion, carjacking, culpable driving causing death, dangerous driving causing death and armed robbery in certain circumstances will require a custodial order unless special reasons apply.

The bill will also give further consideration to statutory minimum sentences for 16 or 17-year-olds. So the bill will require courts when sentencing a 16 or 17-year-old accused as an adult to take into account any statutory minimum sentence that applies where an adult commits the same offence. As I mentioned earlier, the bill will also make a number of reforms to criminal proceedings to improve the experience of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. The bill will amend the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 to move to the trial court the limited cross-examination of witnesses that occurs during the committal hearing in sexual offences involving children and impaired complainants. This will improve the experience of victims in these cases by helping to address delays that prolong the resolution of the case and inhibit the victim’s opportunity for recovery. The reform will also allow for more efficient and effective cross-examination in these cases.

It is important to put in place legislation, but in addition to the bill it is important to put in place the infrastructure and investments to support it — for example, the 2018–19 state budget has delivered $7.2 million for the victims assistance program to provide enhanced support to victims including through case management and recovery support, the victims of crime helpline and support workers, a further $2.9 million to extend the intermediary scheme, which involves communications specialists helping children and vulnerable people provide evidence to police and in court. These investments build on the Andrews Labor government’s $28.5 million victims package in the 2017–18 budget, which established the intermediary scheme in line with a recommendation from the Victorian Law Reform Commission. That also funded the Office of Public Prosecutions to recruit more victim support workers. So there is a bit of investment as well to make sure we are providing support to the victims of these crimes.

I will finish off by going back to where I started. This bill has been put in place to give our emergency workers the protections they need. It sends a message to the community at large that it is not okay to attack emergency workers when they are attending to saving the lives of Victorians and protecting Victorians, whether they are firefighters in bushfire situations or attending a house or other structure, or paramedics attending when someone is having a heart attack or at a car accident, or nurses attending to patients in hospitals. They should not be subject to physical or mental abuse. They should not be subjected to being spat on, which we have seen on a number of occasions, or being punched, or police being attacked in the line of duty. So this bill will send a message to the perpetrators that they will be given additional attention. There will be mandatory sentencing and they will be locked up. Judges will be required to look at these sorts of cases a bit differently from a normal situation. So if someone attacks a non-emergency person versus an emergency person, they will know they will be likely to get an additional sentence as a result of that.

I think our emergency services deserve our recognition and our protection because they give tremendous service to the state and they are already under a lot of stress and pressure while doing their job, attending these traumatic situations. I think they have enough on their plate, and the last thing we need is to add to their concerns and their stressful situations by someone attacking them because they are doing their job — someone bashing them because they are doing their job. I think this bill will send the right message to the community at large that it is not okay to attack an emergency worker, and if you do, you will be dealt with harshly. With these comments, I commend the bill to the house.