Adoption Reform welcome, but how about a Legislative Agenda?

Legislative Assembly 12 May 2022

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (11:50): I am probably going to disappoint the member for Frankston, but I do want to congratulate him on his contribution and the points he made on that particular element of the bill. I agree it is totally bipartisan, and I think there is wholehearted support across the Parliament for what has been done.

Unfortunately I do have some issues with some other parts of the bill. I guess the fact that we are dealing with yet another omnibus bill, which is a grab bag of bits and pieces, really points to the thinness of the government’s legislative agenda; it is very, very thin.

We have an absolutely broken health system. We have a CBD that is screaming for support and getting next to none. We have an infrastructure agenda that even the Treasurer admits is at risk of collapse because of a shortage of materials; we have heard that in the last few days.

When we are talking about justice, we had a story on Anzac Day in fact warning that there will be a crisis in the courts that could take decades to clear. We have the government refusing to confirm the number of pending cases. We have the Auditor-General saying we need a 179 per cent increase in the number of courtrooms.

A few days after that the figures were released. I can understand why the government was not keen to have them released, because they showed there were 116 000 cases pending in the Magistrates Court; that is up 45 per cent.

Then a couple of days ago we had the Herald Sun reporting that criminals are walking free from jail early because of the backlog—judges reducing sentences to try and get guilty pleas to deal with the backlog. This is a very, very unnecessary and difficult situation for our justice system, but it is a reality.

There is nothing in this bill that addresses any of the multiple crises that we have currently across the state.

Just look at the second-reading speech: clarifying an issue in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010; gender-inclusive language in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities; reforms to the Adoption Act 1984 and the births, deaths and marriages register—which, as I said, is I think the important issue in the whole bill. We have got diversity on the Judicial College of Victoria board, how they appoint alternate directors, a change to VCAT’s jurisdiction, updating of the Crimes at Sea Act 1999 and the secrecy provisions in the Gender Equality Act 2020.

None of those things are problematic in terms of the actual legislation, but they are essentially administrative matters. None of them fix the crisis that our justice system is facing across the state.

Before I speak about the range of matters that are in the bill, I do want to make some comments on part 8, which is the integrated birth certificates part of the bill. Part 8 makes a range of amendments to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 and the Adoption Act. They are quite technical changes, but the outcome is to facilitate integrated birth certificates.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a very important reform, and I think it is a very welcome reform that will enjoy strong support. It picks up recommendation 26 of the Legal and Social Issues Committee’s inquiry into historical forced adoptions. This is an extremely difficult subject, and it has had a difficult history over a long period.

I have no doubt that many of the people that were engaged in the practice of what has come to be known as forced adoptions felt that they were doing the right thing. But we need to be clear: they were not doing the right thing.

It was a practice that led to enormous trauma for far too many, and it is a practice that has had ongoing impacts across the generations—the impact of trauma, mental health impacts and potentially physical health impacts.

This can, should be and I believe is a bipartisan outcome. I am certainly proud of the fact that I was part of the 2012 apology—a part of the government that introduced that apology—and I am proud to be standing here today saying I strongly support the changes that are part of this reform.

Going back to the chronology of the bill, in the time that remains, changes to the Crimes at Sea Act 1999, part 2—irrelevant to Victoria but necessary, absolutely. Changes to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010—now, the member for Malvern talked about clause 7. The advice we had was that it is an avoidance-of-doubt clause. If that is in fact the case, then I think it is quite a reasonable change.

New section 176B adds to the section 176 secrecy provisions to codify a range of exceptions. According to the second-reading speech it is about enabling disclosure where necessary to protect the safety and wellbeing of others.

There is nothing unreasonable there. I think it probably does indicate a weakness in the current FOI system—that the FOI system could be frustrated by hiding behind the secrecy provisions. And perhaps it also indicates a weakness in terms of the mandatory reporting provisions—the fact that we have to beef up this act to ensure that those things are still observed. Surely if we had a system that was doing its job, those provisions would override this, but unfortunately it appears they do not.

The changes to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006—clauses 9 to 24—are largely about changing ‘his or her’ to ‘their’, ‘that person’s’, ‘the child’s’, ‘the member’s’ or ‘the Minister’s’. It is interesting in the style convention that ‘the minister’s’ has a capital ‘m’ even though it does not apply to a particular minister but ‘the member’s’ does not. I am not sure how that evolved, but it is an interesting observation.

Is it a reasonable change? From my perspective, absolutely it is. Personally, I would like to see this change happen a lot quicker than it is happening. I would like to see the legislation just done across the board, sort of similar to the 1958 consolidations of legislation that were undertaken.

I know some people are concerned about these sorts of changes. I suspect it is more about what you are used to than specific pushback about the intent. The fact is many people simply do not like change. That is the fact of it. I recall probably three or four decades ago the debate about whether you have a chair or a chairman or a chairperson.

That debate has largely been forgotten now, and over three or four decades that practice has changed. Now of course we talk about batters et cetera. So from my perspective, the sooner we can get this done the better. It is a debate that we do not need distracting us in difficult times.

Changes to the Judicial College of Victoria Act 2001—the second-reading speech suggested that it was about implementing the recommendations of the review of sexual harassment in the courts and VCAT.

Well, yes, it is about one recommendation, I think it was recommendation 7, but it is also about dealing with the “big” issues again: prohibition on acquiring or disposing of personal property of more than $50 000—I do not know why it was in there in the first place, but this takes it out; removing the reference to the need to execute delegations under seal; board absences approved by the chair not the Attorney-General; and fewer meetings a year—three meetings instead of four. Why not make it four meetings a year rather than saying ‘every three months’? And permitting the chair to appoint a temporary chair.

There is only one change related to the review, as I mentioned, and that is changing the number of directors from eight to nine or ten and boosting the number of people with broad experience in community issues affecting courts from two to three or four. So that is the implementation of recommendation 7.

The Magistrates’ Court Act—as I said, 116 000 cases pending, 45 per cent up. What are we doing? We are changing the mechanism for adjusting the court rules.

VCAT, federal matters—again something needs to be done, but it is hardly a matter of moment. The changes to the Adoption Act—I will not have time to go through them, but they are again an important part of that process and certainly to be supported.

There is nothing remarkable. These are largely administrative reforms. Most of it is housekeeping. The changes that I identified at the outset of my contribution are the important changes. I would like to see far more matters of substance on the legislative agenda of this place. I live in hope.

Public Housing – Well located Slums are still Slums

Legislative Assembly 12 May 2022

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (10:07): We have a housing crisis on the Mornington Peninsula.

We have the sixth-largest number of rough sleepers in the state. We have low—in fact extremely low—vacancy rates in terms of rental properties. We have a genuine crisis.

I thought it might have been instructive to see what the government, particularly the member for Nepean, has been saying about housing, so I searched Hansard.

The member for Nepean has mentioned housing on the Mornington Peninsula once, on 9 September 2021. He asked the Minister for Housing to provide an update to his community about:

… how the Victorian government’s announcement on funding to provide housing support and targeted initiatives to address homelessness in—

the budget—

… will help to reduce homelessness on the Mornington Peninsula.

What was the response? None—absolutely none.

A government member asked in an adjournment for a response from the Minister for Housing and he has had nothing at all. I guess it is hard to talk about what you are doing when you are not actually doing anything.

My own electorate has a number of locations where public housing is literally falling apart—literally collapsing. It is prime real estate, but if you are not going to invest in public housing on the Mornington Peninsula, how about you utilise the assets better? Surely we can use them more effectively.

The sites are great, the buildings are not. Well-located slums are still slums.

There is a real opportunity here to take action and make improvements that will make a real difference to people’s lives. I challenge the minister, who it is great to see at the table, to really get on and do something.

Financial Assistance for Victims of Crime – Welcome, but why has it taken so long?

Legislative Assembly 11 May 2022

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (18:27): I am pleased to have the opportunity this evening to make some comments on the Victims of Crime (Financial Assistance Scheme) Bill 2022.

Given the nature of the legislation we have been dealing with in recent weeks it is in fact a great pleasure to be debating a bill with a long title that says, ‘a Bill for an Act’. So it is not the usual grab bag for rats and mice or bits and pieces, it is not a so-called omnibus bill that covers the whole gamut of a department in order to make it up to 50 pages; it is actually a new act—with, obviously, some amendments to other acts. So it is a pleasure to be able to debate this bill.

My perspective is somewhat different from what we have heard from the member for Broadmeadows and the Minister for Public Transport. I would say: why has this taken so long? We have got a bill where clearly the purpose is:

to provide a new scheme to assist victims of crime in their recovery from acts of violence; and to amend …a range of other acts.

Why has it taken so long?

The second-reading speech clearly confirms the problems we have with the current regime. The minister says the Victorian Law Reform Commission:

found that the experience for victims in applying to VOCAT is highly retraumatising and requires engagement with an often complex, lengthy and delayed process … victims often faced lengthy delays before receiving awards, and were sometimes exposed to the indignity of the perpetrator being notified to attend a hearing.

These issues are not new.

A member interjected.

Mr MORRIS: I am quoting from the second-reading speech.

These issues are not new. For years, victims have been emphatically telling us that more work needs to be done to provide them with real access to justice … They see the system as broken and in urgent need of being rebuilt.

I endorse all of those remarks absolutely. This is not a new issue at all. The current arrangements do cause significant trauma. There are lengthy delays, and yes, the system is broken. I agree with all those statements from the minister.

So why did it take four years to get this bill into the Parliament? A media release of September 2018 says: 

The Government accepts all of the Commission’s recommendations in principle and, if re-elected, will undertake significant work to progress these reforms in the next term of government.

Well, frankly, talk about weasel words in a press release:

undertake significant work to progress these reforms …

The expectation from the public when you make an announcement of this nature and you talk about the next term of government is that it will be done in the next term of government.

But that is not what we see here. We see that almost four years after the media release we have now got a bill in the house and a commencement date 2½ years down the track—a December 2024 commencement date.

The release of the report and the media release was in the shadow of an election. The Victorian Law Reform Commission report confirms, as I said, that the system has failed too many. In fact it is probably fair to say it has failed most.

But four years on, almost in the shadow of the next election, this bill lands. I might be a little bit cynical after almost 16 years in this place, but I do not see, if it takes four years, any genuine commitment to reform.

We have heard lots of fine words this afternoon, lots of talk about commitment, but if it takes four years from the time you have a report with an almost fully formed process—a very, very solid report from the law reform commission—I do not see any genuine commitment, when you take four years to get the legislation and then, as I said a minute ago, another 2½ years to commencement.

The only commitment I see is a commitment to stay on the Treasury benches. Now, that might be a little bit cynical, but, frankly, that is the way I view what we are going through this afternoon.

I am not suggesting for a minute that the legislation is not good—it is. I absolutely support it. The member for Gembrook and the member for Ovens Valley touched on a few niggles, a few concerns that we on this side have, but they are very, very minor concerns. The bill is good.

Frankly, the credit I give the government is the reference to the law reform commission, because the model that we are dealing with this afternoon, as I said, is that of the law reform commission.

I could spend considerable time going through the details in the bill. I will not. Basically in part 2 it lays out eligibility for assistance, whether it be for primary victims, secondary victims or related victims, and there is reference to funeral expenses.

Part 3 deals with the processes—with the mechanics—of granting the assistance.

Part 4 talks about reviewing the assistance, variation of assistance, repayment if required and so on, and then a number of acts have some consequential amendments as well. As I said, basically I think it is a good model. The thing that really irritates me is that it has taken so damn long to get there.

I want to change direction and refer to the report in the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) Alert Digest that was tabled in this place today and in the other place yesterday.

We get these reports every week. They are very rarely mentioned in debate, and when they are, I suggest it is in the nature of a stocking filler. It is an opportunity to pull a few quotes out when you have not got much else to say.

In saying that, I am not diminishing in any way the importance of these reports, because I think the fact that they do not actually get used in debate very much is an indication that the system is working, that the questions that need to be asked actually do get asked. So I am not belittling the reports at all.

In this case there are a couple of things that I want to mention very quickly that relate to the charter, and they are illustrative of the challenges of legislating the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities as this Parliament has done and then trying to fashion legislation such as this, where some of the issues that are laid out in the charter and that are generally universal do cause problems in this sort of legislation.

I want to say clearly that the approach in the legislation is the one I support, but SARC has raised a couple of potential conflicts.

The first is the impact through clause 22, which requires information to be fully made available when a claim is made or when assistance is sought. There are then some provisions in clause 33 that talk about the decision-maker taking account of the criminal record of an applicant or a deceased primary victim.

The issues are essentially around the issue of privacy and whether spent convictions should be considered. I know the committee is writing to the Attorney-General on that.

The other issue is around the admissibility of scheme documents, clauses 63 and 64—the admissibility of materials arising from the scheme and of cross-examination and admissibility of documents by consent.

So there is potentially conflict with the charter and potentially some issues with the statement of compatibility, but as I said, from my perspective what is in the bill is the appropriate direction we should be going.

This is an important piece of legislation. I can see absolutely no reason why it could not have been implemented three years ago; I really do not. Essentially the scheme was designed by the Law Reform Commission. It could have been in place. Just get on and do it, and do it as quickly as you can.