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Adoption Reform welcome, but how about a Legislative Agenda?

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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.