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

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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.