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.

Wind back the bail laws? – No, keep the community safe!

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (17:50): It is some time since I rose to speak on a matter of public importance. In fact if the truth is known, it is probably some years since I rose to speak on a matter of public importance, but I could not help wanting to contribute to this one because, when you look at a couple of points just in the text of the MPI itself, it has:

… the tough on crime politics of the Andrews Labor government …

Tough on crime? The Andrews government tough on crime? The reality is the Andrews government is not tough on crime, has never been tough on crime and will never be tough on crime. So there is certainly an issue with that assertion.

The second assertion that I take issue with is on the second and third lines of that paragraph:

… produced bail laws that systematically imprison women, children and First Nations people for low-level offending …

You may as well say ‘for stealing a loaf of bread’.

The suggestion that any law passed by this Parliament is going to systematically imprison a particular class of people is just plain ridiculous.

The law does not say bail should not be granted to females. The law does not say bail must not be granted to children. The law does not say bail must not be granted to any Aboriginal person.

A law like that would not only not pass this Parliament, I would be very surprised—and we are the 59th Victorian Parliament—if a law like that had passed the first Victorian Parliament. It is just a completely ridiculous assertion.

Such a law would not only be absolutely unacceptable; it would be reprehensible. It simply would not be passed. It is an unsubstantiated and totally false claim, and it is complete and absolute nonsense.

On the second point I wanted to make, again speaking of unsubstantiated claims, let us have a look at some of the figures in this matter of public importance:

from 2010 to 2020, imprisonment of women rose 174 per cent …

Well, the latest figures that I have access to are the published Corrections Victoria figures up to 30 June 2020, and they seem to be the numbers that the author of this motion was referring to.

According to those figures, on 30 June 2010 there were 313 female prisoners; on 30 June 2020, there were 404 female prisoners. That is an increase of 29 per cent, yet this alleged matter of public importance—I do not dismiss the issue; it is an issue that is worthy of discussion, but for goodness sake let us get the facts right: 29 per cent is not 174 per cent.

The second point is:

more than half the women now in prison have not been sentenced …

On 30 June 2010: unsentenced female prisoners, 22 per cent of the total number; 30 June 2020, 43.1 per cent. Now, it is a big increase—it is almost doubled—but it is not more than 50 per cent, not more than half. It is not as bad an error as the first one, but it is still totally wrong.

When we move to the stats on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, the assertion is that:

from 2015 to 2020—

and I do not know why we did not go back to 2010 or why the author of this matter did not go back to 2010—

the number of Aboriginal people put behind bars—

and I love the emotional language in this, ‘put behind bars’—

rose by 70 per cent …

In 2015 there were 480 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, according to Corrections Victoria, and on 30 June last year there were 718, a 49.6 per cent increase. Again, it is not 70 per cent, it is 49 per cent.

Is it an awful figure? Yes, it is. I do not argue that for a second. But if we are going to have these debates, and these are important issues—and from what I have heard of the debate this afternoon, people have generally taken the issue pretty seriously—let us for goodness sake get the facts right to start with.

We have seen enough people working on alternate facts, alternate truths. We have published figures. Let us just at least confine the discussion to that.

The central assertion of this matter essentially seems to be that bail laws are the problem and that if you take that sentiment to its logical conclusion and bail everyone, prison numbers would be lower—and yes, they would.

According to those figures, again, they would be lower by almost 2500 prisoners—2418.

Of course it is a balancing act. You need to keep the community safe, and you need to be sensible in the approach to bail. But you do not solve the problem by pretending it does not exist.

You do not solve the problem by pretending it will go away if everyone gets bail. After all, let us not forget what prompted the latest round of changes—Bourke Street. Five people dead, 30 people injured, God knows how much trauma.

How many people are still trying to get over those events by someone who should not have been on bail? So let us not forget why the changes were made. You do not solve a problem, as I said, by pretending the problem does not exist.

Now, if the number of Aboriginal people in prison, the imprisonment rate, is rising, and it is, and it is rising steeply as I said, and if you look at the numbers per hundred thousand, which are probably more comparable—1540.8 in June 2015, 1837.7 in June 2020—if that is what is happening, then you need to do something about the underlying issue. You need to find out why it is happening.

We need to be tough on the causes of crime. We need to get to the root of the problem and fix it, and if we have got an increase in the imprisonment rate of that level, we need to find out why.

With regard to female prisoners, the unsentenced number has almost doubled, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. It has almost doubled. Clearly the courts are not keeping up with the pressure of business. We need to find out why that is happening and get the problem solved.

We should not have almost 44 per cent of female prisoners in prison and unsentenced. It just should not happen. But the fact is that it is. We need to find out why we have such a huge backlog, and we need to do something about it.

But pretending this is not a problem and by pretending simply granting bail to everyone is going to solve the problem is not going to do a thing. It is simply going to place members of the community who should not be in danger potentially in danger, and that is not acceptable, I am sure, to anyone in this Parliament.

I just want to briefly comment in the time remaining on the final and fourth point, the calls from the community to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years.

We know the attorneys-general have a national working group looking at this issue. It is an issue that must be taken seriously.

The Chief Commissioner of Police put his points fairly forcefully on 3AW a couple of months ago about the police view. I personally have great sympathy for that view but let us not try to solve the problem here. Let us leave it to the experts, the attorneys-general, and see what they come up with when they put their heads together.

A Drug Court for the County Court

MR MORRIS (Mornington) (18:06): It is a pleasure to join the debate this evening on the Justice Legislation Amendment (Drug Court and Other Matters) Bill 2020.

Of course the centrepiece of the bill is, and most of the debate has been about, the creation of a Drug Court within the County Court of Victoria. But of when a bill is entitled ‘and other matters’, there are a range of other matters that are related in the sense of the justice legislation but not particularly related to the issue of drugs.

They are: changes to the Charities Act 1978 with regard to providing the Attorney-General with an express power of delegation in respect to powers and functions under that act; changes to the Limitation of Actions Act 1958; changes to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998; and—I think this is a very important one—changes with regard to confidentiality for proceedings under the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017.

I think all members, regardless of their position on the original act, would probably be supportive of those changes. There are also some changes to the operation of the Youth Parole Board under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, particularly an expansion of the eligibility for the chair and, I believe, the creation of alternate chair positions or some flexibility with regard to that.

But of course the centrepiece, as I said, is the creation of a division of the County Court to deal with drug cases for a period of three years, to be evaluated after two years of operation—a specialised division targeted at offenders with complex needs, whether that be drugs in the common sense or alcohol, which of course we know is the drug that, despite the ravages of ice, still does the most harm in the Victorian community.

Those people are being targeted because we know that those who have a dependency on drugs and those who have a dependency on alcohol do have a higher risk of recidivism—not only recidivism but escalating levels of criminal behaviour, which if it is allowed to continue without intervention simply leads to a revolving door of crime and effectively a life entirely wasted and, under our system at least, spent mostly within the prison system. The aim of the bill is to intervene, and there are some figures around the success of that. I will come back to that in a minute.

I wanted to make some comment first about the apparent divide or the alleged divide in policy approaches between the two sides.

Certainly there is a difference of views between the opposition and the government on a range of matters when it comes to drug policy, but I think it is fair to say overall and for a very long period, while there might be differences at the edges, the approach is pretty much bipartisan. And the key point is that we all—and have historically from the days of certainly the Hamer government on, when drug policy started to become an issue—treat drug addiction in Victoria as a health problem. That is what it is.

The Minister for Corrections was talking about the approach in New Jersey and a range of other places and suggesting that there was something strange about the Republican Party actually being a proponent of the measures. I think the important thing is that many US states are now starting to realise that genuinely drug addiction is a health problem and you do not—and we recognised this early on—not solve the problem of addiction with incarceration.

If you look at the numbers of people that are in US prisons simply because of possession of drugs or because they have smoked a few joints, it is mind-boggling and it is scary. Certainly, there have been a number of initiatives in terms of developing a diversionary approach, which is quite different to the mainstream US approach.

One that I know has been particularly successful relates to defence veterans, who have a high preponderance of addiction, and literally thousands of veterans over the last few years have got their lives back on track and got themselves out of the justice system in the US because of the success of that diversionary program.

As I say, in Victoria we recognised the benefit of that approach a very long time ago, but when you go and see it in action, as I did some 13 years ago with the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee in a number of US states, the difference in the approach is stark.

While it might be okay for the government to try to score a few debating points in here and have an argument around the edges, I would suggest that the general course on this policy has in fact been pretty much bipartisan. In fact I think the Minister for Corrections was making a claim that all the initiatives have come from the Labor side of the table—well, that is actually not true.

But if the majority has come from the Labor side, given the number of years Labor has been in government over the last two decades—

Mr Carroll: You were here for four years.

Mr MORRIS: Yes, we were there four years—you have been there 17 years, and if you look at the number of initiatives per term, I would say we are well in front.

I did want to just make the point about the introduction of the first family drug treatment centre in the last coalition government. That is a significant initiative which has worked very, very well.

Let us not suggest either that there is some great chasm in terms of policy or that all the good ideas come from one side, because neither of those arguments is true.

With regard to what is proposed with the Drug Court, I do not intend to go through the detail, but I did just want to make the point that the evaluation which was undertaken in 2014 by KPMG found that between July 2010 and June 2013 the program had been successful in reducing overall offending.

There are a couple of key findings: a 31 per cent lower rate of reoffending for the Drug Court of Victoria, the Magistrates Court, compared with the control cohort under that study, and a 34 per cent lower rate of reoffending. Those are good outcomes. You would like to think they could be better, but it is certainly worthwhile.

I guess the only concern I have frankly is that it has taken as long as it has to get from that evaluation in 2014 to the legislation in 2020. I would have liked to have seen the wheels of justice turning a little more hastily in this context.

There are some concerns with regard to the cost of administering drug courts.

If you look at them on a per offender basis, they are not cheap to operate. On the other hand, if you look at the cost to the community of having that higher rate of recidivism, that higher rate of incarceration, that is not cheap either.

Iyou are talking about an estimated cost per offender of almost $300 000, and that is up significantly—54 per cent in three years—so I think that is an issue. But in the context of the benefits there is no argument.

There are some issues around who is eligible; the member for Caulfield laid those out. But beyond that I think it is important that we recognise what we have in common when it comes to treating drugs and not try and score points on what might be minor variations.

Legislative Assembly 16 June 2020

Crime Tsunami Continues

On another matter, recently released figures confirm the impact of Victoria’s crime tsunami on insurance claims.

Home burglaries claims have grown by almost 30 per cent in the past two years, which compares very unfavourably with New South Wales, which has seen an increase of only 2 per cent in the same period. Amazingly, in the last 12 months, burglary claims have totalled $72 million in Victoria, compared with only $61 million in New South Wales, despite their significantly larger population.

And it gets worse.

Victorians have experienced a 61.7 per cent increase in motor vehicle theft claims over the past two years. In contrast, there was a significant decline in New South Wales of almost 12 per cent.

With the enormous escalation of insurance company payouts, premium costs can only rise—in fact, go through the roof.

Yet again it is left to ordinary law-abiding Victorians to pay the price for the Premier’s failure to protect our community.

A Zero Tolerance Approach to all Crimes

We need to send a strong message of zero tolerance on crime in Mornington.

The policy of treating fuel drive-offs as a civil rather than criminal matter hasn’t worked.

Fuel retailers have reported an increase in drive-offs and other associated criminal behaviours. Across Australia, fuel theft costs retailers $60 million per annum.

Further, fuel drive-offs can sometimes also be associated with attacks on retail staff and theft of other retail products, putting employees, customers and business owners at personal risk.

Recently, more and more crimes aren’t being treated as crimes – from low level drug taking to tap and go fraud, to treating fuel drive offs as a civil, rather than a criminal offence and prisoners having their fines wiped.

In response to this increase in fuel drive-offs, the fuel retail industry has invested tens of millions of dollars in better surveillance, security and crime prevention but it’s now time for this investment to be backed by the police and justice system.

A Guy Government will by 1 July 2019:

  • Work with Victoria Police so that all fuel drive-offs with non-innocent, criminal intent will be treated as criminal theft offences and not as civil matters. If required, legislation will be introduced to mandate that fuel theft is treated as a criminal offence.
  • Work with Victoria Police to recommit to the presumption that all fuel drive-offs are initially investigated as criminal offences.
  • A ‘zero-tolerance’ investigatory and enforcement regime to be established, the treatment of fuel drive-offs as civil matters has absolutely no deterrent effect on would be or recidivist offenders. Allowing fuel drive-off offenders to get away with theft can lead to an escalation in the seriousness of offender behaviour.
  • A Victoria Police centrally administered fuel drive-off/theft online reporting system to be developed and introduced. This will ensure an improved assessment and investigatory process for alleged offences, as reported by fuel retailers, modelled on the fuel drive-offs central reporting process introduced by NSW Police in 2013.
  • Introduction of a new specific Victoria offence code, to the Crimes Act 1958 offence of theft, detailing ‘fuel drive-off’, by Victoria Police in consultation with the Crime Statistics Agency, which will improve data integrity and investigatory efforts in identifying offenders and patterns of offence behaviour.
  • The establishment of an improved information sharing interface system or virtual ‘stolen plate clearing house’ between Victoria Police and VicRoads to quickly identify stolen numberplates in a more timely and efficient manner thereby leading to earlier detection of offending plates and assist in mitigating fuel drive-off offences.
  • Work with industry to continue to implement improved security and video surveillance measures, including technology for the recognition of stolen plates, unregistered and stolen vehicles, to assist retailers in mitigating offending in the first instance as well as improving investigatory outcomes in the identification of offenders and proving criminal intent.
  • The establishment of a taskforce to oversee the implementation and ongoing effectiveness of these reforms, co-chaired by the Police Minister and the Small Business Minister and to include the Chief Commissioner or their representative, the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores and other representatives of industry as required.

Comments attributable to Leader of the Opposition, Matthew Guy:

I want a safer Victoria and that means adopting a zero tolerance approach to crime.

Victorians who do the right thing and live by the law have had enough of excuses from criminals.

Victorians will have a choice at the next election of more of the same on law and order from Daniel Andrews or real change and a tougher approach from a Liberal Nationals Government I lead.

Comments attributable to Member for Mornington, David Morris MP:

Local fuel retailers have been telling me they need this policy to help stem the financial losses their small businesses are facing.

That’s why we are sending a loud message that we won’t make excuses for people who break laws by stealing.

Comments attributable to Jeff Rogut, CEO Australasian Association of Convenience Stores Ltd:

Fuel drive offs in Victoria have escalated alarmingly in recent years adding cost pressures for businesses and consumers and alike.

I welcome the policy of the Liberal Nationals Coalition which is the most comprehensive response to fuel drive offs of any Australian jurisdiction.