Second Reading SpeechMr Brendan O'Connor (Minister for Home Affairs)
That this bill be now read a second time.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by Australia in 1990 and has achieved almost universal ratification, imposes an obligation on states to protect children, at both the national and international level, from sexual exploitation and abuse.
In 1994, the then Keating Labor government enacted a suite of new criminal offences targeting Australians who engage in the sexual abuse of children overseas, sometimes referred to as 'child sex tourism'. The introduction of these offences fulfilled Australia's international obligations to protect children internationally from sexual exploitation. As a result, Australia has an extensive framework in place to prevent, investigate and prosecute all forms of child exploitation. Since then, sadly, the Commonwealth's response to abuse overseas has stagnated.
This government is committed to taking all necessary action to prevent harm to children from occurring both in Australia and overseas. The sexual exploitation of children is devastating to the children involved, their families, and their communities.
We have a duty to ensure that with overseas travel commonplace, and the internet making information about destinations more accessible, Commonwealth laws provide a significant deterrent to abuse and a sound basis for prosecuting offenders.
Equally, rapidly changing technologies and the anonymity that the internet provides have resulted in unprecedented opportunities for child sex offenders. Our laws need to keep pace with the speed of technological change.
In 2005, the Commonwealth also enacted a range of offences directed at the use of a 'carriage service', such as the internet or a mobile phone, for the sexual exploitation of children. This action was taken in response to the increasing use by offenders of new technical tools, such as the internet, to engage in the sexual exploitation of children.
This bill will implement a range of reforms to the 1994 and 2005 offence regimes to ensure that they remain effective and continue to meet the needs of law enforcement agencies in combating contemporary offending.
The proposed reforms will support the Australian Federal Police (AFP), who play a significant role in ensuring children and young people are safe, whether in a real or virtual environment.
The AFP, through its High Tech Crime Operations unit, is responsible for the investigation of crimes associated with online child sex exploitation and child sex tourism. The Child Protection Operations teams investigate and target offenders who travel offshore and commit sexual offences or sexual exploitation against children. The AFP works closely with foreign law enforcement agencies prosecuting these offenders in the foreign countries or using extraterritorial laws and conducting the prosecutions in Australia. The AFP also combats online child sexual exploitation in partnership with state, territory and international law enforcement agencies, government organisations and industry.
Broader consultation on the proposed reforms between September and October 2009 indicated strong support for the measures in this bill-from state and territory governments, child safety commissioners, and child protection organisations like Child Wise and Save the Children. Save the Children indicated that the changes to the child-sex related offences would 'definitely strengthen Australia's capacity to prosecute would be child sex offenders', whilst Child Wise supported reforms that would see Australia 'again be the leaders in international best practice in relation to the legislation and policing of child sex tourism'.
1. Child sex tourism
The bill improves the existing child sex tourism regime by introducing a number of critical new offences. These new offences ensure that conduct that would be criminal if it occurred in Australia is also criminal if it is perpetrated by Australians overseas.
The bill introduces new offences for steps leading up to actual sexual activity with a child. Australians who are grooming or procuring a child for sexual activity overseas may be punished by up to 12 years or 15 years imprisonment respectively. Preparing for or planning sexual activity with a child overseas will be punishable by 10 years jail.
These offences will make it easier for law enforcement to intervene before actual sexual activity takes place, preventing physical harm to the child occurring.
The government believes that particularly serious conduct should be recognised in Australia's child sex tourism offence regime, through the introduction of specific offences that carry higher penalties.
Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of sexual abuse. Abuse is also often perpetrated by people who are in a position of trust in a child's life. Abuse is also often perpetrated systematically, over an extended period of time.
The bill introduces new aggravated offences where the offender is in a position of trust or authority or where the child victim has a mental impairment and a new offence of persistent sexual abuse of a child, all carrying maximum penalties of 25 years imprisonment.
In addition, new offences of sexual activity with a young person between 16 and 18 where the offender is in a position of trust will subject offenders to penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment.
These offences are consistent with state and territory child sex offences which apply domestically.
The introduction of such offences sends a strong message to Australians who travel overseas to take up positions, such as teachers or aid workers, for the purpose of sexually exploiting children, that such behaviour will not be tolerated.
The bill increases penalties for existing child sex tourism offences from 17 to 20 years imprisonment for sexual intercourse with a child under 16 years, and from 12 to 15 years for other sexual activity with a child under 16 years. The bill also streamlines these offences and makes a clear distinction between these very serious offences, and the new procuring offences.
2. Overseas child pornography and child abuse material offences
Although dealings in child pornography and child abuse material can often be intimately connected with child sex tourism, there are currently no offences applying extraterritorially to dealings in such material by Australians.
Many destination countries lack effective laws against child pornography and child abuse material, or the capacity to enforce them and current Commonwealth, state and territory offences only criminalise dealings in child pornography or child abuse material within Australia.
The bill will insert new offences for dealings in child pornography or child abuse material overseas, ensuring that Australians engaging in such behaviour overseas can be prosecuted in Australia.
Child pornography and child abuse material involve the abuse of children and the amplification and broadcast of the original offence through distribution of the material.
Offenders who are found to be possessing, controlling, producing, distributing, or obtaining such material outside Australia will be subject to maximum penalties of 15 years imprisonment. If the offence involves more than one person and conduct on several occasions, it will be punishable by up to 25 years imprisonment.
This aggravated offence is directed at people who are involved in heinous child pornography and abuse networks and is intended to reflect the increased levels of harm to children resulting from the demand created by these networks.
3. Online offences
Recent cases have demonstrated the scale of contemporary networks. The internet has allowed the development of organised, technologically sophisticated rings of child sexual abusers.
The bill also introduces a new aggravated offence directed at online child pornography networks where the perpetrator is in Australia. This offence will also be subject to the high penalty of 25 years imprisonment, reflecting the gravity of harm caused.
Unfortunately, the internet is creating demand for new material of ever greater levels of depravity and corruption, and the technology provides new opportunities for abuse to take place.
To combat this, the bill introduces two new internet offences. The first is directed at the use of a carriage service to transmit indecent communications to a child, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment. The offence will prevent the use of the internet or mobile phone to expose children to pornographic or indecent material.
The second will criminalise using a carriage service for sexual activity with a child. Changes in technology mean that offenders can commit sexual offences against children online without meeting in 'real life'. For example, an offender might engage in a sexual act in front of a webcam while a child watches online. The offence carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment.
Existing carriage service offences criminalise using the internet or other carriage service, to groom or procure a child for sexual activity. They also criminalise using a carriage service for child pornography or child abuse material. The bill also raises maximum penalties for existing online child pornography and child abuse material offences, from 10 to 15 years imprisonment.
This bill will strengthen online offences, ensuring the regime is sufficient to address the contemporary nature of offending.
4. Postal offences
The bill also introduces a suite of new offences directed at the use of the post for child sex related activity, such as the distribution of child pornography or for grooming or procuring a child.
Despite the advantages which the advent of the internet has brought offenders, there is evidence that some forms of child pornography material, such as homemade videos, are still being distributed through the post.
The new offences will mirror online offences and ensure that offenders are subject to consistent penalties regardless of the medium that they use.
5. Forfeiture of child pornography
The bill will introduce a comprehensive new scheme to allow for the forfeiture of child pornography or child abuse material, or articles containing such material, such as computers, derived from or used in the commission of a Commonwealth child sex offence.
Presently the only way that such material can be forfeited is through a post-conviction application under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This is a lengthy process, and entirely unsuitable. Unless a conviction is obtained, child pornography and child abuse material must be returned to the owner, an outcome which is clearly as absurd as it is inappropriate.
6. Consequential amendments
The bill also makes minor consequential amendments to the Australian Crime Commission Act 2002, the Crimes Act 1914, the Surveillance Devices Act 2004 and the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 to ensure that existing law enforcement powers are available to combat the full suite of Commonwealth child sex offences, including new offences introduced by this bill.
This overdue bill contains a range of measures ensuring that the Commonwealth's legal framework criminalising the sexual exploitation of children is both comprehensive and effective in dealing with contemporary offending.
Since the introduction of child-sex tourism laws in 1994, Australia has been at the forefront of international efforts to combat transnational child sexual exploitation. These reforms will ensure that Australia's laws remain progressive and represent best practice both domestically and internationally.
Keeping our children, and the real and virtual worlds they inhabit, safe from predatory sexual behaviour is something I am confident we all support.
I commend this bill to the House.
Debate (on motion by Mr Coulton ) adjourned.