Family Violence Protection Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2017

Written on the 26 May 2017

25 May 2017

COUNCIL 

Second reading

GEORGIE CROZIER

 

Motion of Mr JENNINGS (Special Minister of State).

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan)

 

I rise this morning to speak on the Family Violence Protection Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2017, which has been introduced by the government and is being debated in the Legislative Council today. Can I say at the outset that this is a very complex bill. It is a technical bill that amends a number of acts, and I want to go through those, because I think that it will demonstrate the depth of this bill. While the intent of the bill is to, as the bill description says, enable the sharing of information for the protection of victims of family violence, I do have some concerns in terms of how that actually might be achieved and how the government will implement all of the parts of this bill.

As we know, family violence has been a concern of the community for many years. The government had a mandate to undertake a royal commission and I commend the royal commission for the work that it undertook but I do have some concerns that the government stated before the royal commission even handed down its recommendations, findings and report that it would implement all of the recommendations. As we know, there are 227 recommendations in that very thorough report in its terms of reference and the issues that the commission addressed, and I commend them for that, as I said. I would also like to put on record that I think there is very strong goodwill from all levels of the community and all levels of government to look at this issue. I also know that from the federal government, through to state governments and down to local governments around the country, people are dealing with this issue, as we are here in Victoria.

I will now go to what this bill sets out to do, which is to amend the Family Violence Protection Act 2008, primarily to establish a scheme for sharing information between prescribed entities relevant to assessing and managing the risk of family violence, to develop a new family violence risk assessment and risk management framework and to implement the recommendations from the royal commission that I mentioned recommendations 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7.

I will go into the main provisions of the bill, because as I said, this is a complex and technical bill, and I think that it will be up to the government to ensure its implementation. And I will be watching with great interest to see how that might occur. As set out in clause 1 of this bill, the bill makes consequential and miscellaneous amendments to numerous acts. Just bear with me, because I think it is important for members to understand the number of acts that this bill amends, why I say that the bill is complex and technical and why I therefore have some concerns with its full implementation.

The bill amends the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005; the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012, the Confiscation Act 1997, the Disability Act 2006, the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, the Firearms Act 1996, the Freedom of Information Act 1982, the Health Records Act 2001, the Health Services Act 1988, the Human Services (Complex Needs) Act 2009, the Infringements Act 2006, the Personal Safety Intervention orders Act 2010, the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014, the Sentencing Act 1991 and the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996. They are substantial acts in themselves that will be looked at during the consideration of this particular bill and the consequential amendments it proposes. So why did I read out all of the acts that are impacted by this bill? Because of information sharing. Of course the intent is to enable information sharing to keep victims of family violence and domestic violence safe.

As we know, there are too many people that suffer at the hands of violent repeat perpetrators of family violence, and too many women and men die at the hands of their partners. Of course we know that far too many women are victims. There is the terrible toll that it takes on children who are implicated by being involved in a family violence scenario: watching their parents or a parent and their partner being subjected to some at times horrific crimes.

I know that the Premier has made this his number one law and order issue. We know that; he has stated that. In a forward to Ending Family Violence: Victoria's Plan for Change, the Premier said:

In the past, governments have not done enough to protect vulnerable women and children from family violence. This plan changes that.

That is a very big statement in terms of what the government has set out to do. I have concerns about the implementation of this because of how it will actually be played out in the field of the practical assessments that need to be done and how the information can be shared amongst the agencies, because the agencies themselves are big and complex.

Of course we know that the government itself has chopped and changed in this area. We have a dedicated Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence who has been sidelined by her own Premier in relation to implementing what she argued for and who the Premier at one point supported. The minister has very little responsibility in regard to this. Now we have the Special Minister of State, who seems to be the special minister for everything actually, and goodness knows where he sits. Is it in the Department of Premier and Cabinet? Is it in the Department of Health and Human Services? This makes Barry Jones's Noodle Nation look like a walk in the park. This is going to be very complex and difficult to navigate. As has been said before, and as the Royal Commission into Family Violence itself said, victims have great difficulty in navigating how they can get through services. I fear that in relation to what needs to be done that the government itself might hold things up.

It brings me to the point about those people who are affected on the ground. If we are really serious about addressing this, if the Premier himself is really serious about addressing this, then surely some of those sentencing regimes and sentencing decisions that are being made need to be a little bit more in line with community expectations. It reminds me of an article yesterday that involved the dreadful case of Amanda Dawson, a mother of four who died at the hands of her ex-lover on 13 October 2016. The jilted lover, as the article refers to him, would not accept her ending of the relationship. This goes to the heart of what we are talking about. This mother of four had a right to end that relationship; she had a right not to be in such a situation. I am not sure of the details of course, because I was not privy to all of those, but this is another victim at the hands of a perpetrator. He bashed Ms Dawson and unfortunately and tragically she lost her life. The man involved was initially charged with murder and then it was downgraded to manslaughter.

In terms of the sentencing that needs to be done, if the Premier is really serious about dealing with this, then a message needs to be sent to these perpetrators that you cannot possibly get away with this. This is a serious crime that has serious implications if you are charged. I think that is one thing where this government has let down and is letting down the community by not being strong enough on sentencing regimes. It should be sending a message to the judiciary that you cannot have these soft sentences for this poor woman's family of, I think it was, seven years.

An honourable member Nine years.

Ms CROZIER Nine years, thank you. And he is eligible for parole after four years and nine months. For that family, as they said, it is never going to bring their mother back, their friend back, their wife back. It just goes to show the lack of sentencing that is being undertaken in this state. That is why I am very pleased to be a part of Matthew Guy's team. We actually want to strengthen this and make sure that a perpetrator such as the murderer of Ms Dawson has a significant and commensurate sentence that equates to her hideous and tragic death. I have digressed slightly, but I think it goes to the point of all of us wanting to ensure that those sorts of violent acts can come to an end and that we are all working together on that. As I said, this is not an initiative of this government; governments of all persuasions have been working on how to deal with this.

Whilst I again commend the royal commission, I want to go to some of its recommendations that this particular bill addresses. It does address recommendation 5 in relation to information sharing. The government had 12 months to implement this. I am cautious, if you like, about the time frames. That is why I make the point about how in a way it was irresponsible of the Premier to say that he would implement all these recommendations without seeing the report, because of the unintended consequences of what was laid out in the recommendations of the royal commission. But in practical terms, in enabling governments to do that, I think it has been a great folly that the Premier has put himself out there and now we are getting a rushed decision in relation to putting all of those recommendations in the time frames that were set by the royal commission over 12 months ago.

The royal commission handed down its report in March of last year. We are now into nearly the end of May well over 12 months and yet there is very little being undertaken. There has been a lot of talk and there has been a lot of discussion, but that is the issue the practicalities of what can be achieved and how it can be achieved. I see it as a folly to actually be making such a massive comment to the community with that expectation that we will implement all those recommendations. As I said, recommendation 5 had to be implemented within 12 months, and it was to amend the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 to create a specific family violence information-sharing regime within 12 months, as I have mentioned. The recommendation states:

The new regime should be consistent with the guiding principles and design elements described in this report.

The report is extensive and goes into a lot of detail in relation to that, and if you go through the report you will see many references to information sharing. One of the points in terms of that was to look at how the common risk assessment framework (CRAF) could be used in that framework. The CRAF system, which has been around for some time, aims to help practitioners and professionals identify and respond to risk factors associated with family violence. It was developed in consultation with a number of agencies who are dealing with family violence all the time, meaning the police, the courts and those agencies and family violence service providers on the ground who are the frontline workers dealing with those people who are seeking their support, assistance and guidance in how to deal with the family violence issues that they might present with.

As we know, family violence can be very complex. There is not a one-notion idea of what family violence is for one individual that will fit the next individual. It is complex, and I think we all understand and acknowledge that. We know that there are factors that can exacerbate family violence, such as drugs and alcohol, such as mental health, such as financial pressure and such as cultural practices or having a different cultural understanding to what the laws that we have here in Victoria might expect. Whilst we know that family violence can be emotional, sexual and physical, it is also at an alarming rate, I might add being seen in the elderly, where the elderly are being abused by their own loved ones, again sometimes because of these other issues that might be affecting their family members.

It is important, I think, that we understand the complexities, and that is why this particular bill needs to ensure that the complexities of all those issues are actually understood. As I said, the intent of information sharing amongst these agencies that are dealing with family violence is well meaning, if I can use that term, but again I think there have been some issues raised by the sector themselves. Less than 24 hours ago a sector came and highlighted to the opposition their concerns, saying that they had been raising these concerns with the government for months and months and months. I find it extraordinary, actually, that the sector who the government has said is fully on board and working with them have raised concerns with the government and yet we are in here debating this bill because those issues have not been resolved. I think that sends a huge warning signal on how this particular piece of legislation has perhaps inadvertently been rushed through to meet the time lines that the Premier put on himself. I am referring to Women's Legal Service Victoria, which has raised concerns I think with not only opposition members but also members of other parties in here talking on this bill.

The Family Violence Steering Committee has a huge range of agencies, organisations and advocates in relation to their role. It is co-chaired by Fiona McCormack, the CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria. It was, I might add, part of the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence's role, but she got shafted by the Premier, and now Ms McCormack has taken over that role. I find it somewhat bemusing not bemusing, extraordinary to say that the dedicated minister for this area does not have a position on this steering committee, because the membership of this committee is huge. It takes in parts of the government from the Department of Premier and Cabinet. It takes in Domestic Violence Victoria, as I mentioned. It has representation from the Indigenous Family Violence Partnership Forum and the Department of Health and Human Services. The Commission for Children and Young People are represented on this committee. Safe Steps, various legal services, Victoria Legal Aid and various members of the academia are on this steering committee, as well as the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the Victorian Council of Social Service, Victoria Police, Women's Health Victoria, the Municipal Association of Victoria, the Luke Batty Foundation, the commissioner for gender and sexuality and regional integration coordinators. That is the extent of this steering committee. Yet the minister who has got a dedicated role in the prevention of family violence many of these agencies are dealing with those preventative measures is not on this steering committee. And I can go on, actually. There are also members from CASA, which is very important the Centre Against Sexual Assault, of course the Victorian Multicultural Commission, No To Violence, men's referral services, Seniors Rights Victoria, the Council to Homeless Persons, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Incorporated, the Magistrates Court, the Department of Education and Training, Women with Disabilities Victoria and the Department of Justice and Regulation.

The point I am making is there are lots of agencies and individuals with expertise, knowledge and experience in this area who are giving advice to the government, but clearly that is not being undertaken thoroughly by the government, because there is no resolution to this issue, the concerns that they have or indeed some of those unintended consequences that might arise.

I think that needs to be understood by members because potentially, as I said, this bill, which is technical and encompasses a range of organisations and issues could in fact have an adverse outcome, and that is the last thing we want. As I said, the intent is there for information sharing; it is just about the ability to implement it.

If I can look at the clauses, the main provisions of the bill, as I said, clause 5 amends section 2 of the principal act to insert a new way by which the principal act aims to achieve its purposes, specifically, by providing for the sharing of information that is relevant to assessing and managing a risk of family violence. That is the first clause that I wanted to highlight.

Clause 7, which is a significant clause in the bill and I think there are some elements in this clause where some situations and issues may arise in effect inserts new part 5A containing the operative provisions of the bill, including key definitions, the circumstances in which information can be shared, which entities can share information and how information can be used. This goes to the heart of this privacy issue because it is about information that can be shared, which entities can share that information and then how that information can be used. I think that is really important. The clause provides that information can be shared by either a risk assessment entity or a protection entity for either a family violence assessment purpose or a family violence protection purpose without the consent of the perpetrator and where sharing without the consent of the victim is necessary to lessen or prevent a serious threat. It defines confidential information as health information; personal information, including sensitive information; unique identifiers; and identifiers.

That is really what I am talking about in terms of the complexity because family violence is not one size fits all; it is complex. There are many, many issues that can make up family violence, and the last thing you want to do is prevent anybody from feeling confident enough to come forward and be able to seek that protection if they require it. Of course we have seen that in terms of what has happened in recent times with child abuse. That issue, a bit like this issue, was not talked about in public circles. It was a lot of the time behind closed doors, and with the various inquiries and the public discussion that has come out you are seeing more people having the confidence to come forward to talk about sometimes the most horrific abuse they experienced as children. We see the confidence that they have coming forward if they know the systems are robust, and you want that to occur with victims of family violence so that they are believed whether it is a woman, a child or a partner in a same-sex relationship, if they have the confidence to come out and seek that assistance and have the guarantee that the information they are giving or sharing will be used in the appropriate manner.

I will speak more later, as I understand we will be going into committee later in the day because the government, I believe, has some concerns now at the 11th hour in relation to this bill as well. They want to adjourn it off and then come back in after they have tried to work out the issues that have been raised. I think that in itself demonstrates where this government is in so many issues. They are rushing things through. They are not putting legislation through properly and appropriately. They are not taking the necessary time or the consultation required to get this right. This does need to be right so that we do not have an absolutely chaotic situation if there are unintended consequences about information sharing.

As I have said, we have seen it so many times with this government, whether it is ramming through decisions like sky rail or what we saw yesterday with the Country Fire Authority (CFA), combining those two issues of compensation claims for firefighters with cancer and meeting the United Firefighters Union's (UFU) demands. Honest to goodness! What on earth has Peter Marshall got over the Premier? It just is extraordinary to think that this man has so much power over the Premier that he is trying to ram his piece of legislation through with the enterprise bargaining agreement and that the government has the audacity to tie the cancer issue to it. I digress, I know, Acting President, but I am making the point about the ramming through of legislation and not getting it right. I am drawing those two parallels even though they are completely unrelated but it is about the government's approach and process.

Mr Dalidakis You said it.

Ms CROZIER Mr Dalidakis, I will say it again: it is about the government's approach and process. They are ramming stuff through without taking into consideration the concerns. The consultation was not done with various members of the CFA and others in relation to

Mr Dalidakis interjected.

Ms CROZIER No, you raised it. I will go through it again, Acting President. I say the parallel between the ramming through of legislation and not getting it right

Mr Dalidakis On a point of order, Acting President, yes, we afford a broad latitude in debating legislation in this place; however, the speaker to the bill, Ms Crozier, has deviated further from 'a greater latitude', and I ask you to bring her back to the legislation before this place.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Ramsay) Order! On this occasion I must agree with Mr Dalidakis. I uphold the point of order and ask Ms Crozier to come back to the detail of the bill.

Ms CROZIER I am very happy to come back to the detail of the bill, but I still make the point about the government's processes of putting legislation into the house without proper consultation, as we have seen from the sector, whose representatives have come to us over the past 24 hours with their concerns. We will have to adjourn debate on this bill because the government has now got concerns. Honestly, this just demonstrates the mess this government is in. They cannot get anything right in the last few days. This bill is just another example. This is too important an issue to get wrong if you are talking about people's information and the protection of victims of family violence.

I will say again that in relation to the ramming through of legislation it will be up to the community to make up its mind, but I think it was extraordinary that yesterday and today we had advertisements I am digressing again I realise, Acting President from the union on the CFA, so they obviously had more input than this Parliament did in relation to the elements of the bill that were discussed in the Assembly yesterday in relation to the CFA and UFU.

Nevertheless, back to this bill. I will not digress to that point again. I think I have made my point, Mr Dalidakis; I can see you smiling over there. I say again that information sharing and the unintended consequences could raise some major concerns. As I said earlier in my contribution, the royal commission did make the point about information sharing being critical, and it said there were barriers to that. I think we can all identify with that in terms of the various agencies that are undertaking work, and certainly I am well aware of some of those barriers and concerns that have been raised with me directly in relation to the huge demand that has come about in the last couple of years since the tragic death of Luke Batty and the very brave actions of Rosie Batty in terms of her putting this issue into the public domain. As I said, family violence and child abuse have been often talked about behind closed doors. I think it stunned the Australian community, not just the Victorian and local community, in relation to where Luke was tragically killed. Rosie's campaign on this and her work as Australian of the Year brought it to the fore, and hence we have had many more people who have, as I said, had the confidence to come out and speak about these issues and seek the support that they require.

As I said, a lot of these agencies and organisations have spoken to me about that increased demand an increased demand in being able to meet the needs of women, children and other victims who feel that there are not enough services or provision to manage their particular cases. That is what I am concerned about in terms of what we need to be doing, because those numbers are rising each year. We see that from the police and crime statistics. We see the numbers of family violence incidents being recorded, and they are growing every year. We need to address the needs of the people who come forward that we know about. We do not want to be delaying that and of course we want to be sharing that information, but to be able to do that I think it needs to be very well and carefully undertaken so that you do not get it wrong, as I have previously mentioned.

Whilst it sounds easy to do, in real terms, in practical terms, it is very complex and difficult. There are multiple agencies we are talking about. It can be health services. It can be the police. It can be the Department of Health and Human Services because it is a child protection issue. There are housing issues. As we know, there are a whole range of issues that are sensitive and you do not want to be putting anyone in a position where they feel that they do not or will not have the support to be able to come forward.

In relation to that I think it is pretty evident that when the government took office they combined some of the departments, and we have these mega departments that have got IT systems in place that they do not even talk with. We have got that issue alone within government, let alone within those agencies outside, whether it be courts, police, health services or family violence service providers themselves. So are we putting the cart before the horse in relation to even the departments being able to have information sharing across one another? I do question the government's ability to manage that as well. It is certainly something that I want to understand as to whether the government has that ability to share the information across those different departments.

The royal commission said there were limitations to the system and they have stated that and I am referring to the summary there are a range of services a victim might need at different times, including at points of crisis at different times. They have identified that they are not well coordinated and that the gaining of access and support can be difficult. As they state, that is exacerbated by an outdated information technology system, and they go on to talk about development and use of technological solutions. I think this is one of the areas that the royal commission did some very good work in, in really understanding that in 2017, when we have got so much access to technology, it can be used in a way that can further improve the ability of services to be able to deliver and certainly put some protections in place for those victims of family violence. Whilst that has its own issues as well, if we look at technology and what is occurring with social media, especially for young people, then you have got a different level, and I think that again goes to the point of the complexity of how this can all be undertaken.

The royal commission also acknowledged that there was significant goodwill amongst the community to ensure that we all have input into this and that we all support what is done.

I now go back to the bill and to the other areas I wanted to make mention of. I know other speakers will want to speak on this bill as well. Clause 8 creates two new offences for unauthorised use and disclosure of confidential information, which includes a protection when information is shared in good faith. It is pretty straightforward on paper, but again it is complex and difficult if you are trying to administer it, work through the various agencies and work through how it might actually be undertaken.

The bill establishes a family violence risk assessment and risk management framework. I have talked about the common risk assessment framework and how that will play out in this.

Clause 19 removes the requirements that a serious threat to life, health, safety or welfare be imminent before information can be lawfully shared. Clause 25 amends the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to create a new basis for making a document exempt if there is risk of family violence. In terms of the issues I have highlighted, this is one of those areas where I think it is very complex. It is technical. There is a lot that needs to play out in a practical sense, and I believe that the government needs to be very strong in its commitment. The intent is there I understand the intent but in terms of commitment and how it will actually operate in practice, how it will be applied in on the front line, how it will be applied amongst the agencies, the departments, the courts, the police and all those other areas I have mentioned and how it will be practically applied, I suppose time will tell.

It will be up to the government to implement this legislation. It is complex. I think the government has rushed it through because of concerns that have been raised at the 11th hour, despite the supposedly significant consultation that has been undertaken. Clearly that has not been resolved. I again say that I will watch with interest to see how the government actually implements this bill in real terms.

 

 


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