Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Well, there is no more important matter for this Parliament or indeed for Australian society to consider at the moment than the protection of children – the most vulnerable in our society.
I think many Australians, every Australian, will have been shocked by the news in the last couple of days about a grotesque individual who is alleged to have committed some 1,623 child abuse offences; including 136 counts of rape, and 110 counts of sexual intercourse with a child under ten, and 604 counts of indecent treatment of a child.
Mr Speaker, the most important asset of any family is a child or children of that relationship, particularly younger toddlers and infants and those who deserve the protection, not just of their families, but those who have been charged with the responsibility to take care of them in the absence of their parents.
The reason I think this is a very important matter for the Parliament to contemplate today is that the news cycle, as we know, moves on so quickly. World events and domestic events mean that the papers’ headlines quickly disappear and the online version of the next story is quickly posted.
Sometimes this subject matter is too shocking for families to discuss, sometimes the detail so depraved that you want to starve your children, or social groups, or contacts, from the actual detail of particular incidents.
But it is proper, Mr Speaker, for our country to stop and pause at the time of these significant events, because the children who are involved and all young girls now, in many cases, in their early twenties, will have had their lives changed forever.
I acknowledge the conversation – even that we’re having today, or the newspaper reports, as we’ve seen over the last couple of days – will be a trigger for other victims of child sexual abuse.
The discussion of the very topic will be very difficult for them and for their loved ones to contemplate, but it is appropriate and absolutely necessary that we remind ourselves that our society is infiltrated by people of this character; that people in positions of responsibility commit these most egregious acts against those who are most vulnerable in our society.
So, today, we recognise the efforts of the Australian Federal Police – particularly those officers who are attached to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation, the police officers and the investigators and the analysts, all of those from Queensland Police Service and New South Wales Police Service, their international counterparts. This was a very significant investigation that’s gone on for some ten years or so, and it’s spanned across states and jurisdictions.
We know that the prevalence of child sexual abuse is at record levels because of the use of digital technology. We know that – I want to say a human being – but we know that an individual here in Australia can direct a movie taking place in the Philippines of a child being sexually abused and penetrated and can direct from afar the actual abuse of that child.
Now it’s incomprehensible on many levels, but it needs to be spoken about because if we pretend that it’s not happening, or if we pretend that we shouldn’t speak about it, because if we ignore it, the problem will go away, or that our children won’t be affected by the next offender.
It is one of those crime types – unlike the stories you’ll see on the news tonight of a stolen car, or footage of a robbery, or an assault that’s taken place and a victim that’s interviewed – we don’t see the victims’ faces in this crime type.
We don’t hear the detail of, in some cases, even the offender’s name because of the protections – rightly or wrongly – under the law, and the impact, as a say on the victims, on the investigators, on our society, is enduring.
Mr Speaker, as the Home Affairs Minister, I’m incredibly proud of the work that we did to establish the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation. It was a $70 million investment and in my budget in reply speech, I called for the Government and we would certainly support and welcome an announcement by the Government, to double the work and the funding to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation.
It’s essential because the work continues to compound, the investigations are more complex. We read in relation to this particular matter that there was a sheet, a child’s cot sheet, that was identified after painstaking work by the investigators to be provided by a particular linen supplier to childcare centres, which led to the offender being identified in relation to that particular matter. That takes a lot of gruelling hard work and investigative capacity and additional support needs to be provided. I think that much is clear.
So, in highlighting this case today, I do believe that our Parliament has a continuing responsibility to do everything we can to protect the children of this country, to make sure that we protect the sanctity and to protect their innocence, to allow every Australian child to grow up in a harmless environment, in an environment that’s conducive to the development of their mental health, to make sure that they have the best capacity to form relationships and functional interpersonal relationships later in life.
But if we allow this to slide into just yesterday’s newspaper, then we won’t be doing a service to the work of the investigators here, and we won’t be helping those investigators send a message of deterrence to the person who’s thinking about offending next.
That’s why I think it is incredibly important for the Government to stop as well and to listen to this issue, to make the decision in relation to additional support, Mr Speaker, and as I say, we would very much welcome the Prime Minister’s efforts in that regard.
I want to also put on the record our very strong interest in supporting Government action, Mr Speaker, in relation to a Child Sex Offender Registry.
I do believe that the time has come and there’s been much debate about this in recent years – people in favour, people against, people of good character who argue for and against – the establishment of a registry.
But I do believe that we need a Parliamentary Joint Task Force to be established to review the effectiveness of working with children checks, to carry forward as a matter of urgency the establishment of a National Child Sex Offender Registry, which I proposed as Minister for Home Affairs and the debate and the time for serious contemplation of that registry has now come.
The circumstances where an individual over a protracted period of time could work at multiple points where children, young children, are engaged, where they’re supposed to be cared for, could commit these offences undetected in so many workplaces, amongst so many other colleagues, with parents, with children, through no fault of any of those people that the attention of the police wasn’t drawn to the particular offending.
The registry may have been one element that could have averted further victims falling at the hands of this individual in relation to the alleged offences that have taken place.
So, for our country and the engagement of the states, obviously, is absolutely necessary, but for our country the time has come. There are certainly many international jurisdictions where a registry operates successfully, but there is the opportunity, Mr Speaker, in our country for that debate now to be had.
I hope that in the time that we’ve spent in the chamber today, that we send a clear message of support to all of those who are involved in protecting children around the country – not just the government investigative bodies, but also the not for profits; organisations like the Morcombe Foundation, those who are involved in spreading a message in childcare centres, in places of education otherwise, in workplaces.
I would just say to all Australian families, please take the time tonight to have the conversation with your children, to go to the websites that are trustworthy: the eSafety Commissioner’s work, the work of the Morcombe Foundation and many others. Look there, at the ways in which you can further empower and inform your children, because to do so will protect the most vulnerable in our society, and for all of us here, that is the most important duty that we can undertake.