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Statement from shadow Attorney-General Martin Pakula

News

Cite as: September 2014 88 (09) LIJ, p.21

Labor promises to tackle domestic violence and reform the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission if it wins government.

In just four years, the Napthine government has created an environment that has placed the Victorian legal system under unprecedented strain.

Legal Aid has been in crisis as a consequence of government policy. Despite this, the government has failed to invest necessary resources into legal aid, nor would they support Labor’s attempts to commence a parliamentary inquiry into access to justice – a vital step in understanding the scale of the problem before us.

Police cells have been bursting at the seams with our overstretched police forced to act as corrections officers and the waiting lists in our courts are longer than they have ever been.

And despite the Attorney-General’s rhetoric and the Napthine government’s attempts to portray itself as “tough on crime” the facts are damning. The crime rate has risen in each year of this government after 11 years of decline under Labor. Almost 40 per cent of all prisoners in the corrections system are presenting with mental health issues. Most disturbingly, the recidivism rate has risen year on year under the Napthine government, increases that have actually been predicted – and thus, sadly, accepted in State budgets.

In any sensible jurisdiction, a rising crime rate, an increase in recidivism and a burgeoning prison population would be accepted as marks of failure. They should be viewed as trends that a diligent government seeks to reverse. The reality in Victoria is that the government wears these unfortunate statistics as a badge of honour.

To make matters worse, the single most serious community safety issue in Victoria – the scourge of family violence – has received scant attention from the Napthine government. In fact, the response of the domestic violence support sector to the state budget was unequivocal, with one advocate saying that senior Napthine government ministers should consider “handing back their white ribbons”. A government whose actions matched its self- image would make responding effectively to family violence its number one priority.

From opposition, Labor has forcefully opposed a range of other changes championed by the Attorney-General – changes which have taken Victoria backwards. The government’s wind-back of Labor’s changes to the Equal Opportunity Act mean that more Victorians now have to contend with the likelihood of being subject to discrimination in employment. And the “move on” laws which the Attorney-General has defended so proudly are laws which criminalise protests which may otherwise be both lawful and peaceful.

Victoria does not need Bjelke Petersen era laws, and in government, Labor will repeal these draconian “move on” provisions, and will do so proudly. A Labor government will also reinstate the “bona fide occupational requirement” limitation on religious exemptions within the Equal Opportunity Act.

But Labor will go further to defend the rights of all Victorians to go about their business free from discrimination and vilification. At the time of writing, the Commonwealth Attorney-General remains supportive of removing s18C from the Racial Discrimination Act. That provision makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate on the basis of race or nationality. Labor believes that the removal of that prohibition sends the worst possible message to the community, and if Senator George Brandis persists in his view, we will legislate to reinstate that protection in Victoria.

We will treat domestic violence with the seriousness it deserves by convening Australia’s first Royal Commission into Family Violence. Only when the myriad complexities of domestic violence are properly understood can an effective and integrated response be devised.

We will respond to the request of the IBAC Commissioner by reforming the Independent Broad Based Anti-Corruption Commission – giving it jurisdiction over Misconduct in Public Office and lowering its investigative threshold.

Labor will also launch a full scale review into access to justice, examining legal aid, community legal centres, NGOs, the role played by the Victorian Law Foundation and pro bono work. Among other matters, that review will consider the way existing funding allocations are utilised, as well as any duplication that exists among providers.

As previously committed, a Labor government will create a new offence of assault causing death to give police and prosecutors another option when dealing with “one punch” deaths. And we will trial Jury Sentencing Recommendations for serious indictable offences, in consultation with the Chief Justice and the Chief Judge.

Indeed, unlike this government which has been hostile to the views of the profession and the judiciary on so many issues, Labor will seek to work co-operatively with the profession and the heads of jurisdiction to find solutions which actually work.

Improving access to justice, reducing court lists, bringing down the crime rate and the rate of reoffending, and keeping children out of “crime school” where possible – these things are not simple but they are achievable if government chooses to focus on these objectives.

Apart from those matters, Labor will focus on the rights of Victorians – our human rights; the rights of children; a woman’s right to be safe in her home and to make her own reproductive choices; our right to peaceful protest; and the right to avoid indignity, unequal treatment or loss of employment because of race, nationality or sexuality. These are important rights, and they ought to be guarded preciously by whoever serves as Attorney-General.

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