Time Limits — Statement by Leader of the House
HON SUE ELLERY (South Metropolitan — Leader of the House) [5.55 pm]: I rise to make a statement about the Criminal Code Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020. I have consulted with party leaders and can advise accordingly that the maximum time available will be 60 minutes for the second reading, 40 minutes for the Committee of the Whole House, five minutes for the adoption of report, and five minutes for the third reading.
Resumed from 31 March.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [7.13 pm]: I am the lead speaker for the Greens on the Criminal Code Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020. Like the bill we debated previously, our time to scrutinise this legislation has unfortunately been severely truncated. I received a final copy of this bill on Monday afternoon and unfortunately I had to have my briefing only two hours later and I had not even had a chance to open the email at that point because I was in meetings between receiving the bill and when the briefing was given. I acknowledge that there has been no time to give the bill the scrutiny that I would normally give to legislation. Having said that, I am pleased to see that the bill, in effect, includes sunset provisions by limiting the scope of this bill specifically to the COVID-19 crisis. It obviously seeks to amend the Criminal Code by increasing the penalties for offenders who assault or threaten certain classes of frontline workers, including public officers such as police officers, and medical workers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics and ambulance officers. As I said, this is specifically in the context of COVID-19. The bill amends two sections of the Criminal Code for a period of 12 months the day after royal assent. I asked about the 12-month period and was told that it was hoped or anticipated that by then, the COVID-19 crisis would have effectively passed. Let us all hope that that is absolutely the case.
Section 318 of the Criminal Code refers to serious assaults as a category of assault against various kinds of public officers such as the drivers of public transport, including taxis. As I mentioned, ambulance officers and emergency officers, including volunteers and prison officers, are included in a private context. That already attracts a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment if the offender is armed or in company; otherwise, the penalty is seven years’ imprisonment. The bill increases this penalty to 10 years if the offender knows that they have COVID-19 at the time of the offence or if they make a point of creating a belief, a suspicion or a fear that they have it. No other changes are made to section 318. I note that the usual court processes will apply, the usual defences will also apply and the usual factors will be taken into account at sentencing in addition to those in the bill.
The main issue for the Greens is that the Criminal Code already provides—I note that this will not change as a result of the passage of this bill—that if the offence is committed against a specified subgroup of those people listed and the officer suffers bodily harm from the assault but not necessarily from COVID-19, even if the person has COVID- 19, a mandatory minimum prison sentence applies. We are talking about at least three months’ imprisonment if the offender is 16 or 17 years old and at least six months if the offender is 18 or older. Neither of those terms can be suspended. I note that the sentence could potentially go up to nine months in specified circumstances. Section 338 defines the term “threat” and section 338B makes threats a crime with the following maximum penalties: seven years’ imprisonment if the threat is to kill or in circumstances of racial aggravation; otherwise, it is three years’ imprisonment unless in circumstances of racial aggravation, which attracts a penalty of six years’ imprisonment. The bill seeks to increase the maximum penalty from three years’ imprisonment to seven years if the threats to injure, endanger or harm any of the public officers referred to in section 318 expose them to COVID-19.
In answer to a question that we asked, the government responded by saying that section 318 of the Criminal Code is regarded as a serious offence under schedule 2 of the Bail Act 1982. The presumption against bail applies under the provisions relating to committing a serious offence while on bail for another serious offence. It goes on to say that section 338B does not fall under that schedule, so ordinary bail provisions would apply.
My question about the relationship between the High Risk Offenders Bill 2019 and offences was not answered. The bill has not been passed so we do not ultimately know what form that bill will take. It is possible that one or both of these offences will attract its provisions. The problems for us are obviously around the mandatory minimum sentence and the presumption against bail in certain circumstances, which is already attached to section 318, as indicated, plus the possible consequences under the high-risk offenders legislation, which, as I said, are as yet unknown because it is yet to be passed. I note that none of those consequences are as a result of the bill itself but they all relate to the provisions in the bill. Of course, the Greens and I have been very consistent in this place in opposing mandatory sentencing and presumptions against bail, and also opposing the continuing detention of someone after they have completed their sentence. As noted, although this bill does not specifically contain any of those provisions, it does attach itself to provisions that already do.
I also want to acknowledge that it is disgusting to spit on anybody, and it is particularly disgusting to spit on people who are simply trying to do their jobs. In the same way, it is absolutely disgusting to threaten to spit on people and to infect them. Clearly, that can never be acceptable and should never be deemed to be acceptable behaviour or something that anyone should have to tolerate throughout the course of their employment. I think that in this situation the added concern also has to be noted that anyone affected by this will then have to effectively go into self-isolation for 14 days. That is obviously beyond the pale, because we recognise that now is the time we need as many people as possible to be capable of working. If someone is not sick, we want them to work; but if people have been exposed to threat, they will have no choice other than to self-isolate to make sure that people’s lives are saved. Therefore, I understand why this has been put forward.
I remain concerned about people who are mentally impaired making terrible decisions. The concerns I have, particularly around mandatory regimes, have never changed. They have not changed in 10 years, since 2010, when I tried to move an amendment to mandatory sentencing laws that were presented at the time. Mandatory regimes continue to be a problem for me. However, having said that, I recognise why this bill is being presented at this point. It is certainly the case that our frontline officials, across the spectrum of essential services that are contained within this bill, need to be able to work safely and are certainly entitled to work without fear of deliberate infection and threat. I am glad that the specified time period is limited because it means that any concerns I have about a potential miscarriage of justice emerging is limited at least in that regard.
Comments and speeches by various members
Bill read a second time.
HON SUE ELLERY (South Metropolitan — Leader of the House) [7.39 pm]: I move — That the bill be now read a third time.
HON AARON STONEHOUSE (South Metropolitan) [7.40 pm]: Although I maintain some doubt about the need for these provisions, as they are already covered in the existing Criminal Code, I am given some comfort by the fact that there is a sunset clause included in this bill. Therefore, although I am somewhat reluctant, I am otherwise happy for us to forgo the normal Committee of the Whole House procedure and pass these provisions. I will not oppose the third reading of this bill, but I think it sets a very good template for how we should proceed with legislation going forward. When there are sunset clauses, we can deal with bills very quickly without too much hassle, and there is comfort for members of the Legislative Council knowing that there will be full parliamentary scrutiny at a later date, given the current need to expedite legislation.
Question put and passed.
Bill read a third time and passed.