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Begging Offence Repeal

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 16 November 2023

Tags: Begging, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, before we close for the year, many Tasmanians are struggling to live under unbearable cost of-living pressures. Begging is something that happens in Tasmanian streets when people are desperate, when people cannot pay for the basics of life, when they cannot put food on the table, do not have a home to live in, cannot afford to pay their rent, cannot afford to pay their bills, when they have reached the end of the line, when they have no one there to help them, and when they are in mental health distress. When they do not understand the way the world is, do not understand why they have no house, why they have no job, why they have no family, and why they have no money in their account. Those are the people who need our help. They need government support services and government-funded services. NGOs do this work every day and are very clear that the people who are begging on the streets are the most disadvantaged, vulnerable, stigmatised people in the community.

I put on the record our great digust at the way the minister for Police played politics with the opportunity to remove forever the crime of begging from the statute books. We had the opportunity to do this yesterday. He talked out the time in the Greens' private members' time, when we could have had an opportunity to deal with the amendment he wanted to move - an amendment which was exactly the same as the one the Government produced the last time, which was rejected by the members in the other place. Rejected because it is not needed and because it continues to include begging as a crime in the statute. There are many ways to say the same thing, but the word 'begging' would be reinserted into the Police Offences Act under the Government's amendment.

We do not understand, given the ample powers that already exist in that act, why they insist on that being necessary. The arguments that have been put to me today by the Police minister, though, have made it very clear what it is about. The fact is that this minister and his Government do not understand the purpose of repealing the offence of begging. They say they support it in principle but they do not. The Police minister noted that there have not been any charges for begging in the last five years. However, he revealed, through his second reading speech yesterday, that the powers police have are frequently invoked to move on people who are begging, essentially, by threatening to charge them. People who are begging are moved on by police on a regular basis. The minister gave some pretty large numbers for how often this happened. He said it happened as recently as two days ago.

In answering our questions about why the existing powers in the Police Offences Act, like loitering, are not enough, he was only able to say that the amendments the Government continues to propose are what the police have asked for. Frankly, that is not good enough. He has also revealed that existing provisions may not be enough because people begging may not actually be doing anything threatening but other people in the community made themselves feel threatened. They want the police to be able to move people on when they feel uncomfortable in those circumstances, in his view.

Essentially, what the Government wants to do is to introduce a de facto begging offence, which is not a repeal at all. They want to do that because some people feel uncomfortable or threatened by the mere existence of someone begging, even if those people begging are not doing anything threatening. The 'perceived' threat, the 'perceived' intimidation was what I heard this morning from the Police minister and his staff. Just the perception is what the police want to retain this offence for so that people who are seen to be possibly threatening can be removed.

What the Liberal Party, the so called party of individual freedoms, fails to understand is that this is exactly the sort of behaviour that the rest of the community is saying is unacceptable and why there has been this widespread call for begging offences to be repealed. If a person feels threatened by the mere presence of someone begging, even if they are not being threatened, that person is the problem, not the person begging. It is really quite simple.

The Government's amendments relate only to a person who is begging and it is a de facto begging offence. If people are deterred from entering a business because a person is begging nearby, any powers from police to move that person on should be identical to their powers to move on a person who is in the vicinity who is not begging. If there is illegal conduct that is causing people discomfort then that should and can be dealt with.

The question is, does this parliament consider the act of begging itself as conduct that a person can legitimately take issue with and call the police to have the person begging removed? It is really that simple. Are threats or intimidation the sort of antisocial behaviour that should be prohibited by law? Yes, and it already is. Is begging the sort of antisocial behaviour that should be prohibited by law? No, it is not.

I expect there would be some people who would be deterred from entering a business if the minister for Police himself was there, given the statements he has made in public. That would not be surprising to me. Does that mean that we should be able to call the police and have the minister removed just because people are uncomfortable to be around him? No, of course we should not. It might sound like a trite analogy but that sort of outcome is exactly what happens when people pick up the phone and say, 'We do not like this person sitting outside these premises in a public place because they are begging. It makes us feel uncomfortable.'

The Government's proposed amendment is exactly the sort of antiquated elitist ideology that has prompted the passage of the begging laws in the first place. The fact that they are willing to pull out every trick in the book to stop that repeal from happening, as if the sky would fall in without giving the police more powers than they already have, is a shame. Especially given that the whole of the community services sector was imploring them to do that.