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Sentencing Amendment (Assault Of Certain Frontline Workers) Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 1 August 2019

Tags: Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I will make a brief contribution on this bill and at the outset reiterate the Greens' strong support for every frontline worker in Tasmania, whether they are working in the public sector or the community sector. There are frontline workers in housing, in family support, in family violence prevention and in sexual assault support services in the community sector who are also at the front line of social distress.

We have just listened to a conga line of Liberal MPs point to stories of police officers or ambulance officers being assaulted on the job, and of course it is appalling that they are, but you cannot make laws on the basis of anecdotal stories, and you should not make laws that create two classes of public servants, and that is exactly what this legislation is doing.

The metric that is being applied to determine what makes a frontline worker for the purposes for this act is bewildering. For the purpose of this legislation it covers an ambulance officer, a child safety officer, a correctional services officer, a police officer and a medical or social services officer, and when you go to the social services that frontline worker is a child safety officer.

There is no mention of firefighters in this legislation. Is there a reason that Tasmania Fire Service officers are not covered by this legislation, given that there will be circumstances when they are responding to an emergency and they go into a situation that is potentially fraught where people are distressed and someone in that circumstance lashes out at a Tasmania Fire Service officer, but they are not covered by these mandatory minimum sentences? If the Liberals want to send this message to Tasmanian Fire Service officers, why are we not saying to housing tenancy officers, 'We recognise that there are times when your job is dangerous'? From time to time tenancy officers will have to go to a tenant's home. They may be dealing with a tenant in a state of poverty who is experiencing mental illness, addiction challenges, or maybe experiencing domestic and family violence. There is the risk in those circumstances that a housing tenancy officer will be assaulted or injured by the person they are interacting with on behalf of the Government.

This is bad law because it creates two separate classes of State Service officers. It says to one group, 'We support you more under the law and will apply stronger penalties and in fact make them mandatory minimums', and it says to another group which includes firefighters and housing tenancy officers, 'Actually we have applied some metric, which we are not going to tell you about' - Mr Jaensch tried to explain it and actually just made it worse - 'that has determined that you are at less risk of assault on the job and we are creating a law that does not include you'. Madam Speaker, it is bad law.

I am curious to know whether the Chief Justice was consulted about this legislation and whether the Tasmanian Law Society or the Bar Association was consulted about this bill. The bottom line is that this undermines judicial independence and will take away the discretion of judges and juries to apply a sentence that examines the individual's circumstances and the specific nature of the matter or the crime that has come before them.

I can foresee circumstances where someone in acute state of mental distress lashes out at an ambulance officer, for example, who is there to try to help them. It is by definition an assault and that matter will come before the judge. So you could have someone sitting in the dock who is experiencing psychotic episodes, paranoid schizophrenia, deep anxiety or depression and the judge will not be able to look at that person's individual circumstances and sentence them accordingly. There are circumstances where people experiencing psychotic episodes act in a way that is not their true nature but the result of their circumstances at the time and are sent to jail when they should be sent to support services.

This legislation, should it pass both Houses of the parliament, will guarantee that Tasmanians experiencing mental illness will go to jail for an act which no doubt they will be regretful of and have a sentence imposed at a time in their lives when what they need is the help of government not to be chucked in the slammer.

It is bad law and that is why the Greens consistently oppose mandatory minimum sentences. It cuts the powers and the independence of the judiciary out from underneath the judges. It demonises and marginalises a group of people who require support, medical help and assistance potentially with housing and says we are going to put you in jail no matter what your circumstance if you happen to assault one of this small selected group of state servants, who we have arbitrarily defined as frontline workers, even though that definition leaves out numerous frontline workers.

I believe this legislation is being brought on today because the strategic geniuses inside the Liberal Party decided that this week was going to be law and order week. They want to look like they are tough on crime and they are prepared to undermine one of the foundation tenets of an independent judiciary. I am really worried that if this legislation passes, people who we are elected to represent, people who live with mental illness, will be caught up in this legislation and they will be sent to Risdon Prison.

We know what is happening at Risdon Prison and in the correctional system across Tasmania since the Liberals came to office and puffed themselves up as the law and order party. Our prisons are bursting at the seams. Risdon Prison is at capacity. There is high tension at Risdon Prison and we know from the number of people who have been sentenced under the Liberals' policy, that it is a direct result of the policy which is based on no evidence, which taps into the gut reflex of human beings to punish and to seek retribution. It is a stain on our society.

In jurisdictions which understand that you need to break the cycle, they are actually closing down prisons. In jurisdictions that apply a human rights lens to the corrections portfolio, they are closing prisons, recidivism rates are going down, and the community is safer. This legislation will not make the Tasmanian community safer; it will not because punishment does not provide a deterrence. If it did, there would be no murders in the United States. So, a bad law, a weak effort on the part of the Liberals in government, and for a Government which has just created the portfolio of Mental Health and Wellbeing, to put forward this sort of legislation which will guarantee, should it pass, that people experiencing mental illness will go to jail, is absolute hypocrisy.

If you have a government that genuinely cares about the mental wellbeing of Tasmanians, then it should not be bringing in this sort of legislation which disproportionately will capture people with mental illness and people with an acquired brain injury. It is bad law; it is punitive. It should be rejected by this House and, should it pass this House, it should be rejected in the other place.