Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (14:55): I rise to speak on this bill. Despite Mr Finn’s assertions that this is some giant conspiracy for some amorphous, foreign force to take us over and take the information out of our brains and do some other conspiratorial things, this is actually a very sensible piece of legislation. It is a very sensible treaty that we signed five years ago as a country, and it has been progressively rolled out around the world and certainly around Australia. The monitoring of places of detention, Mr Finn—places of detention, the places where Mr Finn would like to see everyone locked up forever. I have never heard Mr Finn defend the rights of people in prison before. But new things happen in here all the time.
This is the monitoring of places of detention by the United Nations subcommittee on the prevention of torture—the prevention of torture. This is important. This is legislation that, as I say, has been in the process of being implemented for a number of years. I do not think we are going to get it perfect, because this is looking at how we introduce the monitoring of places of detention, how we work out how we do that monitoring and how we enable the United Nations subcommittee on the prevention of torture to access our places of detention. This is it—it is places of detention. It is our prisons, it is our mental health secure care, it is our youth detention. By way of hoping that we do not go into too much committee on this, I do have a question around whether this legislation would also enable that subcommittee to access prison cells, which would also be places of detention under the definition of this act. But I am not certain, from reading the bill or the second reading, whether police cells would come under this domestic national preventative mechanism.
This is a treaty and a piece of legislation that was much talked about during the inquiry into the criminal justice system. That inquiry, which many of you took part in, received submissions from hundreds of organisations around our state and around our country. It has presented over 100 recommendations. It runs to two volumes. It is a substantive piece of work. Sadly the government is due to respond to it by 24 September at the latest, and I am afraid today is the 19th and tomorrow the 20th, so I would hope that the government may have actually started work on that and might be able to provide this house with a response to that report tomorrow. Unfortunately I do not hold my breath because even substantive reports like the inquiry into homelessness and the inquiry into the use of cannabis have remained unanswered by the government.
Again I refer back to Mr Finn’s concerns about people getting our secret information. This is actually also about protecting the privacy of those in detention, and this legislation sets out some very good protective parameters to protect the privacy of detained people. As it says in the second-reading speech, it will ‘ensure detained or other persons who provide information to the Subcommittee are protected’. Not only is their privacy protected, but they are protected from reprisal. Certainly in the inquiries that I have been involved in, when we have had the opportunity to visit juvenile justice detention centres and when we have had the opportunity to visit prisons both in Melbourne and regionally, there is that fear of reprisal. People are fearful of making complaints and speaking up for fear that that will come back and bite them. Anecdotal experience would say that that actually does happen, so this is very welcomed.
We heard this from numerous organisations in Victoria that gave evidence to the criminal justice inquiry, that OPCAT was going to provide some of the answers to questions around the unnecessary use of restraints and the use of solitary confinement in unnecessary circumstances. In part of what we were hearing and in some of the issues that were raised—even in the inquiry into the impact of parental incarceration on children—we were hearing about circumstances where mothers were being shackled during childbirth if they were operating out of a prison. This is just something that a modern society like Victoria would not countenance. It needs to be exposed if it is occurring, and it needs to stop happening. Mothers were being shackled and handcuffed when they were taken to the doctor for neonatal care of their babies and kept in handcuffs until the doctor required that those handcuffs be removed. This is the type of activity where OPCAT and this legislation and the monitoring of these places will provide the much-needed sunlight.
There was much concern during that inquiry around the secrecy around private prisons, and we know that we have privatised many of our prisons in Victoria. They are multibillion-dollar industries. I myself have been caught when asking questions around the operation of these prisons and the organisations that run them. I have been caught by ministers telling me that that is commercial in confidence. That will not be the case under this legislation. This legislation will ensure that there is a level of transparency in prison conditions, and it will address some of the problematic practices that we heard about during our inquiry. Again, it is an inquiry that the government has not responded to, but I would encourage them, even if they do not get a chance today, to tomorrow agree to just some of the recommendations. I would look at, in line with the spirit of this legislation, recommendation 82, which calls on the Victorian government to review the use of solitary confinement, physical restraints and strip-searching in Victorian prisons with a view to introduce policy to regulate the use of these practices. Let us not leave it to the UN to tell us what to. We know that this is wrong. We know that when we are strip-searching women in the Dame Phyllis Frost prison—over 90 per cent them, in fact almost all of them, have got experiences of trauma and experiences of sexual violence and family violence—we are further traumatising them through the practices of that prison, and that must end. This legislation will go some way to shining a light on that, but I think there are things that we can do without having to wait for the UN subcommittee to look at this.
The Fitzroy Legal Service, in my region, also concurred with this, saying that ‘OPCAT alone isn’t enough’. We know the importance of organisations like our community legal centres in shining a light. We are awaiting with trepidation the coroner’s report on Ms Veronica Nelson, an Aboriginal woman who died in custody under extraordinary conditions. It was an absolute tragedy. It showed everything that is wrong with some of our bail laws, but it also showed what was wrong with the health services that are provided in our prisons. We are now—and my heart pounds as I say this—having a coronial inquest into a baby that died in a prison, and I would say that that baby would not have died if that baby had the same health services that you and I have outside of prison. This is one of the reasons why OPCAT is so important—to ensure that transparency is there and to ensure that practices where health services are denied are not allowed to happen in our prisons and in our detention centres in Victoria.
Jesuit Social Services are also calling for the urgent implementation of OPCAT. They cautioned that implementing OPCAT, as this bill will do, cannot address all the issues in the criminal justice system and advocated for change in other areas—more transformative change. Now, I am harping on this, but I would refer the government to the committee’s inquiry into the criminal justice system, where we made numerous recommendations and findings in this area.
We need to look at how we keep people out of prison and not continue to expand our prisons and build new ones. I despair when I see Cherry Creek being built right next to an adult prison. Is that the message that we are sending young people who are some of our most disadvantaged children in our community? The message we are sending them is, you know, ‘Your next stop is next door’. This is what we need to change. We heard this very loudly and clearly from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Justice Caucus and many of the other Aboriginal community controlled organisations, and in particular the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, who all gave evidence to say that what we are doing now is inadequate. What they also stressed, and I hope and would like to be optimistic and have confidence, is that in the rollout of this as we develop the framework for monitoring places of detention by the subcommittee that we will ensure that that subcommittee understands the cultural significance, understands that they need to do this in a culturally appropriate way that is safe for Aboriginal people. Because we know we are still locking up more Aboriginal people than anyone else in our community per capita. We are still seeing deaths in custody of Aboriginal people in our prisons in Victoria.
My heart goes out to the family and friends of people like Veronica Nelson. My heart goes out to the family and friends of all people who have died in custody, but in particular the families and friends of the Aboriginal people who have died in our custody. This is why, while OPCAT is one measure, and it is a significant measure and an important measure that we take, we need to wholeheartedly consider how we detain people, why we detain people and how we can improve our criminal justice system.
Now, I note that there was about half a million dollars put forward for the funding of OPCAT in the budget. We know that that will not be enough. I understand that the minister is in communication with the federal government around providing significantly more funding for this. I hope that that is forthcoming because we want this to work, but it will not work if it is not properly funded. We want to see that OPCAT operates alongside the Ombudsman and operates alongside IBAC so, I guess, that we can have faith that our prison structures are doing what they are supposed to do, and that is ensuring that while protecting the community we are also rehabilitating people in prison and that we are not unnecessarily detaining people, which I would have to say we are doing right now, when the majority of women in our prisons are there on remand—they are unsentenced.
So I welcome this legislation, but I do urge the government and implore the government to consider the report of the Legal and Social Issues Committee and the very hard work that so many organisations, non-government organisations, put into that report—the number of people with lived experience who talked about their life in detention, talked about the experiences of that period of detention and talked about what we could do better. OPCAT is certainly part of that toolbox of improving our system, but it is not the silver bullet. We can do more, and that will be around bail reform, that will be around parole reform and that will be around drug law reform. All of these areas have to walk alongside OPCAT and the oversight that this legislation will bring to our detention centres. So while I welcome this legislation, I implore the government to do more.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading speech 20/9/22