Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) — I move:
That the bill be now read a second time.
I rise today to speak to the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access) Bill 2015.
The bill is designed to create safe access around premises offering reproductive health services, in order to protect and promote women’s reproductive health. It’s about medical privacy and the rights of women who are accessing a legal medical service to do so without fear of intimidation or harassment.
This bill, the first I have proposed since becoming elected to this place, won’t be a surprise to anyone coming from me. It is an issue the Australian Sex Party campaigned heavily on at the last election. Safe access to reproductive services is something that I have championed for a long time, and I am proud to be able to bring this bill forward to the house today.
This amendment to the health and wellbeing act is quite simple. It inserts a new part that creates safe access zones of 150 metres around reproductive health clinics wherein prohibited behaviour can be met with criminal remedies including financial penalties and imprisonment. Prohibited behaviour is to include distribution and display of materials pertaining to reproductive health services, communications — yelling, singing, chanting, and what some call ‘counselling’ — harassment, intimidation, threats and recording of any variety.
This is all behaviour that everyone in this house should seek to stamp out. It is our job as lawmakers to help protect the people of Victoria from such threats of intimidation and violence.
For decades, women and their supporters, as well as staff and residents of areas around such reproductive health centres have faced an array of behaviour by individuals outside the clinics.
Women have been known to delay attendance for essential health care and follow-up appointments because they have been so apprehensive and scared of who they will face when they attend the health centre. The consequences of such delays and lack of follow-up pose a serious threat to women’s health and wellbeing.
Women with a history of domestic violence or mental ill health can feel particularly threatened.
This is a significant problem for individuals who may be traumatised and face depression and anxiety in the face of stigmatisation, and staff who may fear coming to work, a valid fear considering a staff member was murdered — yes, murdered! — in Melbourne due to their work in one of these centres.
This level of violence is extreme, but violent threats continue to be faced by clients and staff entering clinics, up to and including this year. This problem and these issues are highly specific to premises offering reproductive health services such as advanced contraception and terminations, and as such a targeted approach to create safe access zones is required.
Currently, Victoria Police and councils can issue on-the-spot notices for breach of council by-laws for obstruction and public nuisance.
The variety of options includes infringement offences such as causing nuisance; affecting amenity of a public place and interfering with the use or enjoyment of a public place or the personal comfort of another person. These are contained in a number of different legislative instruments.
But the fact is that these current arrangements simply have not been working and are now all too often rarely used when it comes to this ongoing decades-old problem.
This myriad of infringement possibilities is a piecemeal approach and fails to address the specific issues at hand, such as equitable access to health care, right to privacy, or safety and wellbeing of women and their supporters.
It places an enormous amount of strain on Victoria’s police services, and there has been discussion from Victoria Police advising a preference for specific legislation to provide clarity — exactly what I am proposing here.
I have met with Victoria Police as part of my investigation into drafting this bill, and it was police officers that told me that they desperately wanted legislation that was simple and easy to understand to try and combat this problem.
The current activity by so called ‘kerbside counsellors’ also places a strain on council resources, with some councils having to send out representatives two or three times a week.
A more comprehensive, targeted approach than disconnected interventions and infringements is required. This would not only recognise the highly specific, gendered nature of this kind of offence, but also provide clarity for enforcement, and avenues for remedy.
Access to lawful medical treatment can be so clearly linked to gender equality, economic and social stability and mental health. It requires a targeted approach to ensure clarity of objective and enforcement.
And there is precedent for such legislation. Several overseas jurisdictions have similar laws. Tasmania has a similar type of legislative arrangement providing for 150-metre safe access zones similar to what I am proposing today — and it works. The Australian Capital Territory government is currently considering a similar bill.
In 2008 the Victorian Law Reform Commission stated:
The safety and wellbeing of women using abortion services, and any other medical facilities, is a matter of significant importance (8.271, p. 139).
There is understandable community concern about safety and wellbeing of staff and patients at the hospitals and clinics where people protest or stage vigils because of their views about abortion. The commission encourages the Attorney-General to consider options for a legislative response to this issue. (8.273, p. 140)
So this isn’t new and nor is it really controversial — it’s just common sense.
We shouldn’t let hysteria and misinformation cloud the argument. The fact is that individuals have a right to medical privacy and the right to go about their lawful business without fear of intimidation or shame.
This is the right thing to do.
The bill does not seek to impede anyone’s right to protest. It only seeks to prevent people being harassed and intimidated. I welcome the daily debate with people who greet us at the car park gate each morning.
We as a society should not tolerate this type of intrusive interference. It violates women’s sense of safety. It violates her privacy and in such a way that would not be tolerated in any other circumstance.
I ask that over the next few weeks, before this matter is brought to a debate, fellow members search their consciences and ask themselves the question, regardless of their religious or other views — ‘Is it okay that women of this state are harassed and intimidated every day on my watch when I have the option to do something about it?’. The answer is surely a resounding ‘No’. I commend this bill to the house.
Debate adjourned for Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria) on motion of Ms Pulford.
Debate adjourned until Wednesday, 2 September.