Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (14:46): I am pleased to speak to the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021—2021. We first started fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work in Victoria in the 1980s, so it has been nearly 40 years in the making. We have gone through many iterations. We have had two steps forward, a couple of steps back—forward, back—but I hope today we will finally see a bill that decriminalises sex work in Victoria passed.
I have been around since the 1980s in this debate, and I have seen a lot of this debate from a lot of areas, so it is interesting to see this culmination in this chamber. Certainly when I was sitting in the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria in Grey Street, in a ridiculously smoke-filled room, talking about decriminalisation, talking about how we were going to get changes, I do not think I ever expected to be in this place talking about the legislation from this side of the chamber. So I am proud to be part of this campaign.
This bill is for everyone. It is for everyone who has been working under these draconian laws that have not protected us. They have not protected sex workers; they have not protected the community. They have not protected the people in the industry—the sex workers, the brothel owners, the managers, the receptionists. Fundamentally the current legislation is not fit for purpose. I will talk later about this, but I do want to acknowledge that Victoria has actually made progressive steps in the past, and this is another progressive step for Victoria in this area. But I really want to acknowledge all of the people who have probably knocked on your doors, who have probably written submissions to you all, who have been fighting for this for decades. I acknowledge the sex worker organisations, the sex workers, the advocates and our allies—so many countless individuals, hundreds of people, since, as I say, the early 1980s. Actually I think the Australian Prostitutes Collective started in 1975, so we have had a sex worker voice since the 1970s in Australia, and that is actually quite unique around the world. There are so many giants of this industry, so many passionate people in this industry. I am not going to name people because there are too many to name and some of them are no longer with us, sadly, but right now this is a very proud moment for all of us and it is a very momentous occasion for all of us.
The other reason I cannot mention everyone’s names is that still we live double lives. Still sex workers act under pseudonyms. Still sex workers cannot tell their family what they do and cannot tell their lecturer what they do. Still we turn up at Parliament in wigs, we turn up with masks—we turn up in disguise because we are still fearful of being outed. We are still fearful of speaking about being a sex worker.
I remember the time I was outed. It was a fairly spectacular outing; it was on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. It was before the internet, thankfully, but my parents did have a fax machine, so my parents’ friends in Sydney were delighted to send them the article that made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. Now, it was a conversation that probably should have happened long before, but we were able to have that conversation, I had a very supportive family and we worked through it. There may have been some tears at times, but we worked through it. But for many people it is not as easy, and coming out as a sex worker is not easy, And for many it is still impossible. This legislation will help change that because it decriminalises sex work. It decriminalises consenting sex acts between consenting adults. It is pretty simple. It is just that.
But it is more than that, because that sex, as we have heard today—and I know some of it is joking. I know when Mr Finn gets up and tells us a couple of jokes and writes down for the speakers list that it is the hookers and knocking shop bill, it is done in humour. I understand that, but it still hurts, it still has an impact and it still stigmatises people who work in this industry. Right now we have legislation that has created two tiers. We have legislation that has created illegal brothels and has meant that sex workers have had to work illegally, which has put them at risk. It has made it very difficult for them when a crime might be committed and they want to report a crime to report that as someone who is committing a crime at the same time. That law has made our sex workers vulnerable to violence and vulnerable to coercion, so decriminalising it will do just the opposite. It will help prevent coercion, it will help prevent violence against sex workers.
And I hope it changes the stigma, changes the view. Mr Finn was saying: what is wrong with having sex? Well, there is nothing wrong with it, but for some reason if you get paid for it, you are somehow a victim. You somehow never wanted to do that. You somehow would only do that because you were absolutely desperate and had no other way of supporting your family and had no other way of putting yourself through school. This is not the case, but this is the stigma and this is the rhetoric that sits around sex workers. I hope that this bill when it passes will change some of that rhetoric. And I do not think I am alone in that—I know I am not alone in that. I have listened to some great people speaking about that today, but even those that have not spoken in favour of this bill have also pointed out the failings of the existing legislation, so I think if there is one thing we can all agree on in this chamber it is that what we have got now is not working. What we got now is not fit for purpose.
Much has been made about things like sex workers possibly having alcohol at work and having a drink with sex. This bill is not about me, but I have to say I may have been guilty of having a drink and possibly getting cosy with my partner afterwards. It reminds me I have been reading this great book, The Women of Little Lon. It was written by Barbara Minchinton, and I really commend it to the house. It is a terrific read. It is a book written by a historian and an archaeologist, and they looked at this precinct and the history of sex work in this precinct, which pretty much started with this precinct. When Melbourne was first settled sex workers came. It is a romp of a read and it is brilliant.
But it reminded me of John Pascoe Fawkner, who we all know was one of the founding fathers of Melbourne. Much of Melbourne is named after John Fawkner. Interestingly, he was a teetotaller, but he was also the publisher of the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser. He was scathing of brothels—they set people off dancing in the streets, they were a disgrace, they were disgusting. When you dig a little deeper, the other thing that we know about Mr Fawkner is that he was also a publican, and what he did not like about the brothels was that they sold alcohol. That was what he really did not like about them. And what he also did not like about them was that they sold good alcohol—they sold absinthe, they sold champagne. He was quite often stuck with just colonial wine—I think ‘wine’ is probably a big stretch for what you would call that drink.
So we have had sex work and we have had brothels around this area. I think Mr Limbrick mentioned the missing mace from Parliament. There was a very brilliant building on Little Lonsdale Street called the Boccaccio, and that is apparently where it found its home. The Duke of Edinburgh, when he came to Parliament, did not stay at the Governor-General’s house—I do not think the Governor-General’s house was there then. He stayed at Mrs Fraser’s on Stephen Street, which was a brothel. He had a woman he was very keen on there, so he stayed there. In fact some wag actually put up the Duke’s coat of arms outside the front of the brothel. It is also reported, as I mentioned, that there were lots of debates about criminalising sex work and lots of debates about, ‘We must close this industry down; it’s terrible, it’s terrible, it’s terrible’. However, we never did, and in fact what was found and what has been discovered is that many of the landlords of those actual brothels that many of the women rented were elected representatives of this house. While I know I quite cheekily in my inaugural speech said I may have been the first sex worker to stand in this place, many clients had come before me, and it would appear landlords of brothels have also had a seat in this place.
There is this concern about what will happen if sex workers have alcohol and what will happen if we change the mandatory sexual health requirements—it will mean that somehow sex workers will become vectors of disease and will go out there and infect the hapless clients. It is just not true, and it further perpetuates this idea that sex work is immoral, that it cannot be trusted, that sex workers are untrustworthy. You could not possibly think that a sex worker could have alcohol and still look after themselves—that they could offer a client a glass of wine and that they could look after their own health without being told by the government to do so. I would just like to remind everyone that in the 1980s, when HIV landed on our shores, sex workers were the first to start acting on it, the first to be buying condoms in bulk, the first to be insisting on condom use. And may I also note that that was long before any form of sexual health was mandated. It was long before many of those brothels and places where they worked were legal. They were working illegally, and surprise, surprise—no, not a surprise at all—they were looking after their own health.
A lot of people have been concerned that there are going to be sex workers on every corner of the street, that their lovely neighbourhood is going to have sex workers in it, that in some of the apartment buildings around the city there may be sex workers. I am sorry to break it to you: they are there now. While back in the 1800s there was a lot of dancing in the street, there was a lot of live music and there were a lot of folk whooping up a good time, the industry is a lot more discreet these days. I have not met a client or heard of a client wanting to make a big song and dance about going in to pay for sex; it is not something that necessarily they want to share with the world.
So it is a discreet industry, which is why you are already living next door to a sex worker. You are already living next door to a client. You may be living with a client for all you know. Like Ms Lovell’s story: there was her constituent’s son, who was a client of a sex worker. She was happy for her son to be a client of a sex worker; she was not happy for the sex worker to be there. This is what I hope this legislation changes, this attitude around sex work.
Just to, I guess, allay the fears of everyone, sex work has been decriminalised in a number of other jurisdictions and nothing happened. It was really boring. We expected some explosion on the streets. We expected something monumental in Mosman and up in Palm Beach. We were expecting something quite extraordinary when they decriminalised sex work in New South Wales. It was a real let-down. Not much happened. Sex worked continued.
I go back to the 1980s. There was not a single case of HIV transmission between a sex worker and a client ever—not in Victoria, not anywhere in Australia—because sex workers look after their health whether it is legal or illegal. Decriminalisation will not change that and has not changed that. It did not change it in New Zealand, it did not change it in New South Wales, it did not change it in the ACT, it did not change it in the Northern Territory and it will not change it here. So I hope that I can allay some of those fears. Full decriminalisation of this business will do nothing more than regulate this business in the same way as other businesses are regulated—in the same way.
In New South Wales I used to speak to Sydney city council a lot about sex work matters, and more recently while preparing for today I got an update. I said, ‘Look, how many complaints are you getting about the brothels or sex on premises or people working?’. They said, ‘None. We actually don’t get complaints about sex workers’. In one particular building they were telling me that there was a sex worker in the building, but the complaint was not about the sex worker, it was about the music teacher teaching piano and, sadly, trombone. Now, that did cause a complaint, but again we have body corporate rules and we have all of these rules that mandate and act around these types of planning policies. This will continue in this piece of legislation. There will still be planning controls, there will still be health and safety controls, and there will be greater WorkCover care controls. I envisage a much better industry, a much safer industry, an industry where people do not have to be scared of saying what they do.
This decriminalisation is supported by Amnesty International. It is supported by the World Health Organization. It is supported by Human Rights Watch. It is supported by Anti-slavery International because decriminalising sex work does not make it legal to traffic people. It does not make it legal to stealth someone. That still remains illegal—absolutely illegal—and it is in the Crimes Act 1958, where it should be. So we are not talking about somehow allowing people to be exploited or trafficked or harmed in any way. We are just saying that sex workers will be treated equally under the law and sex work businesses will be treated equally under the law.
As you know, I could probably talk for a long time about all of this; however, I think just the part I really am pleased about is the changes to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. This is really important, and I hope that one day we do not need it. I hope that one day the stigma and discrimination that sex workers experience disappears, because I hope actually that we are having a conversation about what consenting adults do and that somehow this actually might change some of our attitudes around sex and sexuality. I hope that this actually helps. I think of Ms Lovell’s constituent talking about her son with disability, and I think about talking to a sex worker just the other day who has a masters in sex therapy.
She would love to offer her services through the NDIS, but she does not want to tell the NDIS that she is a sex worker. I hope that this legislation will change that. I hope that what we pass today—and I hope we pass it today—will change that. I hope that sex workers can talk to their mothers group about the trials and tribulations of their work. I hope that sex work businesses are not ostracised and kicked out of Rotary clubs, as we have seen in the past, because of the moral judgement on this industry. I hope that changes.
I do not think we will use the charter’s new protected attributes of trade, calling or occupation often, but when it was introduced in the ACT in 1992 or 1993—around then—there was a claim. The first claim that came out was directly to the Canberra Times, because the Canberra Times used to charge sex workers $15 a line in the classifieds and plumbers $3 a line in the classifieds. It was completely discriminatory, it was completely unfair and it has changed. The most recent case—and I think it goes to Mr Rich-Phillips’s contribution—that has been heard in the ACT under this protected attribute of occupation, trade or calling is by a crypto trader who has had his bank accounts closed. He is challenging that closure on the grounds that it was discrimination on the grounds of his occupation, trade and calling, and it looks like he will be successful. So yes, this legislation and this new protected attribute may actually protect other people. It may actually protect other businesses, and I see no harm in that.
What I do know is that this will reduce harm to sex workers. It will reduce harm to the families of sex workers. I know this will change people’s lives. I do not know whether people are going to say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a sex worker’. Who knows? I did not say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a waitress’. Actually I did not grow up saying I wanted to be a politician either, but here I am. This will enable us to have those conversations. This will enable us to ensure that there are good work practices at all levels, that the industry is protected, that sex workers are protected and that their families are protected.
I did not want to mention this, but this idea that somehow I did a deal to get this legislation up is not only insulting to me, it is insulting to every single person who has fought for decades for this legislation. We fought for this. In 2019 the government said, ‘Let’s look at ways to decriminalise sex work’—in 2019. Now, I am not even sure COVID was a twinkle in anyone’s eye then. It was in 2019 that I was asked to look at how we would decriminalise sex work. So to say that I sold myself on pandemic legislation for this—and let us just make a point. The government did not want pandemic legislation, actually. We pushed them into pandemic legislation. So I do not know how they would say, ‘We’ll give you this if you support pandemic legislation’, when the government did not support pandemic legislation until we really pushed the point that we would not support continued states of emergency and we wanted to see specific legislation. So I just make that point.
I look forward to the committee process, and I will speak about the amendments, of which there are many, during the committee process. But I am so proud, and I am grateful, and on behalf of all the sex workers and all of the people who have worked so hard to get this bill to where it is, I commend this bill to the house.