In what would only amount to a win for big government, the recent public register of sex offenders, proposed by Peter Dutton earlier this week, is a truly terrible idea for several reasons. However, it should come as no surprise that Mr Big Government himself seems either not to know about the research showing a public register doesn’t work, or far more likely, he just doesn’t care. In addition, the Law Council of Australia publicly condemned the 36-hour time fame for initial feedback on the proposal, calling it “absurd” and “an affront to all victims of sexual abuse”.
The optimist in me wants to believe that the short turnaround is in the interest of passing much needed legislation, but with a lack of evidence to support the use of a public register, it is likely yet another move by the federal government to introduce legislation that is neither effective, backed up by research or discussed at length to prove its necessity. It should come as no surprise however, the coalition government is no stranger to passing introducing ill-thought-out legislation, against the warnings of experts in the field. Immediately coming to mind are the recent anti-encryption laws and the debacle that is My Health Record (which was hacked 42 times in 17/18 FY). Mr Dutton has consistently sought to increase the power of the federal government through things like expanding the remit of Australian spy agencies, merging agencies to form a more centralised super agency in the Home Affairs portfolio and multiple breaches of process for immigration.
Of course, we are talking about potential paedophiles, rapists and murderers here. Sick, depraved individuals that surely deserve everything they get, right? Well, it is perhaps not that simple. Each State and Territory has their own definitions of what constitutes a sex offender and how admission to the registry is made. In WA, simply loitering near schools could land you on the list, with no mention of intent. In Victoria, engaging in bestiality, abduction or detention and administration of drugs could land you on the list.
Then there is the issue of close-in-age encounters allowing exemption; in the US these are labelled Romeo and Juliet laws. This exemption may completely exempt qualifying close-in-age couples from the age of consent law, or merely provide a legal defence that can be used in the event of prosecution. It also may not. With a public register of sex offenders, there now exists the probability that a person may be tarred with the same brush as rapists and paedophiles, simply for having sex with someone even a year apart in age. That’s a life sentence.
All people should be concerned about the increased powers of the state, an ever-growing hunger for power and control that isn’t deterred by the initial purpose of new legislation. Arguably, no one is sympathetic to convicted terrorists, but anti-terror laws have significantly increased state power over ordinary, peaceful citizens, despite not being intended to be used in that way. Likewise, the national firewall, which was first introduced to stop child exploitation, created a system of censorship, not just over the material of its intended purpose but potentially any or all material.
When you look at the facts it is clear that this solution simply does not work to protect children. It makes the community feel better but it does not protect our children.” Hetty Johnston, AM
Ultimately, while important, the focus needn’t be on the increased power of the state, but the ineffectiveness of a public register to protect victims of sexual abuse. Chair and Founder of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston AM, a prominent child protection activist, has called the move nothing more than a political stunt. Then there is the cost of maintaining such a register. In California, the estimated cost of running a register is $15 to $20 million dollars a year and it is assessed that only 10% of all child sex offenders will be known to authorities and thus, able to be put on a list.
The proposed public register is nothing more than a poorly veiled political stunt that serves no practical purpose and can only spell bad news for the future of the ever-expanding state.