Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (15:49): I am also pleased to rise to speak on the Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, noting that this is not a bill about the actions of Richard Pusey but in relation to him. I would also like to acknowledge the families—and all the police force, but the families in particular—of constables Lynette Taylor, Glen Humphris and Josh Prestney and Senior Constable Kevin King, who lost their lives in absolutely awful and tragic circumstances on the Eastern Freeway. Subsequently we saw the actions of Pusey, which were despicable—unspeakable. What he did in the aftermath of that terrible accident has brought us to this point.
Again, this legislation is not about that but is certainly in response to that event. Just re-reading before the commentary that Pusey gave as he filmed the aftermath of that terrible event, it was absolutely sickening, and no fair-minded Victorian could not be sickened by what he did and what was said and indeed his entire behaviour throughout that. This is not legislation, though, to punish Richard Pusey, but it is indeed to ensure that similar future events or actions or activities are properly punished in the eyes of the community and indeed of community standards. So the opposition is certainly not opposing this legislation on that basis; however, there is nuance in everything that we say and do, and there are concerns. There have been concerns raised about this legislation and particularly with respect to the objectivity of what might be considered grossly offensive public conduct and what that actually means. There are a number of elements to the bill and certainly parts of it which provide some safeguards, if you like, in particular ensuring that only the DPP can finally approve action on a charge of grossly offensive public conduct, and that is as it should be.
There are concerns that have been raised I think probably by other speakers, but there are certainly some concerns that have been raised with the opposition by some of the groups involved, particularly the Law Institute of Victoria, which has raised concerns about the clarity of the legislation and that it should not be subject to the vagaries of public opinion or outcry. The Federation of Community Legal Centres has also raised some concerns that the proposed legislation designed to respond to a specific incident may have far-reaching consequences for communities that are marginalised and already over-represented in the criminal justice system and particularly that the proposed offence affords police a wide discretion in terms of assessing public propriety and decency and could result in discriminatory application. That is their view. Liberty Victoria similarly has raised concerns about the lack of definition of the term ‘grossly offensive conduct’.
Look, I understand those concerns. I think there is some validity to them, and I am sure the member for Malvern—I was not able to hear his contribution, but I know in his comments to the Liberals and Nationals he has raised those concerns and the fact that the Parliament should be prepared, if necessary, if these changes are in any way overused or over-abused, to step back in and provide that clarity, which I am sure we would be prepared to do. At the end of the day the community needs to have some satisfaction that if that sort of offensive conduct that we saw with the Eastern Freeway tragedy is to occur again, the people involved will be justly punished. I do not think the community saw that in the case of the Eastern Freeway tragedy and its aftermath. So we certainly are not opposing this legislation on that basis, having noted, though, the concerns that have been raised about the lack of definition and how it will be applied. We all hope, I am sure, that this particular offence is not something that needs to be prosecuted from time to time, because we hope that we will not have people like Pusey involved. Unfortunately they are out there, but I hope that this is used sparingly and that it is not needed too often.
The second part of the bill I want to go to is the delay in introducing the decriminalisation of public drunkenness, and I must say I pulled out my contribution on the original legislation from Hansard from February last year. It is not often you get to say ‘I told you so’, but this is exactly the reason that the coalition opposed the bill at the time to decriminalise public drunkenness, because we were concerned—and I made some specific comments on behalf of my community and on behalf of rural and regional Victoria—that the systems were simply not in place to accommodate the decriminalisation of public drunkenness. I highlighted at the time that whilst there was some agreement on the recommendations of the Expert Reference Group on Decriminalising Public Drunkenness, which released its report known as Seeing the Clear Light of Day, we understood—in fact I actually said—that we in this place need to better acknowledge and respect that while there can be a problem and there can be a range of potential solutions, if we do not agree what the government’s solution is, it does not mean we do not accept that there is a problem. What I said at the time, particularly as it relates to rural and regional Victoria, was that the health services simply do not exist to deal with this. I know that one of the recommendations from the expert panel was that primary first responders should be personnel from health or community services organisations, such as outreach services. I gave the example at the time that at 11.30 on a Friday night in Toora or Foster or Yarram there is not going to be someone available from one of those services to deal with a person who is drunk and causing problems in public. At the moment the police play that role. They probably do not like it necessarily, but they also know that they have a role in protecting public safety.
Likewise, the report recommended a range of new transport options be required to deal with people who are drunk in public. Again, I have enough trouble in my community with sober people being able to get public transport through much of my electorate. It is simply not there, and for many of the people who are going to be the subject of these laws, who do have issues with drunkenness, they do not have access to transport or peers around them who can assist. I made the point at the time of this legislation being debated in February last year that the notion that there will be transport options available in small country towns, even in bigger country towns, is just not feasible.
We warned the government then that it had the solution around the wrong way. By all means bring in the health response, bring in a response that says, ‘We will stop treating public drunkenness as a crime, as a criminal issue; we will treat it as a health issue’. That is great, but we do not have the health response set up. I am actually still sceptical that the government will have that in the next 12 months, particularly given the impacts and the pressure on the health system at the moment. We have seen, indeed with the COVID pandemic, commitments and promises about preparing the health system for the pandemic, which have verifiably failed. I think the notion that in 12 months time we are going to be able to have a health response in place—I am somewhat sceptical still. Whether it was the paramedic that I spoke to about this legislation before it was debated, whether it was the Police Association Victoria, whether it was the AMA, they have all had valid concerns. It certainly is good that the government has acknowledged that it is not ready. I still think, though, that it does not have the resources in place to deal with public drunkenness. It is a good decision to delay this for another 12 months, but it has got the wrong end of the stick, and I think it should still be reviewing it further.