JUSTICE LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2022

Second Reading

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (11:30): I am happy to rise to say a few words on this Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, which has quite a wide variety of amendments within it—it is an omnibus bill, as we are quite used to dealing with in the chamber here. I echo some of the comments of the member for Altona in the issues that this will address with respect to past forced adoption practices. This is a very sensitive area and one that brings forth significant emotional turmoil for many people in Victoria, particularly the mothers who were subject to those horrible forced adoption practices. I have a number of them in my electorate, most particularly a tiger of an advocate in Brenda Coughlan, who comes to me regularly with issues. She has only one failing in that she barracks very strongly for the Bombers, which she always reminds me of. Brenda is a regular correspondent, and I met with her actually this week to discuss some of the issues with the redress scheme coming forward, not directly related to this legislation. She has been through a lot, as have many others. The announcement of the redress scheme earlier in the year has certainly brought forward others. I met with a lady in Leongatha only a few weeks ago who has not had any contact with government or government agencies on this issue but was subject to those same abhorrent practices in the past. I suspect that there will be many more coming forward.

I know this will be a difficult process to work out who was involved, which agencies were to blame or involved in the practices and indeed therefore how to identify those that are in need or who are indeed deserving of redress. We often say in these cases the government should hasten on this, but I think hasten slowly as well and make sure that we get the process right. Certainly an issue was raised with me about which agencies will in fact be captured by the redress scheme. I have written to the minister, and I will not raise it any more now, but I would hope that would be addressed as the redress scheme is finalised.

There are a number of clauses responding to the Legislative Assembly Legal and Social Issues Committee’s inquiry into responses to historical forced adoptions in Victoria, including, as previous speakers have mentioned, the issues of integrated birth certificates, which can be provided upon request. On that and the change to the adoption information service into the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, I am concerned, as I am sure many other members of the chamber are, about births, deaths and marriages. To this day on the BDM website it still does not have its customer service centre open. Throughout the pandemic, even when every other department was open and available and responding to calls or emails, my office found constantly BDM was unresponsive. Even in the last couple of weeks I have had three or four constituents on a range of issues relating to birth certificates and change of name where BDM has been singularly unresponsive and really has failed in its duty to the public. These are matters I have raised with the Attorney-General. Certainly through the pandemic she was very much aware of them, and we understood that there would be some delays, but there have been quite a number that grate on me. It concerns me that BDM is being given more jobs to do.

I had a situation previously where a 16-year-old girl had, three years ago, tried to change her name, given there was a background there of adoption as well, and she and her grandmother were constantly being told, ‘Yes, someone will come back to you’, and that just never happened. This is a consistent message that I get. I think the Attorney-General does need to be reviewing the operation of births, deaths and marriages and its performance, from my perspective as a local member dealing with constituents who constantly come to me. I had a constituent last year who had one of their children born at home, and that caused enormous issues. It took them in the end something like six months to get a birth certificate because it was not done in the usual process. Now, that is not that unusual, to have a home birth, but this family were dairy farmers with a number of children already, and it just took an inordinate amount of time to get something as simple as a birth certificate. That is a concern that I raise.

I will just touch on the amendment with respect to the current grounds for adopting out a child. The member for Malvern touched on this too, and I just echo the concerns he raised. I understand this is also responding to a recommendation of the committee. It is basically that where—I had to read this a few times—there is a situation of neglect or ill-treatment of a child, if the parents do not consent to the child being adopted out, the department does not go ahead with that. As the member for Malvern indicated, that seems completely counterintuitive to me. As I read it a few times I thought, ‘Surely I’m reading this wrongly’. I appreciate, as did the member for Malvern, that these are not simple and straightforward issues, but it does seem to be a concern that even where parents might be neglecting or ill-treating a child they still have a say in their future adoption, particularly if it is to a family or to a household of any description that will love them and care for them. Like the member for Malvern, I will be watching that carefully, and I hope the government does as well and reviews the implementation of that particular issue, because it does seem a little odd to me.

There are a number of other clauses in this bill amending the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 in relation to secrecy provisions and some changes to include more gender-inclusive language in various acts of Parliament. On the changes to the Judicial College of Victoria Act 2001 the most significant of the amendments is to increase the number of directors from eight to at least nine but not more than 10 to facilitate an increase in the number of directors appointed by the Attorney-General. As the member for Malvern indicated, there are some concerns within the legal fraternity about that as to whether it will give the government of the day further power to influence the Judicial College of Victoria.

I think in all of this I would reflect on and hope, as the member for Malvern did too, that the government’s focus is not entirely on these sorts of minor administrative changes but on in fact clearing the backlog in our court system. It is a truism of course that justice delayed is justice denied. Yes, we all understand the difficulties of the pandemic, but we also all remember standing in this place in about April 2020 and making significant changes to the operation of the court system to allow it to continue to operate through the pandemic and through the various lockdowns that we experienced, and I would hope that the government is absolutely focused on clearing the backlog of court cases right throughout the system as well.

I return briefly to the issue of adoption and the Assembly’s Legal and Social Issues Committee inquiry into responses to historical forced adoption in Victoria. I acknowledge the work done by the committee on that, as the member for Altona did. I know she mentioned former Prime Minister Gillard. I did not actually catch whether she mentioned the Victorian apology.

Members: She did.

Mr D O’BRIEN: She did? Okay. I think it should be acknowledged, the work of Ted Baillieu and Peter Ryan as the Premier and Deputy Premier at the time. I had a wonderful experience with Ted and Peter unveiling a statue in Sale that was pushed, again by Brenda Coughlan, recognising the bond between mother and child. I know that apology, both at state and federal level, continues to warm hearts around our state, and let us hope that these amendments in this legislation and also the forthcoming redress scheme will do more than warm hearts as well.

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