Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (15:18): Thank you, Acting Speaker. It is a pleasure to see you in the chair today, and I am also happy to rise to speak on the Victoria Police Amendment Bill 2022, which, as previous speakers have indicated, is an important bill to clear up an issue that has arisen within the Victoria Police Act 2013. It is an administrative error relating to the appointment of acting assistant commissioners that has actually flowed through the system and caused issues with respect to the swearing-in of officers right throughout the force, and as such the opposition is not opposing this legislation and is working with the government to facilitate its swift passage through the chamber today and hopefully through the other place as well to get this put to bed.
It is always a concern when the Parliament puts forward retrospective legislation. I think that is something that should be avoided as a principle, but in this circumstance it is, I think, literally unavoidable and one that I support on this particular occasion, because we must make sure that our police are operating properly and legally to ensure that the work they are doing and what subsequently flows through the courts as well are proper and legally valid, and that is indeed what this legislation is about.
It is important that we on this side and those in the government—and I would hope every member of this chamber—provide their support to our police. Sadly there are some that sit near me that sometimes do not provide their support to the police. They seem to think that it is better to support people who do the wrong things, but certainly I support our police very strongly for the work that they do throughout our state in the early hours of the morning through to late at night and in all locations around our state. It is a difficult job. I have a number of family members who are—and indeed one family could almost be a TV show because they are just about all, or their in-laws are—police officers, and I know the stress that that puts on that family, particularly in the last 12 months or so when there have been some significant security issues for that family. That is to be regretted, but when tensions are high it is often the police that are sent in to deal with them. Sometimes it is both the officers and their families that cop the brunt of that, and that certainly is a concern. I will not name them, but I do pay my respects to those members of my extended family who have done such a great job over many years, but particularly in the last 12 or 18 months, in providing community safety at a time of significant community stress and tension.
I also note the work that the police do in engaging with the community and not simply tackling crime and dealing with the bad guys, as it were. Indeed this morning with Parliament sitting I have missed the International Women’s Day breakfast that was put on at the Sale police station. I think my staff did go along to that event. The member for Burwood would be pleased to note that, speaking of International Women’s Day, I now have my purple tie on, and I thank him for providing it. It is the sort of thing that our police do—putting on a day to recognise International Women’s Day. In fact I think Acting Inspector Mel McLennan at Sale police station was the person inviting us to that. I saw Mel on Saturday night at the first deb ball that we have had in my electorate for a very, very long time due to the pandemic—that is another example of the work that the police do, being there after hours, being part of the community and accepting the debs—along with my federal colleague Darren Chester. We are indeed lucky in Sale to have the RAAF base, who were there as part of the official party as well, but it was great to see Mel there and to enjoy the community experience that it was.
Our police do a fantastic job, and as I said, in supporting this legislation we as a Parliament need to support them. But there are challenges right throughout our state. Despite the additions to police numbers under this government and indeed under the previous Liberal-Nationals government, there remain those challenges. I was not a member of the previous Liberal-Nationals government except at the very end of that government when I had a stint in the upper house, but I do know that at the time my predecessors committed to 1700 extra police and 940 PSOs. Indeed what they delivered in that four-year term was in fact 1900 extra police and over 1000 PSOs—so that was good—and the government has, through its community safety statement a couple of years ago, added additional numbers. My concern is that those numbers are not necessarily evenly spread around the state and in those areas that need them the most.
I am particularly concerned about South Gippsland, where the thin blue line is indeed very thin. Just last week while undertaking a listening post in one of the towns in South Gippsland I came across one of the local officers off duty, and he raised the concern again about numbers. What I often hear from my police officers is that the numbers they have across the region in each of the stations are probably about right in their formal allocations but that what happens in actual fact is that when staff go on leave, when they go on long service leave, when they are injured or otherwise off on WorkCover situations and when they are on secondment, which they are regularly are, those positions are never replaced. So while the official numbers on the roster list might be fine, the actual numbers that are there on any given occasion are not.
I know that particularly from Sunday night through to Thursday night in South Gippsland and across Bass Coast there is a very, very limited number of police cars on the road. I have stopped saying publicly what that number is because I am concerned that it highlights to potential criminals that we are fairly minimally protected. It is a concern of course when you are covering such a big geographic area. If you get a couple of minor or major incidents, whether it is a motor vehicle accident or a fire, that require police attendance, it is going to make it very difficult for police then to be able to report at another end of the district in the event of a callout. That is a concern, as I said, that a senior police officer as recently as Friday raised with me. The crime statistics continue to rise, particularly in South Gippsland shire. Wellington shire I think has in the last couple of years been relatively stable, but in South Gippsland shire the statistics since 2014 have risen inexorably, and I think that is genuinely a reflection of the change in policing availability.
The other thing that has caused that concern is the change to two-up policing, which is something that of course is supported by the vast majority of the force. They actually prefer to be working two up, and they are happy to have that security, but I remember talking to an officer at one of my stations a couple of years ago shortly after that policy was introduced, and he indicated it had taken out about 30 per cent of their shifts because of the need to ensure that officers were always working with someone else. There are some exceptions for one-man stations, but even in that case more often than not my one-man stations in Gippsland South are required, if they are going out on jobs, to wait for someone to come from another station to join them, and that causes a significant resourcing issue. Again, I am not saying I am opposed to that, and certainly it is not the police who are opposed to the two-up rule, but it has had an impact on the level of policing that is actually available at any given time.
It is important that we act swiftly to address the issue that this bill is seeking to fix, and retrospectively so. We do need to ensure that our police have the support of this Parliament—that they have the support of the government, the opposition and all members of this Parliament—and that they have the resources they need as well as the legal certainty that they need to provide the service of security and peace to our community. So I look forward to this bill passing the chamber later this evening and proceeding through to the upper house, where it will give some security and certainty to our police force going forward.