Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control—Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020

18th March 2021

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (10:43): I want to speak on the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control—Preethi's Law) Bill 2020 because it is such a significant issue for us in society. There are a number of things I wish to say from the outset. Firstly, I know there is not a single member in this House who is not extremely concerned about the atrocious and unacceptable rate of domestic violence against women and the seemingly worsening severity of that violence. There is no-one here who would condone that behaviour or who does not recognise that coercive control is a significant part of violence against women. There is also no-one who wants to sit around quietly and allow the problem to worsen.

I thank the member for Shellharbour for preparing this bill. I know it reflects her dedication and passion for doing something about this very serious issue. I absolutely understand and respect the bill's intentions and the enormous amount of work it has taken to reach this stage. As we have heard from other speakers, and indeed as I have learned through my own research with victim and survivor groups, and organisations such as the Law Society of New South Wales and Domestic Violence NSW this bill does, however, have some flaws and in my view fails the practical application test in a number of ways.

The issue of coercive control is a very significant issue and I do not want that significance understated in any way. It is also a very complex issue. It is clear from discussions I have had and from listening to considered contributions to this debate that it is a difficult issue to legislate around. As I have said on a number of occasions previously, it troubles me when we see an Opposition bill or indeed a private member's bill like this which, while well-intentioned, will always fail, not necessarily because of lack of merit but because it is an Opposition bill. Rightly or wrongly we know that a bill coming from the Opposition is not going to pass, and that is the unfortunate fact of the matter. However, that is not something unique to this Government or Opposition. We all know there is no way a Labor government would accept a non-government bill from a Coalition in opposition. It is just the way it is.

On an issue as important as this, if the Opposition is serious about fixing the problem it makes far better sense that those opposite actually work with the Government and expert agencies to address the problem and come up with a bill that is suitably nuanced and appropriate. It has to be done wholeheartedly in concert with Government, and that takes the Government to also reach out across the aisle. Sadly, as I said, we are now debating a bill that fails the practical application test on a number of fronts. That is the view not just of the Government but also of a number of the expert agencies I have spoken to. We need a law which works. We know that Tasmania criminalised coercive control in 2004 but, as Renata Field from Domestic Violence NSW has pointed out, it is an offence that is simply not used the way it was intended. That is for a number of reasons but primarily because it casts too broad a net, it is difficult to fit into a legal framework, and police and the judiciary are not educated in ways of properly interpreting it or using it.

This bill, as in the Tasmanian experience, risks being under-utilised by police and the courts because the proposed offence becomes too broad and unwittingly captures behaviours which are outside of the intended target. The issue of domestic violence and coercive control is too important and too significant for us to fail on. Again, while I acknowledge the intentions of the member for Shellharbour, we need to get this right. I believe we should all wait for the parliamentary committee's report before moving forward. The committee, as I understand it, has received almost 200 submissions from victims or survivors, expert legal agencies, domestic violence organisations, police and other frontline responders. We will have a much better view of the required path ahead than what we have in front of us now.

Having said that, I also believe that the Government could have been moving far more quickly than it has on this issue. I note the Government released its initial discussion paper in October 2019 and that a joint select committee for further inquiry into coercive control in domestic relationships was later ordered. But, while I acknowledge the extraordinary events over the past year, we are not likely to see the committee's report until June, or almost two years after the discussion paper was released. I would have hoped for a more urgent response on this issue, notwithstanding the fact that a large number of stakeholders needed to be engaged on the matter and the complex nature of the issue itself.

I note the Attorney General's role in that long and difficult process, and I acknowledge his efforts to formulate or guide new legislation. The evidence is very clear: Coercive control is a significant component in a large percentage of domestic violence cases. There is also no doubt that it is an identifiable precursor to domestic partner murders. We know the gut-wrenching figures and they have been repeated a number of times during this debate. The most heartbreaking of all is that a woman is killed by a current or former partner in Australia every nine days, on average. A man is killed by a former or current partner every 29 days.

Australian Bureau of Statistics reports show that one in six women aged over 18 have experienced violence from a current or former domestic partner. That is disgraceful. Figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show that a record number of sexual assaults occurred in the Hunter region over the past year. These figures were highlighted again today by theNewcastle Herald. They showed that the number of reported sexual assaults in the Hunter has risen about 10 per cent a year for the past five years. In 2020, 849 sexual assaults were reported in the region. This is an appalling figure and is 13 per cent higher than the 754 assaults reported in the previous year. The only positive in those figures is that some counselling and support groups are saying part of the increase is due to more women, in particular, finding their voices and coming forward to report their experiences.

That is to be further encouraged, of course, and I am pleased that more victims and survivors are feeling comfortable with coming forward. But it also reflects the extent of the problem. There were 849 sexual assaults in the Hunter region last year, or more than two a day. There were also 258 in the Lake Macquarie local government area alone, and the figure is rising. We must acknowledge the problem and get on with fixing it. I am loathe to oppose this bill because it could be seen as further delaying a response or decisive action, but the need to get the response right is first in my mind. It is paramount, and I cannot overcome the flaws that the experts and frontline respondents say this bill contains.

The horrific abuse that is happening within our communities must be stopped. I have heard unimaginable stories of abuse, particularly of local women. I cannot imagine the grief and trauma that Dr Preethi Reddy endured. Nor can I imagine the grief and trauma experienced by her family and friends. I do not have all the answers. I do not even know why these levels of violence happen at all, but I know they happen. I also know that our response must be workable and it must create a framework that genuinely protects, deters and punishes. Coercive control is an extremely complex problem that presents significant legal and practical difficulties to fix. I believe it is imperative that we get all those complexities and nuances on the table and that we work with the experts, frontline staff, victims and survivors and create something that is not open to abuse and actually works for victims.

The parliamentary committee has been charged with doing that and has been doing so for the past year. As grateful as I am to the member for Shellharbour for the work she has done in this area and as keen as I am to see relevant legislation, I believe we should at least wait for the report and recommendations to come back from that committee and resist moving forward with a bill that so many experts say will not adequately address the problem. When that report is tabled, I trust the Government and the Attorney General to move quickly to act on its recommendations. In the meantime, I believe the member for Shellharbour has done a great service by bringing this bill forward as it has exposed an awful truth that exists for too many in our community, mostly women, and allowed for a more meaningful debate than might otherwise have occurred on this important matter.

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