Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2023

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I rise to speak in favour of the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2023, and from the outset I would like to thank all of those who have contributed to making the bill a reality, from the relevant ministers and their advisers in departments through to the many activists who have been agitating for the reforms contained in this bill. While it is, as my colleagues have already reflected upon, an omnibus bill of sorts with a variety of legislative changes, that does not make it any less important.

There are two significant elements of this bill I would like to take a moment to address today. The first has come about because of a deep tragedy, namely the passing of proud Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day. On 5 December 2017 Tanya boarded a V/Line train in Echuca bound for Melbourne, but she never made it to Melbourne that day. Instead she was taken off the train at Castlemaine and arrested for public drunkenness and taken to Castlemaine police station. She went for hours in her cell unchecked. In the process she fell multiple times, hitting her head and suffering a brain injury. Tanya died in the days afterwards.

In the aftermath of her passing, Tanya’s family and community campaigned together with human rights lawyers from the Human Rights Law Centre and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Thanks to their campaign, the coronial inquest into Tanya’s death took into account the role of systematic racism in her death and made a number of important recommendations for reform. Of these recommendations two were directed to the Attorney-General. The first was the recommendation to decriminalise public drunkenness and repeal the associated section in the Summary Offences Act 1966. I am proud to stand here today before you as part of an Andrews Labor government that has done just that. After receiving and accepting the coroner’s recommendations, the then Attorney-General the Honourable Jill Hennessy appointed an expert reference group to examine how we best shift from a custodial criminal response to public drunkenness to a health-based response, because we know that public drunkenness is not a moral issue or a legal issue, it is a health issue, and this government believes it is best viewed through a health and wellbeing lens. That is why we passed legislation, which came into effect in November last year, to this very effect, removing public drunkenness from the statute books and replacing it with a health-based response.

That being said, we are here today because the legislation before us implements the important second recommendation made by the coronial inquest into the death of Tanya Day. The inquest recommended to the government that the powers of the coroner should be clarified, especially around the role of directing police officers during coronial inquests. While these powers have been established informally, until now they have not been bound in legislation. Today this bill changes that for the better. By providing this clarification and codifying these powers in law, we will improve transparency and accountability in the justice system. Just like the recommendation to decriminalise public drunkenness, this recommendation is not new. In fact this is a changed form of recommendation 29 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and recommendation 42 of the Victorian Parliament Law Reform Committee report into the Coroners Act 1985. In hearing of the need for this reform from the royal commission, from the Law Reform Committee and now from the inquest into the death of Tanya Day I am proud to be part of a government that is taking real action and delivering that positive change. In doing so we will be making Victoria’s justice system more fair and more transparent for all, and that is deeply important for both our justice system more broadly and the healing journey of Tanya Day’s family and community.

In addition to this important reform, this bill before us today, the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2023, makes important steps forward in expanding presumptive rights for firefighting staff across Victoria. Firefighters do invaluable work in our community. It is something many of my colleagues have already spoken about in this place, and I would like to give a shout-out to the two firefighters I am aware of in our Labor caucus, the member for Frankston and the member for Pakenham. I am more than happy to be corrected if there are any further firefighters

–A member interjected.

John MULLAHY: And the member for Bass; I do apologise.

Members interjecting.

John MULLAHY: The member for the Benambra – excellent.

Firefighters, whether they are part of Fire Rescue Victoria, the CFA or the organisation that makes up Forest Fire Management Victoria, all do critical work in keeping our community safe. Whether they are responding to structure fires or bush or grassfires or arriving – often first – at the scene of traumatic accidents, the Andrews government truly appreciates their service. So often in their work they are exposed to carcinogens, which puts their health at high risk. Many end up developing cancers as a consequence of their work and service in keeping our communities in Victoria safe. For too long firefighters have had to fight hard to access compensation after a cancer diagnosis, with difficulty in linking the diagnosis to a particular event or exposure. The challenge is only compounded by the fact that, at the same time, these Victorians also have to take on one of the hardest health challenges one can face.

For this reason the Andrews government is proud to have commenced a presumptive rights scheme for firefighters diagnosed with cancers which are likely due to their work protecting our community. The scheme first commenced operation in 2019, and it means individuals diagnosed with specific cancers do not need to go through the arduous process of proving a direct link to workplace exposure, because the science and research tells us their diagnosis is likely due to their service. This landmark reform has provided peace of mind to thousands of firefighters and their loved ones since it was introduced, and has seen hundreds of claims made since the scheme came into effect back in 2019.

But we are not stopping at that initial piece of legislation that brought this scheme into being. As a government we are working to expand the scheme so more firefighters have access to the justice and comfort afforded by this important reform. This includes recent expansion of the presumptive rights scheme to cover the CFA and FRV vehicle and equipment maintenance workers who also attended fires in their career. But we are not stopping there. Today marks another step in the expansion of the scheme. The bill before the house will ensure three female-specific cancers – namely, cervical, ovarian and uterine cancers – are included in the presumptive rights scheme. Just like the existing scheme and similar models across Australia and overseas, presumptive rights will be subject to a 10-year qualifying period. It will continue to be managed by WorkSafe Victoria and will cover FRV, CFA and Forest Fire Management Victoria firefighters and vehicle mechanics equally. I am proud to be part of the Andrews Labor government for taking this important step to protect our firefighters and provide the resources they need both when fighting fires and when fighting for their wellbeing.

I truly hope this comes as good news to the thousands of firefighters across the state. In particular I would like to give a shout-out to those based in two fire stations in my electorate, FRV station 28 in Vermont South and FRV station 31 in Glen Waverley, and I extend that shout-out to all those in the eastern and southern D1 districts more broadly. Thank you sincerely for the work that you do every day to keep our communities safe. This government stands with you in providing the resources you need to do your jobs well. On this side of the house we say the last thing you need when fighting the evil that is cancer is trying to prove the specific cause of your illness – because the science and the research tell us that the job is highly likely the cause, and we believe the science. That is what this legislation is about.

The bill is all about improving Victorians’ access to justice. As legislators it is absolutely our responsibility to create a stronger and fairer justice system for all, and the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2023 is a strong step in that direction. Whether you are a female firefighter diagnosed with cancer because of your work fighting the bureaucracy to access compensation, or whether you are a family member of Tanya Day who has spent years fighting for a fairer and more just world, this bill is for you – for those fighting for a more equitable society – and I am proud to be part of a progressive Andrews Labor government that has your back every day that it has the privilege of being in government. I am pleased to commend the bill to the house.

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