I rise to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access Zones) 2015.
I say at the outset that I will be voting in favour of it, but in saying that I found it quite difficult to come to that decision for a number of reasons.
I have been concerned about the bill and its implications for free speech.
My initial response was that it is an ill-conceived piece of legislation that seeks to deal with an important issue in a very hurried manner and without due consideration for some of the fundamental issues that are at stake.
There are a number of ways in which the purposes of this bill could have been achieved, significantly without necessarily encroaching on the right to freedom of speech.
Women in Victoria are legally able to obtain an abortion within the confines of the law, and that was settled in this state in I think 2008, so it is not the issue at stake here. Women should be able to attend for medical services in a free manner without the sort of harassment that has been described here today. The legislation that is before us today includes words like ‘besetting’, ‘harassing’, ‘intimidating’, ‘interfering with’, ‘threatening’, ‘hindering’, ‘obstructing’ or ‘impeding’ a person by any means. We are all pretty clear that it is that sort of behaviour that should be prohibited by law, and indeed a lot of those things are already prohibited by law. One of the problems we have had in relation to this is the fact that the law is not being enforced, and that is an issue across a number of areas but perhaps not the discussion for today.
In Australia we do not have a Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech is constrained and limited. Was it not the purpose of the government in repealing the move-on laws in the Summary Offences Amendment (Move-on Laws)Act 2015 earlier this year to give people the right to freedom of speech — the right to demonstrate, and the right to gather together to express their views? Those in favour of the legislation were quick to point out how important it was to repeal the move-on laws to protect those rights. Indeed in his second-reading speech the Attorney-General stated about these laws:
The powers go too far given they can be made in circumstances where a person committed no crimes at all. They impose limitations on the Victorian public’s freedom of movement, the right to peaceful assembly and the freedom of association.
Other speeches were in similar terms.
In a world where we are extremely regulated, where we are monitored closely all the time, and in public places as well, where we are tracked simply by virtue of the fact that we have a mobile phone, our freedoms are being encroached upon enormously and for many reasons, and I think we should be very careful when we come to take any step that further limits our rights to those freedoms. As a community we have lost sight of the fact that we are giving up much of our own privacy and our own freedoms every time we put information into our phones or our computers, we make purchases on the internet, or we use Facebook or Twitter. We are giving away private information about ourselves that other people use. Our information can be sold and passed on to anyone anywhere else in the world. When we are walking around the city we know that we are on CCTV. In Shepparton, a country town, the CBD is monitored by CCTV in a way that means you can focus up very closely right onto the face of a person and there you have it: you know who they are.
If we limit our rights to express our views publicly: to march and to demonstrate in a free and open manner in accordance with the law, then we need to know that we are giving up something valuable and that it is really important that we do know this is so. It is this tension between those rights and the rights of women to access these health services that have really troubled me. I read the Supreme Court case which described the behaviour of these protesters who are outside the clinic. A lot of the evidence was contained in a letter from the clinic to the court. Of course none of this evidence was tested, but I was very impressed to hear the member for Lowan giving firsthand evidence of her experience. I have now heard it firsthand, and this nevertheless is second-hand.
Some of the examples state that the protesters stand outside the clinic every day and have done so for more than 20 years from Monday to Saturday. Often they number up to 12 people. They approach women apparently coming to the clinic, imposing their presence even when they are clearly unwelcome, harassing women entering or leaving the clinic, engaging in arguments with women and passers-by and attempting to block their entry to the clinic, blocking the footpath outside the clinic and entering the laneway that runs alongside the clinic to follow patients or stand and pray or sing and shout outside the windows of the consulting rooms. I could go on, but I do not think I need to; we have heard enough of this already today. These are the concerns I have. It is because of the fundamental right women have to make these decisions to access health services that they should not be harassed in this way, which is why I think we perhaps need a law to deal with it.
There are other laws in this state that similarly cover situations where there is an exclusion zone in existence, and to some extent that has also influenced me. The Parliamentary Precincts Act 2001 sets out a distinct geographic area around the Parliament where people cannot demonstrate. The Safety on Public Land Act 2004 allows for an area of state forest to be declared a public safety zone for the maintenance of public safety. This seems to have been done to prevent demonstrators from coming into forest areas and impeding logging. In the wildlife regulations we have restrictions and exclusion zones around people who might be demonstrating against, say, duck shooting. I think if we can have those sorts of exclusions in that sort of legislation, in the situation we have here, where women are seeking to access fundamental and really important medical treatment, I have come to the conclusion that it is simply appropriate that the same thing should happen.
I am also influenced by the fact that it is only 150 metres. People can still demonstrate and say what they want. They can stand outside on Macarthur Street at the back of Parliament House. I see them each morning as I drive into Parliament. We are not entirely depriving people of their right to demonstrate; we are just placing some limitations on it. I suppose I have struggled with this to some extent, but the overwhelming concern for me is that women to have the right to access these clinics. However, I still urge everyone to think long and hard about how quickly we give away the rights we have. That is a really important issue for us all. I support the bill.