Children deserve our protection

Originally published in The Examiner 14 July 2020 (Available here)

Your repulsion, my repulsion, indeed society's repulsion at child abuse is so strong we rightly demand unambiguous punishment for perpetrators and the strongest protection for our vulnerable children.

Yet too often our legal system appears to side with the perpetrator and vague prospects of rehabilitation rather than expressing abhorrence and adopting a precautionary principle for the protection of our most precious ones.

Senator Claire Chandler, my Tasmanian Liberal Senate colleague, told the Senate recently, "From 1st February 2014 to 31st January 2019, 40 per cent of Commonwealth child sex offences did not result in a custodial period. For those offenders who did receive a custodial sentence during this time, the most frequent custodial period recorded was just six months."

This judicial failure to appropriately sentence, punish and send a loud, clear message of deterrence to perpetrators or would-be perpetrators is of catastrophic proportions. Which is why the Liberal governments (both state and federal) committed to legislating for mandatory sentencing. The courts having failed, the community rightly wanted action. And so it was that at the last elections (state and federal) the Liberals adopted firm policy platforms for mandatory sentencing for child sex offenders.

Our policy was based on a commitment to protect our children against the horrific statistics that last year saw the Australian Federal Police receive almost 18,000 reports of child exploitation involving Australian children or Australian child sex offenders. These statistics are horrific in themselves. But they aren't just numbers. Even more horrific is the consideration that each number represents a violated life. And the numbers are rapidly rising; confirming the sentencing approach currently adopted is not working.

The legislation to give expression to society's demand for penalties to protect our children was contained in Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Bill 2019. Readers will be surprised and concerned to learn that it was only their Tasmanian Liberal representatives that voted for these vital child protection measures. Labor, Greens and independents opposed the mandatory sentencing provisions thus seeing the defeat of the legislation.

Labor reluctantly allowed the measures through after the Liberal government immediately reintroduced them. The Greens and independents continued to oppose. Talk about misguided writ large.

Under federal law our children now have the protection so desperately needed. In Tasmania under state law our children are still being denied.

For Tasmanian children, it's a different story. The Labor party, Greens and independents are continuing to refuse to implement the Liberals' clear policy platform of delivering protection for our most vulnerable.

In my life as a lawyer, I represented countless victims of child abuse whose lives were wrecked and tormented. From substance abuse attempting to dull the pain, committing crimes and complete disregard for any authority figures, to an incapacity to form a lasting stable relationship, the damage caused by child abuse is like a wrecking ball crashing through most, if not every, aspect of the lives of victims.

Today, as a senator, I have victims' files seeking recognition of, and compensation for, that which they so devastatingly endured.

The personal and economic cost to individuals, families and our community is immeasurable. The facts, the figures, the anecdotal stories are there for all who want to know.

Child abuse devastates lives for life. The impact lingers and debilitates. The punishment of perpetrators needs to be not only proportionate to the life-long, life-shattering impact of their selfish actions to give a sense of justice to the victims but also needs to act as a forceful deterrent.

The victims are entitled to know that the community and justice system is on their side. Mandatory sentencing is the community's expression of support to the victims given the justice system has failed them.

Surely, there is nothing more important than protecting our children. In blocking mandatory sentencing the current Parliament wrongly sided with the perpetrators' interests rather than the victims' interests.

The Rosevears election on August 1 provides an opportunity for the community to express its view on an issue of paramount importance - protecting our children. If that is the only issue on which Rosevears electors cast their ballot and on which the newly elected member votes, they will have made a significant and worthwhile difference - one that will endure for generations and for which countless children will be eternally grateful.

The scourge of child abuse needs to be removed from our society. Mandatory sentencing is a worthy start.

Electors of Rosevears should ask each of the candidates if they support the Gutwein Liberal policy of getting tough on child sex offenders.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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