Criminal Law Consolidation (Assaults on Prescribed Emergency Workers) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

I wish to acknowledge and thank all members who have made a contribution to the debate on this bill to date. That includes the member for Elizabeth, who is the opposition spokesperson on police matters, our own Minister for Police and the members for Heysen, Newland, Hammond, Lee, King and Morphett.

I have to acknowledge that I was a little bit distracted during the latter part of the debate because I received a submission earlier this afternoon during the course of this debate from the Law Society of South Australia. I will refer to that a little later. I indicate that, having received the submission—and I have provided a copy of it to the opposition—whilst we will not complete this debate today, we can both have a good look at it overnight, I am sure. I will be addressing some aspects in it that I have been able to quickly peruse.

The general tenor of the submission from the Law Society of South Australia will probably not be very surprising to many people. They have received our bill and proposed amendments. On a quick read, I do not think they have actually received the amendments of Mr Odenwalder. I am not sure but—

No, the Law Society. In considering their submission, I think the general tenor I can paraphrase is to say they do not consider the aspects covered by this bill either necessary or appropriate. But, as I say, to give them justice I will refer to a number of their matters in due course.

 I will return to the Law Society's submission shortly, but I wish to thank the opposition for indicating that they will support the bill, although it has been made very clear that they take the view that their amendments would strengthen its benefit and operation and they will be seeking the house's support of them. However, in default, as I understand it, they will support the legislation.

Can I just identify a couple of matters that I think need some clarification. I accept that the member for Elizabeth, in his prior life as a police officer, has had some hands-on experience. I do not doubt he is a member of the Police Association. As the union representative body for the police force, it is important that the Police Association's position be considered, and it has been by the government—in fact, so much so that amendments have been foreshadowed and tabled to accommodate further consideration of matters raised by the Police Association.

In recent times, some police statistics have been presented in respect of the numbers of police assaults. It does concern me to note that, whilst the opposition have indicated an increase in police assaults over the last 12 months, they have failed to take into account the police assaults over the last seven years, which have remained consistently high but have been a lot higher. I think it is important that we place on the record that, although last year's data suggests that it is now at some 771, in fact in 2012-13 the number was 880. In 2015-16, it was 784, and in 2016-17 it was 773.

No-one accepts that any of these matters should be tolerated as an acceptable number, but I make the point because there has been an increase in the previous 12 months from the preceding year; it is a monumental reduction from what happened in the years preceding it. Perhaps that is why the former government did nothing about increasing and strengthening the penalties applicable to assaults on police generally during their term in office. I do not know why they did not. I do not know why they did not strengthen this further, given the data that has been raised by the member for Elizabeth as recently as the last 24 hours.

I do not know why we have not heard from the Leader of the Opposition, who was a former police minister, in relation to what he did or did not do, why he did not take any action or, if he took any action to the cabinet, why they did not accept it. Why is this suddenly a problem that we have to clean up? I do not know the answer to that, but I do know this: we are a responsible government, we are acting to clean this up and we are proceeding with a bill to take into account a very wide spectrum of people we see are on the front line and deserve to have some further consideration.

In looking at this issue, it is very important for us that we do not just look at the police as the emergency front-line workers that they are—we recognise that—and that we do not just look at increasing penalties. It is really important that we look more broadly, and we have. The work that we have undertaken with stakeholders regarding the legislation unsurprisingly has included the police commissioner as the head of SAPOL; PASA, of course, which has been referred to; the Australian Medical Association, SA division; the Country Fire Service; ANMF; and volunteer groups, all of whom support our bill.

In our view, it is clear that the Labor Party have not gone to the extent of considering the spectrum of those views; otherwise, I suggest that they would not just be making public statements to support 100 per cent of what the police union wants. I might add that we have accepted most of that. It is incorporated in the bill that we have presented and even more with the amendments. Another thing that concerns me is that I think the opposition have been attempting to present an argument to the public that their support of the PASA position will ensure that, somehow or other, there is a commitment that people who assault police will go to gaol and that there will be some imposition of this.

Even the member for Elizabeth concedes that his proposal in respect of the second suspended sentence is not mandatory sentencing. It is quite clear that both major parties are not supporting mandatory sentencing, but the impression is being presented that the proposed legislation will ensure that; that is, there will be no suspended sentences for a second offence within five years for a person who assaults a police officer. Let me just explain what happens in the real world.

In the real world, a charge of assault can be laid under the Criminal Law Consolidation Act. A judge can look at what his obligations might be if the Labor amendment were to pass and say, 'I can't give this person a suspended sentence. I might elect not to give them a prison term at all.' In which case, the assertion that people who commit an offence against a police officer will go to gaol is actually a complete myth. It should not be out there being perpetuated as the necessary answer to ensure that occurs because it is just not going to translate to that.

If the Labor Party as the opposition had consulted with a number of other parties, they may have felt that their consideration of accepting the government's position on this had merit, but it is disappointing to note that that appears to have escaped their attention. They have been prepared to perpetuate the union's position and only the union's position. Let me highlight the position in relation to police when one takes into account the police commissioner as well.

Let's look at the removal of section 6, assaults, from the Summary Offences Act. That is essentially what we are proposing. We are not going as far as the opposition wants, which is to remove hinder police as well. We say that this proposal to remove assaults from the Summary Offences Act and leaving only the Criminal Law Consolidation Act charges is probably unnecessary. Nevertheless, we have accepted the request by the Police Association to remove the assault of police from the Summary Offences Act. The police commissioner supports that proposal and states that it would provide:

…a clear policy position to set a deterrent to members of the public regarding assaults on police (and other like worker) and removes the potential default position to a lesser offence in the [Summary Offences Act].

As we have said, strictly speaking, no change is necessary as it is already open to the prosecutor to charge an offender with the section 20 Criminal Law Consolidation Act offence instead of the section 6 Summary Offences Act offence where they consider it necessary or appropriate to do so under the circumstances. For example, the prosecutor may consider that a higher penalty should be sought for the particular offending, or that a summary offence, under section 6 of the Summary Offences Act, should be charged rather than a minor offence, such as in section 20 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act.

Despite no change being necessary, the government accept the advice from SAPOL and PASA to provide a clear policy position and deterrent to those who assault police. This further removes the potential default position to a lesser offence in the Summary Offences Act. We must be aware of the broader considerations here, particularly the ability of police prosecutors to agree to a reduction in circumstances.

Overcharging as a way to recognise the gravity of assaulting a police officer does not benefit anyone, least of all the police officer offended against, particularly if the facts will simply not stand up to a robust contest. SAPOL's prosecutions branch undertakes a decision-making process when considering a plea of a lower level charge. Consultation also occurs with affected members. SAPOL appreciates that withdrawal and reduction of charges in circumstances presents an element of the justice system working as it should. Facts like this are often not reported in the media.

The charging of offences against police must meet the same standards as charges against members of the general public. In respect of the retaining of section 6, hindering police, I will canvass that on the next occasion. I seek leave to continue my remarks.