Statutes Amendment (Screening) Bill

Second Reading

I would like to commence by thanking all those who have contributed to the debate on the screening bill and for the comments that have been made. The theme I have received from the lead speaker for the opposition has been translated in various forms through a number of speakers from the opposition.

In short, I understand that the opposition's position is that they will support the bill, that they recognise the significance of the benefits of screening for the purposes of child protection and dealing with those who are vulnerable, in the area of disability in particular, and understand the reasons behind the need to have a regulatory framework, which now needs to be supplemented by more statute law. Regulations underpinning the operational work of this legislation are on their way. The significance ought not escape the opposition because, as some speakers have outlined, they are the ones who were in government during the period when the benefits of screening were advanced, explored and expanded.

I am not going to go into the whole history of the matter. It is fair to say that during this century the significance of screening for the purposes of the protection of children has been highlighted by royal commissions and various inquiries, as has the need to ensure that there is some effective gatekeeping in relation to people who, for prurient and unlawful purposes, might seek to explore employment or volunteer activity that gives them access to children. They are the ones who have to be screened out.

We have now had over a decade of very clear indicators, from eminent people who have inquired into these matters, of the need to expand the screening systems that we have had in the past and, indeed, extend the application of those screenings. The most recent of these, post the exposure of Shannon McCoole and his successful attempts to get to children via state government agencies, outlined a very sad chapter in South Australia's history. In particular, failings were exposed firstly in an after-school hours care facility, then in an NGO and subsequently in the department under the state government, which he had access to.

Anyone who reads the sections in the Nyland royal commission report that relate to his capacity to access children through the failings, in that instance, of adequate screening and protection would have a very clear and sobering reminder about why we are doing this. As has been alluded to by other speakers, I think minister Bettison at the time supervised subsequent reforms coming out of the royal commission that basically said that we need stricter rules in relation to screening, we have to extend the application regarding who is screened and we are going to have to set some tougher thresholds.

I have paraphrased that, but I think members will get the gist of it. That is exactly what culminated in some legislation. I think that legislation had passed in 2016, so we are now talking about the Child Safety (Prohibited Persons) Act 2016 and the transitional arrangements that related to the child protection initiatives to expand this protective measure.

When the government changed in March 2018, we were nearly two years down the track from when that legislation had passed, and one of the first things I recall when coming into government was the advice to my office that the preparation of the regulations to support these new initiatives recommended by the royal commission, accepted by the previous government, passed by this parliament, was still underway and there was, frankly, no hope in hell of them being completed to commence by 1 July 2018—not a chance in hell.

I was quite disturbed by that. I know that minister Lensink of another place was also very concerned at that news. What had happened in that time frame that had in some way arrested or impeded the swift implementation of important recommendations of this parliament? It became abundantly clear, on the advice that we received, that there were more complications in being able to identify how this regulation was going to apply.

Let me give you an example because I think this is important to recognise. What do you do in respect of a CFS volunteer who goes into a school to rescue children from a fire in their classrooms? Is that a CFS officer who has volunteered, is undertaking his work in the CFS and is undertaking a duty that is going to reasonably bring him into contact with children? The answer to that is, yes, of course it is. He is going to go in and rescue, hopefully, a school full of children.

Was it ever intended that someone in the CFS, expecting to deal with their neighbour's bushfire or help the MFS with a local town issue or rescue children out of a school, needed to have a volunteer check, a working with children check? I do not think so. So as a new government, because of what I thought was already a shameful delay in administering this and implementing it, we had to act as quickly as we could to ensure that we consulted with a number of people who probably previously had not anticipated that they might be captured by the good intentions of legislation.

We needed to make it absolutely clear that we were not going to be prosecuting employers unreasonably or unfairly because, remember, the whole child safety legislation around working with children checks is actually a legal obligation on employers, and indeed there is a prohibition on them employing people or accepting a volunteer into an organisation without the qualification of a volunteer check. In the absence of that, they can not only be fined but it brings their organisation into disrepute and, of course, they are breaking the law. There are obviously obligations on the employee or the volunteer and penalties for them if they attempt to undertake employment or volunteer work without having had their lawful check.

Quite a bit of work had to be done, and I want to thank all those in the Attorney-General's office, the Department of Human Services and the Department for Child Protection, ably led by minister Sanderson, because it has taken a team effort to try to bring this to a landing. Overlapping that was the commitment at the national level that we bring into play the provisions to protect those who are vulnerable arising out of a disability.

The NDIS was going to come into effect. Those who are eligible largely in that area are a cohort of persons who may be vulnerable in the circumstances of sexual exploitation. Therefore, there was a need to set up a regime to ensure that that group of persons, where appropriate, would have equal protection through the application of screening checks. So we had a double job to do. The origins of the law in relation to the new National Disability Insurance Scheme, together with the origins and the development of the law in relation to screenings for children, had started from different sources. They had different journeys and different expectations, so even those had to be married.

It was a choice of the new government to say that we would leave all the disability issues aside and just try to deal with safety in relation to children and progress that, but we were committed to ensure that we did both. Both were needed, of course, especially with the NDIS expanding into the opportunity of a new regime to have the financial benefits that go with it for those people with a disability.

We needed posthaste to deal with that issue as well, so we made a commitment to try to bring that together and bring it to a landing and, I suppose to some degree, set the charge that, 'If you cannot get it done by June, and you say you cannot get it done by December 2018, we want this starting by 1 July 2019.' It is three years since the law passed here in relation to children, and another year since the expected commencement in relation to the disability service. Nevertheless, we cannot just sit on our hands with this. I have had a number of meetings in relation to this, but other people have been doing the heavy lifting and the work to try to bring this to a conclusion, and I want to thank all those in the various departments who have done that.

Overlapping that again was the question of how we implement the government's commitment to provide free screening checks for volunteers. Again, coming into office it was made very clear to us that that would be activated and was achievable, but to be mindful that some people might exploit this offer for volunteers by virtue of avoiding the payment to be made if they were in employment. That issue was explored and that has been the subject of some comment today and of long debates in the other place earlier this week. It is important that we understand what the history has been.

I move then to an indication by a couple of the speakers in respect of volunteers generally. The volunteer situation in South Australia overall is very strong. There are not too many organisations that would not suggest that they would like to have more, but some of our organisations—service clubs and the like—are still expanding, and that is terrific. I think that the level of volunteerism and commitment in our community is immense. We certainly on this side of the house value them. I note that the member for Cheltenham indicated some data from a 2006 inquiry as to the general—Was it 2016? I had hoped it was 2016. In any event, it suggests again that there is a level of— 

I think his concern was that there had been a diminution in volunteer work. I have not experienced that. I think that, in the time I have been in the parliament and enjoyed access to and the invitation of many volunteer organisations, it has in fact been growing. There have been different forms that they have grown in—obviously the more contemporary organisations. In fact, I was down at the member for Lee's electorate the other night for a service club that had graciously invited me to speak at their meeting.

In any event, they seemed to be a very healthy club, and of course I was pleased to be there. But I will just make this point: they are out there in our community not just at the mature age level but across the spectrum. We have a number of children, for example, who become active in local community volunteerism as part of their own social development and duties for school. All that is great.

The member for Lee suggested that it was such a good idea that they thought about doing it, too. I appreciate his compliments about how good a policy it was. They had even thought about it, but they did not progress it, he told us today, because they had had advice that it was going to be too difficult to implement.

One of the reasons. I do not know who he got his advice from. We have not had that advice since coming into government, that it is too difficult to implement. In fact, they have got on and done the job as it is necessary to do it. I would be very interested to know. I do not recall the former premier or ministers from the previous government in the lead-up to the last election ever saying, 'We think this is a really good idea, but we're not doing it because, frankly, it's unworkable.' I did not hear anyone say that—for the first time today I have actually heard that that is their excuse—not a word.

Of course, under their regime—as a consequence, remember—all the time we have had screening tests they have charged everybody. They have never given relief to the very people who are volunteering in our community—never. In fact, at that stage I think it was some $68 for three years. It started a bit lower and it certainly increased. As we know, it had the deficiency, I suppose, in that it was a point-in-time type process which, under recommendation, was to move to a continuous monitoring process, which took it to over $100, I think, for five years. Under a new model it was a bit extra but obviously for a longer time—a superior model.

But in all the time the previous government were in office, they did not give credence to what they now say today: 'Good policy. Great for volunteers. It's something that should be available to them.' They did not give them anything. This is the situation: under the previous Labor government, $68 for three years if you are a volunteer; under the current Liberal government, zero continuously, as long as you are a volunteer and not in paid employment. The difference is stark. The public understand this. Those who volunteer, whether they are six or 66, are making a contributing to our community, and we recognise them on our side of the house and we are proud of it.

Another matter I want to mention is the provision of a clawback, as it is claimed, or, as I read in a media release of the shadow minister, we are allegedly dumping our free volunteer screenings, which is a complete lie. It is going to be continuing. What we have highlighted is a model, on the advice that we received, to avoid those few who might try to exploit the system—that is, to use their volunteer work to avoid paying a legitimate employment application process fee. A model has been provided to us.

Unsurprisingly, and I think appropriately, Mr Ross Womersley of SACOSS has raised the question of how that is going to work. Is it going to affect people who might only have part-time employment? Is there a better model by which you can have a cut-off point to define when the employment commenced? As members will have read in the debates in the other place, there was much discussion about whether, on the Labor Party's proposal in another place—

As has been repeated in the speeches from the opposition here today, they saw the proposed seven days within 12 months rule, if I can paraphrase it in that way, as being inappropriate, unfair in some way. The Australian Labor Party option, which is not translated into any amendment—we do not have anything before us; nevertheless, it seems to be that what they are pressing for is the basis upon which the proposal in this bill is in some way unfair—is that there be a 150 hours per year threshold. I think it is fair to say that, when considering whether that might be a better test, a lot of work was looked at regarding the application. In fact, a lot of concern has been raised about the time and resources needed to deal with an application.

No, there is no amendment filed, but each of the speakers today has highlighted the inequity, apparently, of the seven days in 12-month rule.

 It was highly repetitive, but it was pretty clear, and the clarity with which this was put repeatedly was the very significant theme that in some way the formula that is being applied in this bill to identify the commencement of the period of employment, which would trigger the requirement to make a payment and apply for a paid working check, is one which had been criticised.

We have all received correspondence relating to the SACOSS submissions on this, and they quite reasonably put out their idea about what might work. We have considered that, other people have considered it and it seemed very clear, on the advice we had, that on the practical application of that it was not going to work. Yes, I have made comment that I have not seen that being presented in this parliament but, as to the criticism, I just maintain the position about why we are proceeding with a threshold (hopefully very infrequently used), which we need not only to deal with the potential ill of those who might exploit this situation but also to be able to advance the bill.

I thank the members for their contributions. I am pleased to note that the opposition have indicated their support for the bill. I am hoping that as of 1 July, some three years since the anniversary of the law that we started in this area, we will actually be able to progress and be able to ensure that the passage here today of this bill will enable that to happen.

Just one other matter was raised by one of the speakers (I think the member for Port Adelaide raised this) about the statements made by the Hon. Michelle Lensink in another place. She said that, in terms of the parents volunteering in schools, if you are a parent and you are teaching your own child you would not need to have a check, but if you were there to read to other children you would need a check, that is, a parent in that school. This was made clear later in the debate, so I would urge the member for Port Adelaide to have a look at that because that is not the complete story.

The rest of that is identified when she clarifies that the regulations then make the exemption. I am advised that the scoping of the legislation incorporates them all, but then it is the regulatory carve out, I suppose—if we use that theme—to ensure that we do not unfairly burden the people who go along to provide reading or any other assistance in the school where their children go and where they might be providing a direct service to other children in the school or class. I hope that that will reassure her in respect of that position. Otherwise, I commend the bill to the house.