From the very outset I acknowledge and respect the deeply held views and the stories that have been shared by many members in this place in relation to this bill and in the course of this debate this morning. I also want to be clear about my own position on this bill. It is my very strong view that cruel and inhuman practices have no place in any civilised society, and that includes so-called conversion practices. There should be laws in place to safeguard against such archaic and harmful practices ever being used, and on this point I believe that there is broad agreement. It is wrong to force upon another person a view of the world that seeks to undermine the very fundamentals of who they are. Other members in this place have said and said very eloquently that everyone has the right to be loved, to be valued and to be respected, and I could not agree more.
But equally one of the core purposes of any government should be to protect the right of every individual to exercise choice in their lives. This is not just a core value of any government but also a core belief of a democracy such as ours. In my reading of this bill in its current form it fails this test for me, and I would struggle to support the bill in its current form. But I do support the opposition’s reasoned amendment for consideration of the bill to be paused for broader community consultation to take place and for the government to return to this place with a bill that gives greater certainty and protections to parents, medical professionals, teachers and religious communities.
In my reading of this bill the freedom of consenting adults to seek counsel, support and assistance with pursuing their freely made life choices are at risk of becoming illegal in Victoria. In practice this bill removes the freedom of parents, medical professionals, teachers and trusted adults to robustly and freely assist consenting individuals to navigate what may be considered as complex life circumstances. This bill seeks to remove certain freedoms both on the part of individuals and faith groups. One interpretation of this bill is that the state now seeks to dictate what a faith leader utters in their prayer. This is an extraordinary imposition by any government.
In Victoria under this bill, change or suppression practices or conduct for this purpose encompasses activities directed towards a person with or without that person’s consent, whereas in Queensland and the ACT, where similar legislation exists, they only ban conversion therapy being directed to a child or a person with impaired decision-making capacity. In those jurisdictions adults with a capacity for legal decision-making are permitted to access treatment as they wish. This is a freedom that is extended to adults in those jurisdictions. Unlike those jurisdictions, in Victoria, in the current draft of this bill, the state is seeking to determine for adults what activities may be directed towards them or otherwise, therefore removing the freedom of those individuals to choose for themselves. Again, as I said at the very outset, it is my strong view that conversion practices should be banned in Victoria, but these are important matters that have been raised with me. They have been raised with me by individuals in my community—educators, faith leaders, medical professionals and members of the LGBTI+ community—some agreeing with the bill we are considering today and some expressing grave concern with the bill.
There are criminal liabilities in this bill for those found to have caused serious injury to others. There is up to 10 years imprisonment for individuals and a $200 000-odd fine. For corporate entities the fines are much larger. There is also civil liability here. Where an individual engages in change or suppression practices but does not cause injury or serious injury, civil liability may still be incurred. This can be pursued through the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, so any person, not just those allegedly affected by a practice, may make a report to the commission, and that report can also be anonymous in relation to alleged change or suppression practices. The commission may then commence an investigation into and compile a report on this alleged conduct. The commissioner’s broad powers to investigate reports of change or suppression practices can compel the production of documents and compel individuals to appear and give evidence.
Perhaps the greatest concern I have with the civil liability element of this bill is that there is no statute of limitations, and with the passing of time a conversation between two consenting adults could be reinterpreted or could be misinterpreted and cause injury to a person without due cause. It has been raised with me that there are already sufficient and existing legal protections in place. Torture, for example, is already an illegal practice. Electroconvulsive therapy, psychosocial treatments, surgery and other interventions which might be considered torture are limited to the practice of a medical professional. These practices are highly regulated under the Mental Health Act 2014. Section 4(2) specifically prevents such interventions on the basis of a person’s sexuality. These are protections already in place. Under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, cruel and unusual treatment is already forbidden.
As I said at the outset, I have received a number of points of advocacy from many members in my community—individuals, educators, faith leaders, medical professionals and members of the LGBTI+ community—some agreeing and some expressing grave concern. I have received a note from Mark Sneddon, a former Crown counsel to former attorneys-general Robert Clark and the member for Keysborough, who wrote to me, saying:
I have grave concerns about the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 which is being debated in the Assembly on 10 December. These concerns are not just about freedom of religion and of speech, issues which are very important and well ventilated. My concerns also extend to effects on families and counsellors and therapists and those people who wish to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight and those people who having transitioned gender, regret it and wish to de-transition.
In my view the Bill needs substantial restricting in scope to target only non-consensual aversion therapy or like the Queensland legislation only targeting the actions of registered health practitioners, not parents and friends and community and religious leaders.
Something for the Parliament and for members of this Parliament to consider.
I would like to conclude where I commenced and say that, as I said from the very outset, there should be laws in place to safeguard against harmful and archaic practices ever being used. There should be laws in place to ban conversion therapy. We should always seek the right for everyone to be loved, to be valued and to be respected for who they are, but my reading of this bill is that it goes far beyond that to restrict people’s rights and freedoms.
View a further video of my thoughts on this bill here.