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Summary Offences Amendment (Decriminalisation Of Public Drunkenness) Bill 2020

When something happens that should have happened 30 years ago, something that has finally occurred only as a result of avoidable deaths and suffering, it is not exactly time for celebration

Dr READ: While I am happy to be speaking in support of the Summary Offences Amendment (Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness) Bill 2020 today, I acknowledge that there is also a deep sadness about today. When something happens that should have happened 30 years ago, something that has finally occurred only as a result of avoidable deaths and suffering, it is not exactly time for celebration. But I do want to acknowledge the tireless campaigning for the decriminalisation of public drunkenness by Aboriginal organisations and particularly by Tanya Day’s family. I want to thank Belinda Stevens, Apryl Watson, Warren Stevens and Kimberly Watson for your dignified campaign, which has directly led to this bill today.

In 2018 when I was elected, the first constituent who contacted me to arrange a meeting was Aboriginal writer Nayuka Gorrie, who told me the tragic story of Aunty Tanya Day and the discriminatory enforcement of public drunkenness in Victoria. Nayuka suggested that one of the first things I should do as a new Victorian MP was to call for the abolition of public drunkenness laws. So I used my first adjournment debate to request the Attorney-General form a working group to establish how to care for people found to be intoxicated in public, instead of using police cells. The somewhat vague response did not suggest anything would be done, but I credit the former Attorney-General for her work in bringing this bill to the Parliament two years later.

However, more important than the details of this bill is the need to examine why change has taken so long when the arguments for it were so compelling and repeated and the cost of political inertia was so high. We need to do this because there is a need for much greater criminal law reform in this state. In five years of this Andrews government, Aboriginal Victorians went from being 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Victorians to 16 times more likely. This rise had nothing to do with public drunkenness, and it is no accident. It is a direct result of the policies of this Labor government. And if we wait another 30 years to do what is clearly recommended by justice experts and countless inquiries, the costs will be even higher and, tragically, many more Aboriginal people will die in custody.

It was 1989 when the Law Reform Commission of Victoria recommended the repeal of public drunkenness offences and drafted model legislation. Even in the 1980s this was not overly progressive or revolutionary. Public drunkenness had already been decriminalised in all states and territories other than Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. As a result, almost exactly 30 years ago members stood in this Parliament to debate the Public Drunkenness (Decriminalisation) Bill 1990, introduced by the Cain-Kirner Labor government. The bill was defeated in May 1991 in the upper house, the coalition voting against it because it would send, I quote:

… a message going out into the community that says it is okay to be drunk.

This is despite the fact that only a month before, the landmark commonwealth Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was published, with the key recommendation that:

… in jurisdictions where drunkenness has not been decriminalised, governments should legislate to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.

Since then we have had many more recommendations from Victorian parliamentary committees, the Victorian Ombudsman and IBAC, all calling for the same thing.

Since then we have also had at least 434 more Aboriginal deaths in custody, many in Victoria, some very recently—and still nothing happened. I found it very hard to work out why. Objections from local government, lack of adequate sobering-up facilities and police opposition have all been raised.

It should not have taken a death and some courageous advocacy from a bereaved family for the government to move on this issue. Tanya Day died just over a year after IBAC reported on the mistreatment of another woman arrested for public drunkenness. That report urged the government to change public drunkenness laws and the police to improve systemic issues. But Victoria Police denied these issues and the police minister rejected calls for changes to the public drunkenness laws, so nothing was done and a person died. Decades earlier Tanya Day’s uncle Harrison Day died in custody in 1982 in a Victorian police cell after he was arrested for an unpaid $10 fine for public drunkenness. His was one of the deaths examined in the royal commission, but nothing was done for decades and more people died. The exact circumstances are different, but they all lead to the same outcome. If we do not have the courage to act, then nothing will change and it will be too late.

The simple truth is that laws alone will not improve our drinking culture. A police cell will not resolve people’s alcoholism, trauma or mental illness, and it can make it much worse. In fact we should be doing everything we can to reduce the shameful overincarceration of First Nations peoples. If we need more sobering-up centres, we should just build them, as the royal commission recommended decades ago. Public drunkenness of course is the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to the overincarceration of Aboriginal people.

The government cannot use this small but welcome reform as a smokescreen to hide the fact that prior to the pandemic the policies of the Andrews government were responsible for the imprisonment of First Nations people at many times the rate of non-Indigenous Victorians. Where there was once a gap, they have created a chasm. It is true that this government alone is not directly responsible for historic causes of Aboriginal contact with the criminal justice system, true that it has made some important commitments to Victorian Aboriginal communities, but it is also true that as a direct result of Premier Andrews’s fear of being seen as soft on crime he has imprisoned more First Nations people than any Victorian government on record.

It is not true to say that this overimprisonment is keeping us safe, as the government keeps saying. We do not deny bail and remand Aboriginal women so much more of the time for minor offences because these women are a threat to public safety. We do this because our new bail laws punish disadvantage, homelessness and poverty. These problems do not solve themselves within a few days or weeks spent on remand in an overcrowded and poorly performing prison system. People are not miraculously socially bettered and made safer from this criminogenic environment when they get released. Their problems simply exacerbate, and the cycle continues across generations. This is the clear message of the multitude of expert submissions, research inquiries and reports delivered to this government—that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most incarcerated people on earth. Sadly, they have known this for generations.

If the government is prepared to listen to our First Nations people, they are simply demanding evidence-backed criminal justice reform, not debunked law and order politics, starting with raising the age of criminal responsibility and addressing the injustices of pre-trial detention from our inherently unfair bail tests.

So the real question today is to ask if the government has learned anything from the decades of failure that finally will be addressed by this bill. Will they now have the courage to act on the injustice of cynical laws that have directly led to record levels of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians, or will we once again wait 30 years and mourn many more preventable deaths?

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
3 February 2021



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