MS TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (11:11): Can I begin by acknowledging the families and friends of the victims whose lives have been dramatically changed as a result of their connection with the crimes that we will be talking about today, and I do extend my best wishes and my heartfelt condolences to all of them. Today if this bill is passed it will mean that the government has acquitted an election commitment that was given by the former Attorney-General, Martin Pakula. As such we are very pleased to see this resolve a number of issues that have been issues in the community for a considerable amount of time. I would also like to acknowledge and thank members for their contributions this morning, and I look forward to further discussion in the committee stage.
I want to address a couple of points that have been raised this morning. The first is that there have been questions as to why we are amending the workplace manslaughter laws by raising the penalty so soon after the laws were passed and before they were in effect. The answer is simple: workplace manslaughter was enacted with the maximum penalty of 20 years because that was the maximum penalty of the broader offence of manslaughter at the time, so this is essentially a consequential change. The penalties must be the same, as it is an incredibly important matter of principle. A manslaughter that is committed in the workplace should not be considered to be less serious than manslaughter committed elsewhere. Because we are now raising the maximum penalty for the reference offence, it is appropriate and necessary that the maximum penalty for all related types of manslaughter, being workplace manslaughter, child homicide and homicide, are raised as well.
The principle of equal treatment under the law was discussed and consulted at length with employers at the time and others prior to the creation of the new workplace manslaughter offence. That principle just has not changed. Of course manslaughter in all its forms can involve very wideranging degrees of culpability, so raising the maximum penalty provides headroom for longer sentences for the worst offences. It does not prevent the court imposing a sentence that fits the circumstances of a particular case. Where culpability is low, that might mean a shorter sentence.
With respect to amendments that have been put forward by the Justice Party, can I take this opportunity to address some of those. The amendment would see the maximum penalty for manslaughter raised not to 25 years, as the government proposes, but to life. It would also exclude the offence of workplace manslaughter from any change, meaning the maximum penalty would stay at 20 years. The government is opposing those amendments for two important reasons of principle. Firstly, it is important that the most serious crime—murder—is differentiated from manslaughter by maximum penalty. Research shows that the Victorian public supports that distinction.
Murder by definition involves an intent to kill. That is, again by definition, absent in the case of manslaughter. Raising the maximum penalty for manslaughter to life would erase the important distinction of moral culpability attached to intentional acts. It would also elevate manslaughter above other very serious intentional criminal acts which have a maximum penalty of 25 years, such as rape, the sexual penetration of a child under the age of 12 and the persistent sexual abuse of a child under the age of 16. While some of the other jurisdictions do have a maximum penalty of life, actual sentences imposed are essentially the same as in Victoria now.
The other thing that I wanted to mention was that it is the act of increasing a penalty that sends a very clear message to the courts, and we believe that this bill does that. Going to life does not make the signal any stronger but comes at the significant cost of erasing the distinction from murder. Can I also say that the standard sentence for homicide by firearm is an important signal for the judiciary of the seriousness of these offences, but they preserve sentencing discretion to allow for appropriate sentences for manslaughters that have genuinely low culpability or that genuinely resemble accidents. On this side we reject the amendments that will be put by the Justice Party shortly. For those reasons we will oppose the notions that are contained in those amendments. I will leave my comments at that at this point. I know we are going into committee, and I commend the bill to the Council.
Motion agreed to.
Read second time.