It was a shock to find when we started work on this reference that one in five women over the age of 15 has experienced sexual assault in their lifetime, and that over 85 per cent of these assaults are not reported to police. That means that many people who have committed sexual assault are not held accountable for their actions. Sexual assault can have devastating effects on the lives of victim survivors. The Commission enquired into this problem in 2004 and much work has been done in the intervening years to reform the law in accordance with the recommendations made then. Despite that hard work, sexual offending still remains a major social ill.
It is hard to imagine more worthwhile law reform work than finding ways to free Victorians from the risk of sexual offending. The importance of that work was highlighted as never before during the course of the reference. Women came forward in that time in Victoria, throughout Australia, and internationally, to call out sexual violence. Shortly before the reference began, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of sexual crimes in the United States, and in Australia allegations were made against high-profile Australian politicians and actors. Brittany Higgins made public her allegations that she was raped in Parliament House in the office of a government minister. And Grace Tame, a victim survivor of sexual abuse, was named as Australian of the Year in recognition of her law reform advocacy on behalf of survivors. The issue of sexual violence was elevated in public discourse, giving added urgency to the need for reform of the law and prominence to the work of the Commission on this reference. It became clear during the course of the reference that this was a significant moment in history, one calling for action against sexual crime. The report responds to this call.
The recommendations made by the Commission provide a roadmap for effective change. The history of reform of the law relating to sex offences has taught us that effective change requires attention to many parts of the system which deal with sexual violence at the same time. That system is only as good as its weakest part. Thus, a perfect jury trial will only assist victim survivors if their earlier interaction with police at the time of reporting is adequate. For that reason, the report is broad in scope and recommends changes throughout the entire progress of a report of sexual violence.
One way to respond to this moment in history, and which the Commission recommends in this report, is to establish a Commission for Sexual Safety as a central body with functions designed to address sexual offending. The establishment of a Commission for Sexual Safety would be a tangible acknowledgment by the government of the community’s concern.
This report is the work of many people. We have been privileged to have a highly motivated, hard-working and acute research team of Dr Joyce Chia, Dr Emma Larking, Dr Nesam McMillan, Hana Shahkhan, Jasmine Ali and Marcus Hickleton. They were led by Jacinth Pathmanathan who managed the team with outstanding grace, skill and consideration. It has been a joy to work with a group of such talented people. The public interest in the report has meant that the Communications Manager, Nick Gadd, has been particularly busy engaging with the media. He has also been responsible for some innovative ways of promoting public participation, for instance, by commissioning an animated video explaining the reference, and establishing an online form for comment by the public. He and Gemma Walsh, the Information and Communications Officer, were of great assistance to the team in editing the draft report and ensuring its easy readability.
During the entire progress of the reference, the team has been subject to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 virus. They have largely worked from home. Some spent long hours home schooling children – time which they had expected would be available for work. Others were locked down without the interaction at work which assists the processing and refining of ideas. Despite the pressure of these circumstances and the uncertainty about what the next day would bring, the team proved adaptable and flexible. Throughout, they managed to be cheery and good-natured.
The reputation of the Commission is built on its wide outreach to the community and consideration of the feedback provided. We held 99 consultations and received 71 written submissions on this reference. Each consultation and submission represents an investment of time and energy by the contributors. We are most appreciative of the effort which each contributor put into representing their point of view. I was so often thrilled when it became clear at the start of a consultation that those involved had prepared for the occasion by canvassing others with views relevant to the subject matter. Furthermore, many of the consultations were held with the same generous contributors who had been involved in consultations for previous references. It is wonderful to see their commitment to law reform and to the work of the Commission, particularly when most of them have very busy and consuming day jobs. A special thanks is due to the victim survivors and those close to them who were prepared to tell us their stories and necessarily relive their ordeals. They took us into their world and informed our work in a way which could not be done without the insight gained from their lived experience.
My nine colleagues Liana Buchanan, the Hon. Jennifer Coate AO, Kathleen Foley, Bruce Gardner PSM, Professor Bernadette McSherry, Dan Nicholson, Alison O’Brien PSM, Gemma Varley PSM and Dr Vivian Waller, together with me, constitute the Commission. All have been actively involved in the development of the report. They all provided valuable input to the draft from the point of view of their particular deep expertise. That input gives the report a technical depth which reflects the wide sweep of the Commissioners’ combined knowledge. It has been a delight to work with a group of such engaged, constructive and collegiate people. We are also very grateful for the input of the Hon. Marcia Neave AO who agreed to be a Special Advisor to the inquiry and who brought her unparalleled experience of law reform in this area to the task.
The wheels of the Commission continued to turn throughout the period of the reference despite the disruption and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 virus. The CEO, Merrin Mason PSM, shepherded the team through the ups and downs with patience and wisdom. My numerous clashes with my computer were navigated by the technical skill of my Executive Assistant, the ever-smiling Monika George. The able support of Jennifer Joyner, the Finance and Office Manager, and Janis Dunk, the Administrative Assistant, provided for all the administrative needs of the staff with their usual high level of efficiency and commitment.
May this report herald a new dawn for a society successfully addressing sexual offending.
The Hon. Anthony North QC
Victorian Law Reform Commission