Second Reading: Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Worker Harm) Bill 2020

I rise to speak on the Sentencing Amendment (Emergency Worker Harm) Bill 2020. This bill essentially makes five basic amendments and some related technical and consequential amendments. But I am mainly going to speak on the amendments that change the bill to make it stronger, hopefully, so that we do not see emergency workers harmed, and when they are, that people who do that will be sent to jail.

This is not the first time we have been here speaking about this. In fact this bill is an amendment to the previous bill, where the government reassured us that the bill that they were talking about in 2018, and I quote from the Premier and the former Attorney-General, who both talked about this new law that they were introducing that would send the strongest possible message that ‘if you attack and injure an emergency services worker, you will go to jail’, and:

Under these new laws, courts will have to impose a custodial sentence and will not be able to sentence offenders to a community correction order …

Now, what did we see? The very first test was a situation where two girls were attacked doing their jobs as ambulance officers, and the offender was not sent to jail. Here we are today hopefully strengthening these laws so that what we do get is a strong message sent to the community that our emergency services workers are not to be treated with disrespect and should not be abused and should not be physically harmed ever, under any circumstances.

We are not opposing this bill because we all want to do everything we can to send a strong message and to strengthen these laws. I am not so convinced that this will go far enough. I am pleased to see that there will not be excuses allowed for someone who takes drugs which impair their mental capacity and then uses that as an excuse. Clearly there are circumstances where mental illness and challenging situations may require some understanding, but not when it is simply used as an excuse. We do not want to see that. That is not a message I want to send to my children—that if you take drugs, you cannot be held responsible for your actions. That is not a message I want to send to the community of children and young people out there.

I have great respect, obviously, for emergency services workers. During my training as a nurse we spent two weeks in the ambulance service, and I quickly learned to have a great deal of respect for the chaps. Actually, there were no women then; they were all male. They would just jump into action whenever there was a middle cerebral artery or an acute myocardial infarction or something that they would get called out to. You know, when you are a nurse and you work in the wards or you work in accident emergency, you actually have support around you. You have oxygen and suction on the wall, you have got anaesthetists to help you intubate—you have got all sorts of support. Not when you are on the road; it is much harder.

Over the last 30 years the skill set of these ambulance officers in particular has developed exponentially, as the member for Melton, I am sure, is fully aware. The things they do now—giving anticoagulants and all sorts of things that we just did not imagine they would do 30 years ago—is very, very impressive. I give a shout-out to my daughter-in-law’s father, Phil Walker, who I spent Christmas with. He is a man who has recently become an ambulance officer. I see the passion and love for the job that he does, but also I have concern for the environment that they are operating in. I despair and am dismayed sometimes by the behaviour of the community. It is quite disheartening.

My niece is also an ambulance officer, and quite pregnant at the moment. Her mum and I, both nurses, had a discussion recently about how worried Clare was for Alex out on the road, because we just cannot guarantee the safety of our emergency workers. With a law in place, we should have been able to do that. It was very hard for me to have that discussion six months ago, to say, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry the Parliament let you down, and the Andrews Labor government did not strengthen the laws sufficiently’. It is a shame that we have to be back here putting that so explicitly, because clearly that is what the community expects. My brother, a policeman of many, many years, told me a story of how back in the 1980s when he would be driving along the road in his divvy van with his mate, the young 12- and 13-year-olds would yell out ‘copper’. The boys would pull up and the kids would run. Thirty years later he told a story about how they would not say ‘copper’; they would say all sorts of things that I would not even want to repeat in this place and use all sorts of hand gestures as well. If the boys would pull up, the kids would stand their ground. We have seen a massive change in respect, a deterioration, for people in whom we absolutely must instil that respect so they can get on and do their jobs.

I worked in accident and emergency (A and E) many, many times. We as emergency services workers know that you might get a dementia patient who is incredibly strong and incredibly aggressive, but you understand that, you know that that is part of your job, or you might have someone who has got a mental illness who is absolutely out of control, and you understand that. There are many examples I can use. Sometimes a diabetic, before going into a diabetic coma, can actually get very, very aggressive. But these are situations that we understand. It is very different today to be in A and E and have someone come in really pumped on some substance that gives them enormous strength, arrogance and absolute might to believe they can actually destroy you. It is incredible to witness. These are the sorts of things that have changed over the last 30 years in my experience, and that is why we as a Parliament need to send a very clear message to the courts that this cannot be tolerated.

We are in a very different situation now with the coronavirus. We know people are panicking. I saw an ambulance going down Bourke Street the other night. The lights were on because they were treating a patient in the back of the van and the driver had a full gown, mask, goggles and everything on. I had never seen a driver of an ambulance look like that before. That is important. We have got people in situations of panic. Emergency services workers are getting hurt in those situations, as hard as it is to believe the way that people are behaving. Let us make sure that we can protect these people by making sure that ambulance officers and the police who are conducting drug tests and alcohol breath tests are given the equipment that will protect them. We need them to have gloves, we need them to have masks, we need them to have gowns and we need them to know how to change those regularly. If you are working in theatre, those theatre masks last 20 minutes before the bacteria can get through, so you change your mask every 20 minutes. It depends on the type of mask you are using. These are the sorts of things our emergency services workers such as police, who have probably never really used masks to protect themselves from contagious diseases or infectious diseases, have to know.

Firstly, we should have had a supply, so it is disappointing to hear that the government have not got enough of these gowns, because I was personally involved in a role-play way back when—Project Minotaur it was called—where we as an agricultural community planned for a foot and mouth disease outbreak. We involved the ambulance service, the police, all the agricultural operators and teachers—it was just everyone across Victoria—as we would have had to stop agriculture there and then because of the cost to the community. So I am surprised that the government have not had the same planning for a pandemic of an infectious disease, because we have all known this could happen; we have all seen the movies.

I want to stop there and just take a minute to thank the police, thank the nurses, thank the ambulance officers, thank the firefighters and thank the justice system, who do an enormously good job to help our community and keep our community safe. I hope that this bill will go now towards protecting them. I hope I can guarantee my sister-in-law that her daughter is safe out on the road. I hope I can tell my daughter-in-law that her dad is safe out on the road. For all those who have lost faith because they have been attacked, I apologise for the society that we have become—a society that has lost respect for the most important people who get up every single today and just do the job they have been trained to do because that is what they do. There is going to be a real shout-out now for the people on the front line of this coronavirus outbreak. The nurses and doctors and the medical staff are well trained in infectious diseases. We have done it before. I clearly remember in the 1980s when there was paranoia around the AIDS virus and people were terrified that they were going to catch it from toilet seats et cetera. I was in the thick of it then. Let us all just remember to stay calm. It is an important time to do that.