Second Reading Speech – Criminal Code Amendment

Dept of Social Services

In 2022-2023 there were 10 million visits by members of the Australian public to 318 Services Australia service centres across Australia.

Six thousand Services Australia staff worked with their customers in service centres to help sort their Medicare, Child Care, Age Pension, Unemployment or range of other payments that occur at various points in a person’s life.

In 2022-23 there were 9,000 reported acts of aggression against these frontline workers.

In the first six months of this financial year alone there were 6092 incidents, 852 of which were serious. Tragically that number of serious assaults is up by 261 on the previous year.

One assault on a staff member is one too many.

It is almost a year to the day that a Services Australia Team Leader’s life changed forever when she was viciously attacked in her workplace.

Joeanne Cassar was doing the job she loved and did so well at a service centre situated in a suburban shopping mall at Airport West when she became the victim of a knife attack.

Recently Joeanne returned to her workplace with me, supported by her husband Andrew and her workmates, to deliver the news about how the Albanese Government is seeking to make them all safer.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge Joeanne’s strength, resilience and grace over this past year.

There is a hard road ahead for Joeanne, but she wants the same as the Albanese Government, to make sure what happened to her never happens to another frontline public servant.

The people who work in Services Australia service centres are the engine room of our social security safety net.

They make sure the services and payments Australians are entitled to are what they need, when they need them.

They are trained to deal with complex and – at times -unpleasant situations and they set the bar high with their professional, compassionate interactions with members of the public.

They see people who may be having their worst day – the loss of a job, family breakdown, a health issue or the uncertainty of options for an ageing parent.

We know a small cohort of people take that frustration out on Services Australia Staff or other customers.

But stress and frustration are never an excuse for violence.

I don’t care how bad a day someone has had, there is never, ever, a reason for aggressive behaviour towards staff or another customer. It is totally unacceptable.

The Albanese Government wants to make sure that the people who are there to help Australians in their time of need can do their job in a safe environment.

I initiated a review of staff safety at all 318 service centres around the country the night of Joeanne Cassar’s attack.

I asked former Victorian Police Commissioner, Graham Ashton, to deploy his many years of policing experience to tell the government how we could make the service centres more secure for the staff and customers.

The Security Risk Management Review for Services Australia found that Commonwealth frontline workers are facing increasingly violent and aggressive behaviour in the workplace in their dealings with the public.

In his review, Graham Ashton made 44 recommendations to Services Australia, and the Agency is implementing all of them.

In October 2023 I announced the Government had committed almost $47 million for immediate measures, including hundreds of additional security guards, enhanced security features incorporated into the design of service centres, and improved training.

Many of the service centres are in shopping centres and other busy public places to ensure they’re accessible.

We must do everything we can to provide a safe environment for the 10 million visitors to Services Australia sites every year.

At the beginning of this month, at Airport West – and with Joeanne Cassar and her husband, Andrew, alongside me – I announced the Government will invest a further $314.1 million over two years, to continue to improve safety in service centres.

This is in addition to the $47 million announced in October.

The $314 million investment will help the agency to fund up to 606 security guards – that means there are two guards at service centres where there are higher levels of customer aggression.

It will help with the re-design of an additional 35 service centres, with enhanced features to reduce the risk of harm to staff…

…as well as expand the Customer Self-Check-in Kiosk to service centres at risk of high levels of customer aggression. This will minimise queuing that can be a source of frustration.

There’ll be an upgrade to security systems and enhanced security features in all service centres…

… and the establishment of a centralised Security Operations Centre, to help the agency respond in real-time to customer aggression incidents.

The funding will also see the implementation of a new agency-wide system to better record, view and manage incidents of customer aggression…

…and there will be increased liaison with law enforcement.

There will also be more work done with the Department of Social Services to improve the policy and accessibility for Urgent Payments.

This includes the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer Cards to safely assist customers who don’t have access to a bank account.

Today, Speaker, I stand to support, in particular, Recommendation 18 of The Security Risk Management Review which called for amendments to the Commonwealth Criminal Code…

…to increase the penalties available for causing harm, or threatening to cause serious harm, to a Commonwealth public official where the official is also a Commonwealth frontline worker.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Protecting Commonwealth Frontline Workers) Bill 2024, which the Attorney-General introduced to this Parliament in March, promotes the right to safe and healthy work conditions and enhances protections against violence and abuse.

It does this by aligning the penalties for causing harm, or threatening to cause serious harm, to a Commonwealth frontline worker with the penalties that apply for the same conduct against a Commonwealth judicial officer or Commonwealth law enforcement officer…

…bringing them within the aggravated forms of both offences to which higher maximum penalties apply.

Specifically, the penalty for causing harm to a Commonwealth frontline worker will increase from a maximum of 10 years to 13 years’ imprisonment.

Similarly, the penalty threatening to cause serious harm to a Commonwealth frontline worker will increase from a maximum of 7 years to 9 years’ imprisonment.

A ‘Commonwealth frontline worker’ as defined by this bill is a Commonwealth public official who performs work requiring the person to deal directly (whether or not in person) with the public, or a class of the public, as a primary function of their role.

So that covers:

  • service centre staff and team leaders, including at face-to-face and virtual service centres
  • security guards
  • call centre operators
  • inspectors and compliance officers, such as officers exercising monitoring or investigation powers under the Regulatory Powers (Standard Provisions) Act 2015
  • interpreters
  • front-facing staff in electorate offices, and
  • service staff at relief and emergency centres, such as during a natural disaster.

These categories have been included in the amendments to reflect the diversity of Commonwealth frontline worker roles, from service delivery to regulatory functions.

And while the Bill we bring forward today deals with Recommendation 18 of the Ashton review, there is also a body of work underway to introduce legislation to address Recommendation 17 which relates to protection orders.

Currently, if someone assaults, threatens to harm, or becomes fixated on a commonwealth worker or their Agency, the reliance is on using existing State and Territory protection order schemes. A majority of these schemes place the onus on an individual to take out a protection order in their own name.

This can be a re-traumatising experience, not to mention an administrative burden at an already stressful time…

…and the fact the offender may have a problem with their employer and not them personally.

The legislation being developed would look at protection orders already in place in the ACT as a model for a commonwealth framework that allows the individual’s workplace to be the sponsoring entity for such orders.

This will be expanded to cover staff who work in electorate offices, who are often assisting with putting vulnerable people in touch with acute supports…

…but too often face acts of aggression at their workplaces that crosses over into threatening behaviour.

Speaker.

The Albanese Government is not just talking about protecting frontline staff, we are acting – through major financial investment and by pursuing legal avenues of deterrence.

The funding I outlined and the amendments I am supporting send a powerful message to Commonwealth frontline workers that they are valued…

…and that violence and aggression towards them will not be tolerated and will be met with serious penalties.

None of us in this place would put up with the threat of aggression that increasingly faces Commonwealth frontline workers.

Every worker in Australia should feel safe in their work environment, knowing they will return home after their shift without having had their mental or physical health threatened.

Commonwealth frontline workers are there for Australians in their hour of need and the Albanese Government will protect them.

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