Cemeteries and Crematoria Amendment Bill 2021 - Legislation

18 March 2021

I too rise to speak on the Cemeteries and Crematoria Amendment Bill 2021. This bill is really about strengthening Victoria’s interment rights. But from listening to the contributions in the house this afternoon this bill goes far beyond that. It is about something much more important that needed addressing urgently about the actions and the domestic violence that are going on behind closed doors and in the homes of families across this state. Most certainly it is another very, very important step forward in our government’s fight against the scourge of family violence.

Now, my colleagues here this afternoon have talked about the extraordinary tragic circumstances that have brought about this change, and I too pay tribute to Karen Williams and her family and absolutely condemn the way in which this woman died at the hands of her partner. It is a very unfortunate reminder of the scourge that family violence has wrought right across our local community and indeed our nation. It causes us to reflect on the damning statistic that one woman every single week is killed in this country as a result of family violence, and it certainly does remain the leading cause of death for women aged between 15 and 44 in this country. For all of us here today and those listening, I am sure we can agree that one death per week is far, far too many. These women are more than statistics. They are women in our community, they are friends, they are family. Karen was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister and a mother. These are people we are talking about. They are no different from you and I, and Karen’s death was entirely preventable, which adds to just why the death of Karen was just so unbelievably tragic.

Our government believes in giving all Victorians access to power, to resources and to opportunities and supports the idea that everyone in this state should be treated with dignity and should be treated with respect. That is essentially what this bill does. We know that our government takes family violence incredibly seriously. The member for Wendouree in the last part of her contribution—the last 60 seconds—talked very much about the Royal Commission into Family Violence, a very important royal commission here in the state that shone bright light on the deeply devastating impacts that family violence continues to wreak on families here in Victoria and Australia as a whole. Almost two-thirds of those 227 recommendations that came out of that royal commission are already being implemented. The other third are on their way. As the member for Wendouree pointed out, this has been more than $3 billion worth of investment. That is more than any other government in this country has ever spent on preventing family violence in this country. In fact it is more than any other government across the states combined has ever spent. The amendments in this bill might seem a little bit small, but this is a significant change that will make a huge difference in the lives of families left behind and to the family of Karen Williams, who are grieving her death. This is most certainly a positive step in the right direction.

Under our current laws when someone dies, the right of interment—the right to determine how and when someone is buried—goes to the next of kin, and that essentially is always the spouse. I think we can all agree here that it is a grave injustice that someone who kills their partner retains the right to determine how and where that person is buried. That is why this change was specifically recommended by our government’s gender equality strategy.

I note that changes to the right of interment are essentially a tricky thing. In 2016 the Victorian Law Reform Commission completed a review of Victoria’s burial laws. They examined the right of interment and whether a deceased person should be able to leave binding instructions for their burial, such as through their will. Because the reality is the deceased has no right to determine their own burial and no actual guarantee that their wishes will in fact be respected.

When I think of Karen and what has happened to her and what has brought about this change we are all talking about today I am also reminded that this issue is not just confined to a single woman and a single family. This is an issue that does not just affect women in our state. It affects people from different faith backgrounds, it affects people from the LGBTIQ community and so, so many others who are at risk of having their wishes disrespected when they are deceased. That is why I know that the changes that this bill makes are a step in the right direction.

Now, what specifically is changed by the bill is that the Secretary of the Department of Health will be empowered to change or to remove a right of interment from someone who has committed an indictable offence. This application can be made by someone who is directly and adversely affected by that offence or when a coronial finding is made that the person responsible for causing a death is themselves deceased—and we see that very tragically where there is a murder-suicide. What this does is not intended to punish people any more than they have been, but it gives protection to the victims of that crime from further pain and further grief as a result of the offender exercising a right to interment. Because here we have a high-profile case of Miss Williams, where a man has murdered his wife and now has the audacity to decide that she should be buried next to him. The current laws allow him to do this. He has the right of interment. There currently exists no power that the Victorian government has to address this matter or indeed similar situations, and right now the family of the victim, Karen’s family, are being forced to negotiate with her murderer—their loved one’s murderer—about how she is to be buried. Now, that is completely unconscionable, and I for one cannot begin to understand the trauma and true devastation that Karen’s family is currently going through. I say to Karen’s family: my heart and my thoughts and my prayers go out to you all.

In a lot of cases, we know there are no convictions, and that means a lot of families who lose people they care about to family violence suffer in silence. I do really hope that one day we will reach a day when the number of women who are killed by their partner each week is indeed zero, but we are most certainly not there yet. We may never be able to reach that goal, but that most certainly does not mean we should not be trying.

The other key area that this bill makes some changes to is its operation of our cemetery trusts that administer our local cemeteries, and I would like to acknowledge the work of the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust in administering and managing our local cemeteries in and around Melbourne, including my community’s local cemetery in Werribee. This bill is going to help trusts by clarifying their powers both in a general sense and when it comes to a delegation of powers. The bill is also going to remove the requirement for outstanding burial costs to be passed on to friends and associates of a deceased should the deceased or their estate be unable to afford them. Now, this is both unenforceable and absolutely insensitive, which is why I am sure that no-one in this house will entirely miss this provision under the act.

This bill makes a small number of changes, but they are ones that I think will deliver just outcomes—just outcomes for the families of victims of violent crimes. Our government is absolutely steadfast in its commitment to eliminating family violence in this state, and this bill makes it abundantly clear that perpetrators of homicidal offences should not be able to hold the right of interment of their victims. Their families deserve much better than that, and it is for this very reason that I commend the bill to the house.