Summary Offences Amendment (Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness) Bill 2020 - Legislation

02 February 2021

I too rise to speak on the Summary Offences Amendment (Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness) Bill 2020. What this bill does is fulfil a commitment that our government has made to the Victorian community. In 2017 Ms Tanya Day, a Yorta Yorta woman, was arrested on a charge of public drunkenness and died in police custody. Now, it is fair to say that both our legal system and our corrections system let Ms Day down, as it has let down so many Indigenous Australians. The changes in this bill are well overdue, and our government is determined to make public drunkenness a thing of the past.

Amongst the many turbulent things that happened last year we saw protests across the world dedicated to protesting against racial violence and police brutality. Though our government advised against protesting in the middle of the pandemic last year, it is important that we acknowledge that black lives do indeed matter. This is not a condemnation of our police force or the work that they do in keeping our community safe—that is very important work that they do—but there is nothing wrong with saying that we can do better and we must do better and when we can improve, we should. That is why we should learn from the tragedy of Ms Day’s death.

Now, I remember back in 2004, when I was living in Brisbane and studying law at the University of Queensland, when I heard about the death of Cameron Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man from Palm Island who died in police custody. I remember the absolute community outrage and the backlash directed at the then Beattie Labor government and Queensland police, and it is why our government is committed to making the changes in this bill.

We talked a lot last year in this place about the importance of protecting vulnerable Victorians, whether it was protecting Victorians during that COVID period or reform here in this place—protecting people in our community and striving for a community that is more inclusive and a much fairer society. It is unfortunate to say that Victoria is one of the last states in Australia to retain this offence, and this bill aims to change that. What we have learned is that public drunkenness is an offence that is disproportionately used to arrest Indigenous Victorians. Now, while Aboriginal people make up 0.8 per cent of the Victorian population, they made up 6.5 per cent of all public drunkenness offences charged between 2015 and 2019. Now, this is part of a worrying trend in terms of how Aboriginal people experience the justice system here in Victoria. In 2018–19 not only were Aboriginal adults 11.3 times more likely to be under justice supervision but Aboriginal children were 11.2 times more likely to be under justice supervision. The disparity in those charged with this offence cannot be clearer. If a white person is found drunk in public, the most likely scenario is that the police will take them home. If an Indigenous person is found drunk in public, the police may haul them down to the station and they are held in custody for the night, and there is a real fear that they might not get out. It is important to recognise this, and that is what we have learned from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. And it is not just Indigenous Australians who are disproportionately targeted by this bill; it is also homeless people, homeless Victorians, as well as those from our CALD communities, who are overrepresented in public drunkenness charges.

Let me say I am very pleased and very proud to see that our government is going to tackle homelessness through our record spending on social housing, because in 2017–18 almost one in five public drunkenness offenders had access to a homelessness service. The removal of this offence would no doubt provide some much-needed stability to people struggling with homelessness, because the last thing they need in a difficult time like this is to be dragged through the justice system. More importantly, we have progressed from treating alcoholism and drunkenness as a moral failing to treating it as a health problem, and that is because we know that a health-led response to alcohol-related issues is the best approach to deliver positive social outcomes.

If you need further evidence as to why this offence is antiquated, guess what else is still on the books: being drunk while in charge of a carriage, a horse, cattle or even a steam engine. Victorians expect that our criminal system will reflect modern concerns and modern values, whether they are serious and indictable offences or they are common summary offences, and this is no exception. The key change that this bill makes to repeal public drunkenness is to remove section 13 of the Summary Offences Act 1966, which makes it an offence for someone to be drunk in a public place—now, this accounts for about 88 per cent of public drunkenness offences in the last six years alone—and on top of this, sections 14 and 16 of the act, which make it an offence to be drunk and disorderly in a public place or to be drunk while riding any of the modes of transport I have just previously mentioned. To be honest, I am not too sure how many people are still driving those steam engines these days while intoxicated. I cannot think of anywhere else other than the CBD really where people still ride around on horses and carriages. That is why our government will address any potential risk to road safety posed by the repeal of this section, and I am pleased to hear that the Department of Transport is working hard on developing a policy response in this space. But what we know is that the offence recorded in section 16 has not been used in over a decade, which I think is a pretty good indication that it is now obsolete.

In addition to repealing these offences the bill also removes the arrest powers of police and PSOs for instances of public drunkenness. The section containing these powers will be removed since the intention of the bill is of course to make this provision redundant. Not only will police and PSOs no longer be empowered to make arrests under the bill, they will also no longer be able to issue fines, which we know happens in most cases of public drunkenness. Whilst police will no longer be able to arrest people for merely being drunk in public, they are still going to be empowered, importantly, to make arrests and charge people for committing other offences. But the main focus of this change is to begin a health-led response that prioritises the safety and the wellbeing of the person who is intoxicated. Whilst police will still have a role to play, their focus needs to shift to harm minimisation because that is how we are going to keep the community safe.

This bill reflects our government’s commitment to making our criminal law more modern and reflective of the times that we are actually living in. The offences this bill removes are antiquated and outdated, and most certainly it is time for them to go. These changes do reflect our government’s strategy to treat public drunkenness as a health issue and will treat it as a health issue instead of a criminal issue. It is also going to help create a system that prioritises the wellbeing of the person who is intoxicated instead of unfairly punishing them. Not only this, we are acting on a key recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and in doing so making our system fairer for Indigenous Victorians. Because let us be honest, 30 years since that royal commission I think it is fair to say that everyone in this house would say that it is time; it is well overdue. I commend the bill to the house.