Image supplied by Bruce and Denise Morcombe
When Daniel Morcombe was 13 he was abducted from the Sunshine Coast and murdered by convicted sex offender Brett Cowan. Daniel’s disappearance, on December 7, 2003, made his name and face well-known throughout Australia and resulted in one of the largest investigations in Queensland’s history.
As a legacy to their son, Bruce and Denise Morcombe have led Australian schools and communities in child protection strategies and are advocates for young victims of crimes. They support a National Public Sex Offender Register being introduced to further the awareness of child safety.
The topic of child sex offenders is a divisive topic in and out of Parliament ahead of the Federal election. Members from the Liberal and Labor parties, as well as Independents, have weighed in on how best to protect children from becoming victims of sex crimes. The only problem is that no party agrees on the solution. As reported child sex offences within Australia are growing considerably each year, it might give voters something to think about on May 18.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton is proposing a National Public Sex Offender Register that is accessible by all as a measure to “keep children safe”. “We believe families have a right to know if convicted child sexual predators are present in their community and a national register would do that, providing details of such people and of their presence at a postcode level, but importantly, not detail their residential address,” the Minister says.
The model of register that Mr Dutton is suggesting is closely based on the controversial “Megan’s Law”. It is legislation that has been in place for 25 years in the United States and has been researched extensively with no proof that it prevents offender recidivism rates and that it may increase public fear, can impact housing prices and cause vigilante behaviour.
“I’m the first to admit that there are mixed views about such registers and their effectiveness, but if it saves one child from falling prey to abuse then it is worth pursuing and that’s why we have provided $7.8 million over the next four years for the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission to develop the technical capacity to host a public register,” Dutton says. “Some states already release some information publicly about child sex offenders, but there is no consistent approach across the country – a national register would provide that consistency.”
Regardless of the studies, and of Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm’s resistance speech to the motion, the Home Affairs Minister’s time as a police officer is the driving force behind his passion to stop child sex offenders in their tracks, as he witnessed the abuse of children regularly. His plight also has him fighting for a reform to The Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 to further protect children and offers new offences after the Royal Commission’s findings against Commonwealth officers turning a blind eye to child sexual abuse.
The National Public Sex Offender Register was also rejected from then Prime Minister Tony Abbott when the motion was addressed in 2014. He instead promoted a strong police force and law enforcement agencies rather than singling out one crime nationally.
“We don’t have a national murderer’s register, we don’t have a national thieves register, we don’t have a national white-collar criminals register,” Mr Abbott said.“I am disinclined to single out particular crimes for particular public registers.”
University of Western Sydney lecturer and expert in criminology and sentencing Dr Maggie Hall says she is very concerned about the call for a public national register as it is “a complete waste of money” and is very “problematic” on many different levels. She would like the politicians to justify this and show the evidence that this works. “It seems really dumb to me that he [Dutton] would ignore a report that comes from the Australian Institute of Criminology, which he directly funds,” she says.
Dr Hall says there needs to be evidence to support Mr Dutton’s motion as the AIC report proves it hasn’t worked in other countries, doesn’t alter recidivism and can create bigger problems to the victims, offenders and communities. When doing her own research, she discovered numerous vigilante cases in the US.
“It can be quite negative, some nasty cases of vigilantism I managed to dig up, one where a house was burnt down and a woman who had absolutely nothing to do with it was killed,” Dr Hall says. “There’s a limit to what you can know about people once they step out of the court room, rights to privacy come into it too. It’s difficult to think about in this political climate when it’s so punitive, and rights of prisoners are not really on everyone’s mind, but to my mind, it relates to their ability to rehabilitate and fit back into the community again.”
Dr Hall believes high-risk sex offenders should be on a national register, like they currently are so police can easily conduct cross-jurisdictional investigations and monitor their locations. However, she does not agree there is any need for this information to be publicly accessible.
“Wouldn’t it be better to put the money into some more restorative justice reinvestment, put it into expanding the children’s evidence program, they’re doing a great job and trying to make things easier for kids to give evidence?,” she says. “If they wanted to, they could really do good and help the victims, expand the victim witness programs. Expand all the victim support programs that are still inadequate.”
A strong supporter of the National Public Sex Offender Register and long-time advocate to “name and shame” paedophiles is Senator Derryn Hinch. It is a cause that he has acted on several times and has landed the then-journalist behind bars twice and five months of house arrest. Senator Hinch utilised his parliamentary privilege to name sex offenders within his maiden speech and also took that opportunity to speak of the importance of introducing a public register for sex offenders.
Currently Australia has a National Child Offender System that ensures Australian police have access to convicted child offender’s information in each state and territory. It is web-based and only accessible by police to uphold child protection. Senator Hinch wants this to be made public as “such a register would rely on states and territories feeding information into the national database, meaning the Commonwealth would need them to sign on to the scheme”.
This is the way the states and territories currently have their own individual data stored. Senator Hinch wants this proposed public register to be named “Daniel’s Law” in memory of Daniel Morcombe.
Order of Australia Medal recipient and Daniel’s father Bruce Morcombe says there are many advantages of such a register. “They [convicted offender] are a marked person, so I think the deterrent factor is really strong,” Mr Morcombe says. “No-one would ever want to be on a Public Sex Offender Register. This is a positive point why all the proposed legislation from Hinch and Dutton and what we want is a national umbrella. At the moment many states have a system in place, but the borders are very easy to travel.”
The founder of the Daniel Morcombe Foundation says that it is “not impossible” for this to be effective if all the states and territories agree on the website. If not, he says the “scumbags” will migrate to the states that are not involved and create an overload of paedophiles where they are not exposed to the register, as there is history of this happening in the US with Megan’s Law’
Mr Morcombe says the register is an educational tool that can prevent people from dating convicted paedophiles and can aid in the safety of children by allowing people “in the privacy of their own home” to be educated on the geographical whereabouts of these offenders. He makes it clear of the importance that the victims always need to be top priority and if they are at risk of being identified those offenders are to be left off the website, and that the public need to be held accountable for their behaviour towards the people on the register.
“A publicly accessible sex offender website has great merit provided there are adequate safety nets to deter and make it illegal for vigilantism and for undue pressure for people on the register,“ Mr Morcombe says. “There needs to be adequate penalties, so people don’t damage their [the offender’s] property, etc. They need to know they are breaking the law.”
Mr Morcombe says the legislation being in place is more important than what it is called. Using Daniel’s name, the policy “softens the community’s acceptance” of the register. “We would cherish the legislation to be called Daniel’s Law as a legacy and reflection of Daniel but at the end of the day it’s not really required,” he says.
Bravehearts Founder and Independent Hetty Johnson says the proposed register by the Morrison Government is a “political stunt” and if they are serious about protecting children they would toughen up the laws that are allowing repeat offenders back into society. She is calling for a Royal Commission into the Family Law System.
“No offender should be released until the risk they pose is of a level that can be managed in the community,” she says. “A register will not keep children safe. If these people are so dangerous that we need to spend $7.8 million of taxpayers’ dollars to tell us what suburb they live in, they shouldn’t even be on our streets.”
The Advocate for Child Protection says the $7.8 million allocated in the Federal Budget for the National Public Sex Offender Register is a “waste” as the model is proven not to work. She says the money would be better utilised enforcing life sentences for repeat offenders.
Mrs Johnson is not opposed, however, to the United Kingdom’s version, ‘Sarah’s Law’, and the existing model Western Australia currently use as it is more controlled, and allows the community to contact the police directly and be informed of offenders that are a risk to their children. “We encourage Mr Dutton to instead rollout the proven, effective WA model across the nation,” she says. “The WA model is a hybrid of the effective aspects of the USA Megan’s Law and UK Sarah’s Law.”