Jenny Leong opposes the creation of new assault offences against emergency and health workers

On behalf of The Greens I speak to the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Frontline Emergency and Health Workers) Bill 2022. I state at the outset that The Greens oppose this piece of legislation. It is important to recognise that no person should ever be subjected to violence, assault or mistreatment in their workplace. However, the way to solve the attacks and violence on frontline emergency services workers is not to simply wave a strong law and order banner around in this Chamber in the hope that it will go away.

In 2017 I took part in the Legislative Assembly Law and Safety Committee inquiry into violence against emergency services personnel. The committee heard evidence from a significant number of individuals and organisations that felt very strongly the New South Wales Government could do so much more to address the violence inflicted on emergency services personnel. The inquiry's final report included 47 recommendations. Finding number 12—which was not a recommendation—made it clear that it was not necessary to create new offences or penalties to appropriately punish offenders for violence against emergency services personnel. The overwhelming evidence was that the provisions that currently exist in the Crimes Act allow for action to be taken in relation to anyone who was to perpetrate harm or violence against a frontline emergency services worker.

Other recommendations recognised that we do not have enough data about this, and that there was not enough resourcing to our healthcare professionals, paramedics and people working in frontline emergency services. We heard of the complete inequity where the kinds of alarm systems and technology available in police cars were not available to our ambos. We heard that a lot of additional resourcing and reporting happened in some areas of the emergency services and not others. However, today we are not discussing all of the other recommendations that could be put in place to address violence against frontline emergency services workers—the reality is that would cost the Liberal-Nationals Government money. That would require them to listen to the calls of workers and put their safety first and foremost. Instead, we have a government attempting to create a new offence through a bill that will increase penalties for people who assault health workers, correctional and Youth Justice officers, emergency services workers and volunteers.

Let me be clear. In opposing this legislation The Greens do not condone violence against any of those individuals. We clearly say that if we want to address the violence, and the hard and unsafe workplaces of workers in our community, we need to do so many more things. Simply creating a new offence is not going to solve those crises. I note that The Greens' opposition is shared by Legal Aid NSW, Aboriginal Legal Service, Law Society of New South Wales and NSW Young Lawyers. As I said, in 2017 the Legislative Assembly Law and Safety Committee inquiry into violence against emergency services personnel did not recommend the creation of any new offence types or penalties, nor did it support the creation of any further mandatory minimum sentences. In particular, the Law Society of New South Wales noted in its submission to the NSW Sentencing Council that a broad range of offences that appropriately capture violent conduct against emergency services workers already exist. The courts already have the discretion to punish the most serious of attacks, and the defendants already appear to receive harsher sentences when assaults are against police officers.

The Aboriginal Legal Service noted that the existing sentencing options available in New South Wales are already sufficient and that section 21A (2) (a) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 already provides for aggravating factors to be taken into account by the courts in the process of determining a sentence, including providing that offences against emergency services personnel will be treated more seriously by a sentencing court, and that mandatory sentencing, including the changes set out in the bill, almost always has a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Legal Aid NSW also noted in its submission to the NSW Sentencing Council in 2020 that the current regime is adequate and that existing offence sentencing regimes recognise police and emergency services personnel as victims who represent an aggravating factor, and acknowledged the need for greater punishment where they are the victims acting in the course of their public or community functions.

Everyone deserves the right to be safe at work. If the Liberal-Nationals Government was serious about protecting frontline emergency and health workers, it should start by listening to the thousands of nurses who have been on strike, demanding that this Government fix the industrial conditions needed to ensure that they can do their job safely. That will come from legislating or putting into policy nurse-to-patient ratios; listening to the desperate cries for help from those people working in our emergency departments who say they are under‑resourced; listening to new graduates who are responsible overnight sometimes for more patients than they can possibly be responsible for; recognising that babies count in maternity and infant wards when it comes to the ratio of nurses to patients; recognising that we are underpaying and under-training security staff in hospitals that need more resourcing and more support; and from seeing that New South Wales police get state-of-the-art equipment to alert of an emergency if they are under attack in a police van, yet our ambos do not get the same resourcing.

These are just some of the very many things that the New South Wales Liberal-Nationals Government could be doing if it were genuinely concerned about the work health and safety of people in health and frontline emergency services in our State—whether they be nurses, midwives, hospital workers or community health workers who are crying out for support. They are taking to the streets sounding the alarm because they are overworked, underpaid and absolutely stretched to their limits. For example, the other week nurses striking outside Royal Prince Alfred Hospital—grown nurses who deal with the most extreme and tragic emergency situations—were in tears because they are not able to give the care they want to give to patients. The stress and mental load they are carrying as a result of that is a disgrace.

The Government thinks it can address issues of safety at work by simply legislating its way out of responsibility by taking a tough law-and-order approach, rather than delivering the care that our health workers, frontline community service workers and emergency services workers need. The Greens stand firm in our support for the demands of workers in this State. We reject the unfair wage freeze. We support mandated staff-to-patient ratios. We recognise the need to fix chronic staff shortages for urgent intervention to alleviate unreasonable workloads and for genuine investment to address longstanding safety and wellbeing issues. We will always support workers' rights to strike when it comes to raising those issues.

The Greens call on the Government to provide proper industrial support to exhausted frontline workers and to ensure that our health system is fully resourced. Everyone, no matter their workplace, has the right to put their safety first. We do not do that by simply coming into this House and creating a new offence. We do it by backing in the demands of those working in frontline healthcare and emergency services who are saying that they need more resourcing, more support and more adequate equipment to make sure that they will always be safe in their workplace. We must prevent this kind of assault, not come to this place and create new offences after the fact that will mean that people will have been assaulted by the time these laws have any effect.

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