27 August 2020: Crossbench Flexes Its Muscles

Fiona Patten Crossbench Victorian Parliament

The crossbenchers in the Upper House have flexed their muscles, forcing the Premier to the negotiating table. This demonstrates the collective power the crossbench wields over the Victorian Government. 

Earlier this week Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews indicated his desire to extend Victoria’s State of Emergency by 12 months, so that coronavirus restrictions can continue well into 2021. Victorian legislation must achieve a majority vote in both houses of parliament. The Victorian Government lacks a majority in the Upper House, and so must receive the support from the opposition, crossbench, or both in order to pass legislation. 

So, what is, who is the crossbench? It is a collection of members of parliament in the Upper House who are not part of the government or opposition. Victoria’s current crossbench is unusually large and unusually diverse. We have:

  • an animal rights party (yes, Andy Meddick is vegan)
  • a party favourable to sex workers’ rights (Fiona Patten’s Reason Party)
  • a party for taxi drivers
  • the Greens
  • a party about population control and limits on immigration
  • a party about law and order and the rights of victims of crime
  • a libertarian party
  • Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party Victoria (the name gives you a clue)
  • a number of independents (including Adem Somyurek, expelled from Labor earlier in 2020)

It appears the crossbench united in their opposition to the government’s plans to extend the state of emergency by 12 months. This forced the government to the negotiating table and an amended bill seems likely. This incident is a reminder of the power the crossbench yields when it is united in its opposition to the government. 

If a sex work decriminalisation bill is tabled during this term of parliament, the crossbench will be crucial to its success.

24 August 2020: Conservative powerbroker resigns

Marcus Bastiaan resigns, branch stacking

Today Liberal Party powerbroker Marcus Bastiaan resigned from the party following branch stacking allegations. Mr Bastiaan denies allegations of branch stacking but apologised for “foolish and stupid things in my twenties.” He turns 30 this year. 

Despite operating in Australia’s most progressive state, the Victorian Liberal Party has for a number of years had a reputation for courting conservative Christian voters, most notably people of Mormon faith and members of Evangelical churches. The Liberal Party, being a ‘broad church’, strives to bring together two quite different groups. Small ‘L’ liberals value individual freedom, free markets and are relatively comfortable with socially progressive reforms such as assisted dying laws, euthanasia and sex work decriminalisation. However, conservative Liberals are more likely to identify with religion, particularly Christianity, and generally oppose socially progressive policies. 

Fighting between these two groups within the Liberal party is known as the ‘internal culture war’, with the conservative faction seeking to utilise aggressive tactics to boost their numbers and dominance within the party. Mr Bastiaan was the most notorious of the ‘internal culture warriors’. Channel 9’s 60 Minutes TV show, caught him out saying:

“… change the [party] constitution … and open up preselections for 2020 when we’ve got the numbers all eligible, we’re locked in, we’re institutionalised, we’ve got our members in the Upper House, we’ve got a state director around our finger.”

Earlier in 2020 it was Victorian Labor’s turn to face branch stacking allegations. Now it’s the Liberals turn. There have been the usual apologies, some denials, excuses, promises of investigations and now Mr Bastiaan’s resignation from the party. And of course, let’s not forget those homophobic and racist leaked texts in 2018. What seems clear is that once again we see people in politics using aggressive, dirty and unethical tactics to grab power. Nothing particularly unusual here. 

Another Liberal Party figure named in the recent branch stacking allegations is Michael Sukkar, the Federal Assistant Treasurer and Housing Minister. Mr Sukkar’s words recorded and aired by 60 Minutes give us a clue as to what all of this means for sex work. In the tapes, Mr Sukkar wants to rid the Liberal Party of those who supported voluntary assisted dying:

“My view is there is four people in the Upper House on our side who have broken faith: Simon Ramsay, Bruce Atkinson, Mary Wooldridge, Ed O’Donohue. I think we can get rid of Simon Ramsay. We can potentially get rid of Bruce Atkinson, that’s harder, but we can, it is still in the mix. So that is two out of the four gone.”

Two Liberal Party figures front the conservative faction of the party have been caught out trying to get rid of the more moderate socially progressive Liberals. This is not a good look for the Christian conservatives and the scandal will not help them. 

Mr Sukkar sought to rid the Victorian Liberal Party from two (presumably) more socially progressive Victorian Liberal MPs – Edward O’Donohue and Bruce Atkinson. Both continue to sit in the Upper House of Victoria’s Parliament. And the Upper House is exactly where the Victorian Government needs opposition and crossbench support to get a sex work decriminalisation bill passed. 

Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review continues and a sex work decriminalisation bill is expected. A scandal that weakens the far right faction of the Liberal Party and leaves the moderate Liberals in a secure position helps the prospect that a sex work decriminalisation bill could pass both houses of parliament.

Providing sex workers with human rights, dignity and legal rights shouldn’t be about factions, political parties and Christian groups. After all, according to the Bible, Jesus forgave a prostitute and showed kindness towards her (Luke 7, versus 38-47). But this is politics in 2020.

For anyone interested in the Liberal Party’s ‘internal culture war’ The Age’s senior journalist Farrah Tomazin is doing an excellent job covering this unfolding story.

6 August 2020: The Domino Effect

What is the domino effect and how does that relate to Victoria’s Sex Work Review?

Many of us as kids remember board games from days gone by, including dominos. Just like domino tiles, things in politics can also push over what’s next door. Look at progressive law reform in Australia over the last decade – safe access to abortion clinics is a great example. Over the last decade, most Australian jurisdictions have enacted legislation that prohibits intimidation or harassment of people within certain zones around abortion clinics. Such laws were introduced in response to regular anti-abortion protestors who would pray outside clinics and harass women entering them, trying to change their mind about abortion. 

Safe access zone laws are a great example of state legislation introduced in one jurisdiction, creating a domino effect, with most other states following suit. 

2013 Tasmania first jurisdiction to enact safe access zone legislation

2015 ACT and VIC enact safe access zone legislation

2017 NT enacts safe access zone legislation

2018 NSW enacts safe access zone legislation

2018 QLD reviews its abortion laws

2020 WA and SA introduce safe access zone bills

One reason safe access zone laws are becoming accepted is their success at achieving their stated goals. A recent High Court challenge to safe access zones was easily defeated, affirming their status as constitutional.

Victoria’s Sex Work Review must be examined in the context of what other jurisdictions are doing. Last year the NT decriminalised sex work. This year Queensland’s sex work decriminalisation campaign continues to develop. And 2020 sees South Australia table another bill to decriminalise sex work. 

If Victoria successfully decriminalises sex work it will likely increase pressure on other jurisdictions to follow suit. Images of childhood domino games have never been so relevant.

24 July 2020: Social Distancing and Sex Work

Restrictions sex work

How to have a sex work booking AND practise social distancing at the same time! Only in Victoria …

We know Victoria’s sex work laws are often weird, to put it mildly. They get weirder when it comes to what is defined as sex work. Picture this scenario – a client and a sex worker are in a room together. He’s fully dressed. They’re standing (or sitting) 1.5 metres apart from each other, as per the Covid Restrictions on social distancing. They’re talking dirty and he reaches down to have a rub of his Victorian manliness, on the outside, note, he’s not even putting his hands inside his pants. At no time do the two people touch each other. Does this count as sex work? Surely not. 

Well, no, everywhere else in the world, it wouldn’t.* 

But in Victoria, it does! See our What is Sex Work page for the legal definitions of what constitutes sex work.

Hence, we applaud any recommendations in Fiona Patten’s Review to legally redefine sex work, cos we don’t think that the scenario above ought to be considered sex work

How did a definition like this come about? This legal definition of sex work was designed to cover grey areas when it came to regulating activities taking place in strip clubs back in the bad old days. 

 *note: We make this claim with the disclaimer that we haven’t examined the entire global body of sex work laws, so don’t quote us. An equally odd definition of sex work may exist in another jurisdiction’s legal code. Who knows? Let’s know if you find something.

7 July 2020: Does the law offer solutions?

Do criminal laws offer the best method of preventing violence against sex workers? The word ‘decriminalisation’ suggests changes to the law, but the Terms of Reference of Victoria’s Sex Work Review make it clear the Review will examine much more than just laws. The Review will also examine the state of sex worker advocacy and the support services available to sex workers.

Earlier this year we formed a partnership with the Michael Kirby Centre at Monash University in Melbourne. We wanted to bring together the lived experience of those in the sex industry with the specialised legal and acacemic skills of researchers. Not that academic skills are mutually exclusive from sex work experience. Many sex workers do possess academic and legal skills. This partnership resulted in a temporary project called Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria; a group consisting of the Michael Kirby Centre and various sex worker organisations (Sex Work Law Reform Victoria, Red Files, Rhed and Working Man). 

One of the tasks Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria set for itself was to conduct a series of sex worker consultation meetings via video link. We called these ‘Community in Conversation’. The feedback received, while not surprising, has highlighted the gulf between how sex workers and governments view effective solutions to improving health and wellbeing in the workplace. 

Governments, overwhelmingly, in Australia and overseas have an urge to assume, incorrectly, that more and stronger laws, preferably criminal laws, make sex workers safer. They also assume that such laws need to be enforced by lots of authority figures, preferably the police. 

Sex workers in Victoria tend to see the police as the source of their problems, and as contributing to the violence they might experience. The consultation sessions we conducted found that sex workers, in general, wanted more funded peer-led sex worker support services and education. Not that sex workers don’t want criminal laws that crack down on actual violent conduct that would harm sex workers. Victoria already has plenty of state and federal laws that criminalise violence against sex workers. But few sex workers know about these laws in detail, they don’t know how to report breaches of these laws, with even fewer actually using the laws to bring perpetrators to justice. 

The idea that sex worker peer-led support services and education are the most effective, most cost effective and most efficient ways to support sex workers is not new. The HIV Strategies have been saying this for years. The sex indusry has been saying it for decades. And Victorian community health service RhED published a report on the subject that confirmed such findings. Our job now is to convince the parliament and other key stakeholders to trust the evidence and in doing so, overcome their natural tendency to attempt to rely solely on legislation to solve the problems in the sex industry.

1 July, 2020: Welcoming the new Minister for Consumer Affairs

Whenever there’s a problem with sex industry regulation, the most common instinctive response is for someone in authority to point the finger at someone else and say “That department is responsible”. There’s a fierce bout of finger pointing in multiple directions. And the finger is often pointed at suburban police stations, SICU, St Kilda Police Station, DHHS, Consumer Affairs Victoria, local councils, WorkSafe…

But the role of the Minister for Consumer Affairs is clear. The Sex Work Act states the Minister for Consumer Affairs is the relevant minister for regulating sex work.

Last week the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, appointed Melissa Horne as the next Minister for Consumer Affairs. Minister Horne is relatively new to parliament, having been elected in 2018. However, she’s not entirely new to politics, being a long term member of the Labor Party and having grown up with a dad in the Federal Parliament. 

A Member’s inaugural speech often reveals something about their core values and motivations. Minister Horne’s inaugural speech focuses on core values of fairness, and an acknowledgement of the many people who have inspired and shaped her: other activists, MP’s, her family, and the Labor Party itself. Key themes running through her political life include education and public transport: traditional Labor issues.

Her electorate of Williamstown, the location of Melbourne’s first sea port, is in a beautiful part of Melbourne, boasting the historic buildings, old industrial areas and unassuming suburbs Australia is known for. Five of Victoria’s 89 licensed brothels are found in Minister Horne’s electorate. Williamstown is known for its public housing blocks, ghost tours, and a ‘colourful’ history. In the gold rush days Williamstown was notorious for  its number of pubs, sailors, and ‘ladies of the night’. Lantern Ghost Tours still delight curious sightseers with wild stories of crime and debauchery. 

Sex work is by its very nature a contested occupation, with opposing narratives about how it ought to be regulated or, as some would prefer,  abolished altogether. The new Minister will be tasked with finding a legislative solution amongst the various views and divisions.

We welcome Minister Horne to her new portfolio and look forward to working with her to further the workplace safety and human rights of sex workers.

30 June 2020: Reflecting on Marlene Kairouz

In Victoria, the Minister for Consumer Affairs is responsible for regulating the sex industry. One of the responsibilities of the Minister is to appoint members of the Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee, in which key stakeholders provide recommendations to the Minister about issues relating to the regulation of sex work. 

The former Minister, Marlene Kairouz, held the position for four years from 2016–2020. It was disappointing that the Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee did not meet during Minister Kairouz’s time as Minister. The Minister is responsible for appointing members and by law, the Committee was meant to have met regularly. 

The Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee was one mechanism to keep the government in touch with key sex industry stakeholders. MP’s, along with the general public, don’t necessarily understand the needs and concerns of sex workers. With the media always keen to simplify sex work and misrepresent sex workers, governments need to make deliberate and repeated efforts to speak to, listen to and consider the views of sex workers. Unless people have visited brothels or have friends who are sex workers and who are open about what they do,  how could anyone be expected to understand our industry?

The sex industry will benefit if the Committee is reinstated. Later in 2020, we sincerely hope this will occur. 

30 June 2020: Successful Chat with Community

Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria is a pop-up project led by by The Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University Melboune in the run up to the Victorian Government’s Sex Work Decriminalisation Review, chaired by Fiona Patten MP. The aim of the project is to support sex workers to develop and describe their vision of how decriminalised sex work should look in Victoria. 

Yesterday Sex Workers’  Voices Victoria hosted the first of its Community Conversations with sex workers who live and/or work in Victoria. The subject for discussion was Laws and Regulations. Two members of Sex Work Law Reform Victoria’s core group took part. Over 20 sex workers joined us for a dynamic and detailed discussion about the general legal issues around sex work as well as some of the finer points of law. There are so many different ways of working, and figuring out a comprehensive regulatory model will keep a lot of people busy for a while yet. The important thing is that sex workers keep informing the process. We were lucky to have such a wide range of workers, including gender-diverse and migrant workers, all with different experiences of sex work share their perspectives and expertise. 

As we know, the laws regulating sex work vary across each Australian state; many of our participants had worked interstate, and they shared their knowledge and observations about the practicalities of working in other places. We heard from someone with substantial experience of doing sex work in other countries and they compared their working life here to working in overseas settings. 

One thing came out strongly: no matter how differently various jurisdictions, local or international, regulate sex work, decriminalisation is best practice. The other thing is an ever growing appreciation of how complicated this whole business is: the business of sex work and the business of regulating it. 

The conversation went so well that nobody wanted to finish at the scheduled end time and we went 30 minutes over. We could easily have kept going.

Our job now is to work out what will constitute best practice when it comes to decriminalisation in Victoria. 

Greatly looking forward to the next Community Conversation.

21 June 2020: It’s Complicated

Sex Work Has Been Decriminalised in New Zealand since 2003, in NSW since 1995, and in the NT since 2019: Why Can’t We Simply Do the Same Things They Did?

For a start, there is no point comparing Victoria to New Zealand. New Zealand isn’t divided into states or territories like Australia; it’s one country, one jurisdiction, with two sets of laws – national laws and two types of local government. 

Adopting a general version of decriminalisation à la New Zealand wouldn’t work, either, for other reasons – an important one being that NZ’s Prostitution Reform Act includes legislation that criminalises certain types of migrant workers. We don’t want to see anything like that introduced here. 

Sex work will still be regulated after the removal of criminal laws pertaining to the industry, mostly by local council and business regulations covering occupational health and safety, work conditions, financial procedures, building, advertising, zoning planning and so on. These differ in detail across each Australian state, so the Northern Territory or the New South Wales models of decriminalisation cannot be simply cut and pasted into Victorian law. 

We do know what folks in decriminalised New South Wales think of Victoria’s current licensing model of sex work regulation:

  • ‘the registration of sex workers provides the potential for a lifetime of stigma for sex workers, many of whom work in the industry for only a small part of their lives.’
  • Medical experts consider the registration of sex workers would probably have negative public health outcomes;
  • Registration of sex workers is not otherwise justified by the small benefits to be derived from such a system.’

This quote, from 2015, comes from the NSW Select Committee on the Regulation of Brothels. We agree. 

Decriminalisation isn’t as easy as simply repealing the 1994 Sex Work Act, either, because sex work is also regulated by other laws, the breach of which attract criminal penalties, such as The Environmental Protection Act and the Public Health Act. On top of that, as things stand now, responsibility for governing sex work doesn’t lie solely with Victoria Police – four other regulatory bodies are also responsible: Consumer Affairs, Worksafe Victoria, the Department of Health and Human Services and local government. 

All these elements – how to regulate the sex industry and who will be responsible for what – will need to be figured out post decriminalisation.

Like they say: It’s complicated.

16 June 2020: Marlene Kairouz Resigns

Today Marlene Kairouz resigned as Minister for Consumer Affairs. Ms Kairouz was responsible for regulating the licensed portion (as little as 20%) of Victoria’s sex industry. We take a look at her time in the role and the challenges her predecessor will face. 

The Minister for Consumer Affairs is responsible for Consumer Affairs Victoria, which licenses and regulates a range of businesses, from builders, tradespeople and real estate agents to brothels. Consumer Affairs Victoria interacts directly with the sex industry by administering Victoria’s notorious licensing system of sex work regulation. This system is despised by both sex workers and sex industry businesses. Years of frustration with this unworkable licensing system is what ultimately led the Victorian government in 2019 to announce a sweeping review of the system. 

The Victorian branch of the Labor Party has long been known to have factions and divisions. Recently sacked Minister for Local Government Adem Somyurek was described by Channel 9’s “60 Minutes” as ‘a factional kingpin’. Marlene Kairouz, also caught on camera on the 60 Minutes episode, was close to Mr Somyurek and aligned with him in the right faction of the Labor Party.  Adem Somyurek was Marlene Kairouz’s representative in the Upper House, after all. Any questions in the Upper House about sex industry licensing and regulation were directed to him. Now that Mr Somyurek is gone from cabinet and the Labor Party itself, investigations by IBAC and Victoria Police are likely, and the people closest to Mr Somyurek will be in the spotlight. 

Marlene Kairouz, whilst gone from the cabinet, retains her membership in the Labor Party and her Lower House seat of Kororoit in Melbourne’s western suburbs. She maintains her innocence of any wrongdoing:

“I look forward to the opportunity to clear my name and am confident any investigative process will do so.”

In resigning of her own volition, Ms Kairouz appears to have approval of the Premier. Of her decision to resign, he said,

“I would refer you to those statements and I believe they have both made the appropriate decision.”

Mr Andrews said he did not ask Ms Kairouz to resign and had not spoken to her prior to her decision to do so. 

It’s only fair that MP’s are given the benefit of the doubt, and we wait for any investigative process to unfold before judging individuals. But as sex workers’ rights activists, our core duty is to fight for the human rights, legal rights and interests of sex workers in Victoria. This is part of our Purpose, as outlined in our constitution. 

Former Minister Marlene Kairouz, despite her former portfolio responsibility for licensing the sex industry, was not particularly engaged with the sex industry. She was responsible for regulating dozens of other types of businesses; perhaps her focus was on more conventional industries. Victoria’s Sex Work Act places many unreasonable burdons on sex workers, much to the anger of the sex industry as a whole. Section 67 of the Act places a burden on the Minister for Consumer Affairs – it requires the Minister to appoint a Ministerial Advisory Committee relating to the sex industry. The last time this Committee met was 3 March 2014. 

In contrast to sex workers who may breach the Sex Work Act, the Minister doesn’t face criminal penalties for failing to comply with the Act. In fact, Ministers don’t face any penalties for failing to comply with section 67. 

In 2019, the government quietly passed a consumer law Bill which amended a small number of sections of the Sex Work Act. Both Marlene Kairouz and Adem Somyurek read in the bill (in their respective houses of parliament), with Mr Somyurek answering questions about the sex industry sections of the Bill. 

SWLRV identified a lack of consultation with sex workers in the lead up to the bill being read. We also publicly identified unsupported statements made by these two Ministers in 2019 as part of our submission to OVIC regarding freedom of information matters. 

The new Minister for Consumer Affairs will face the difficult task of sex industry reform in Victoria. On 30 September Fiona Patten will hand her recommendations regarding reform to the Minister. Whether or not Fiona Patten’s report and recommendations are made public is at the Minister’s discretion. The Minister will also need to decide whether they want to reinstate the Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee as required in section 67 of the Sex Work Act

Sex work decriminalisation is always incredibly complex and the details will be contested, both within and outside of the sex industry. And this will happen during a global coronavirus pandemic, with a shrinking economy, rising unemployment, and a polarised political landscape where voters have record low levels of trust in government, and while government debt rises. 

Sex industry reform was never going to be easy.