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.

15 June 2020: Adem Somyurek Sacked

Victoria’s Minister for Local Government is sacked from Cabinet by the Victorian Premier after a number of serious allegations aired on a 60 Minutes television show. 

Adem Somyurek was a significant figure in Labor’s factions; he led the right faction. Any large political party or organisation is bound to develop smaller factions or sub groups, and both major political parties are known for such divisions. Malcolm Turnbull’s recently published memoir very directly identified the hostility splitting his own party along ideological lines. 

Adem Somyurek represented the Minister for Consumer Affairs in the Upper House and was therefore responsible for answering questions relating to sex industry licensing and registration. In 2019, when Labor tabled a bill to amend consumer laws (including sex work laws), Adem Somyurek read in the bill in the Upper House.

These serious allegations consuming the Victorian government are clearly not good for Victorian Labor, but what will be the consequences for Victorian sex workers? The answer most likely lies with the role that Marlene Kairouz plays in any pending investigations. 

Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review is designed to help construct a sex work decriminalisation bill that will work for Victoria in 2020 and beyond. Whoever replaces Adem Somyurek to become Marlene Kairouz’s new representative in the Upper House will play an important role in the passage of any Bill in the Upper House. Labor doesn’t have a majority in the Upper House and it is well recognised that any sex work decrim bill is likely to experience blockage in the Upper House, should there be resistance. 

3 June 2020: A Healthy Dose of Self-Criticism?

Sex workers often point to the police and the government as being the sources of our problems. And, no doubt, with a majority of sex workers still criminalised in Victoria under outdated sex work licensing laws, the very system we live under seeks to oppress us in a range of ways. 

Victoria Police, like all police forces in Australia, get a bad review by most sex workers. But when you read the horror stories from sex workers in the USA, you can’t help but feel that, by global standards, Victoria Police are doing a better job than most.

Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review will consider ‘sex worker advocacy for safety and wellbeing’. And this raises the question of how successful we’ve been in fighting for our own rights. 

Are sex workers powerless beings swept up by the currents of society, with no agency to determine the direction of their industry or their rights’ based movement?

Activists from all walks of life have proven to be poor at self-reflection and criticism. What role have sex workers themselves played in reducing Victoria to the point where we lag behind the other states when it comes to law reform?

Ever since the sex workers’ rights movement formed in Australia in the late 1970’s, Victoria has stood out, but not always for the right reasons. In the 1980’s we were world leaders when it came to peer-led activism and engagement with government. We secured funding to support our much needed activism. But along the way mistakes (and some big mistakes) were made. And that’s not something our community wants to talk about. Talking about blow jobs, threesomes, and all types of kinky sex acts is normal for us. But if you dare mention that we may have made mistakes or got things wrong… Now that’s taboo. 

Today Victoria stands out as the Australian state with a highly fractured sex workers’ rights movement. Fingers crossed this Review can reset the entire state of affairs.

2 June 2020: Coronavirus and the Review

By now we’re all familiar with how coronavirus has impacted every aspect of our lives. But how will it impact the Review?

It seems the government wants to maintain a fairly tight schedule re the Review, and delays so far have only been around one month. The reality is that reviewing the sorry state affairs of Victoria’s sex work laws is a mammoth task. And the time and resources allocated don’t seem to do the task justice. There is just so much to cover, and figuring out how to implement the principles of sex work decriminalisation into existing state and local government laws will necessarily be a complex job. 

The concern is that if adequate time, resources and consultation are not provided to the Review, the task may end up being even more difficult and even more complex. 



1 June 2020: The issue of Discrimination

Will Fiona Patten consider the issue of discrimination against sex workers?

Fiona Patten’s ‘Review to make recommendations for the decriminalisation of sex work’ will consider many aspects of the sex industry, including:

  • workplace safety including health and safety issues and stigma and discrimination against sex workers.

So do sex workers experience discrimination? Most people don’t notice sex workers in society, as we are largely invisible. Our survival strategy is to remain under the radar. You probably know a few people who are sex workers, but you may not know that they are sex workers. And if you don’t know a sex worker well enough for them to share their personal experiences with you, how could you know whether sex workers experience discrimination?

Even many sex workers don’t realise the extent of the discrimination they could experience. This is because many of us hide our occupation. When filling in our tax return, we say “make-up artist” or “personal trainer”. When applying for a business bank account, most of us don’t dare say our occupation is sex work. We do this to avoid the discrimination we fear. 

Perhaps many people distrust sex workers; they may not believe us when we say we experience discrimination. But do you believe the banks? Their own policies lay out how they discriminate against us, and our website now systematically identifies the extent of this formal discrimination. 

https://sexworklawreformvictoria.org.au/financial-institutions-which-ones-discriminate/

This is an issue that the Review must consider. That, and the issue of how adequate  Victoria’s anti discrimination laws are in offering sex workers a remedy when such discrimination occurs.

26 April 2020: 35 Years After Marcia Neave’s Inquiry

Recently we heard someone describe Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review as a once-in-a- generation opportunity for sex workers to have a say and reshape sex work regulation in this state. Who was fighting for sex workers a generation ago? 

It was 1985 and The Hon. Marcia Neave AO chaired the Victorian Inquiry into Prostitution, a landmark inquiry that put Victoria ahead of most of the world at the time. Reading over hundreds of pages of Marcia Neave’s reports, it becomes clear that most of her recommendations were largely in line with the principles of decriminalisation

Working with Marica Neave in the 1980s was Cheryl Overs, sex workers’ rights activist and founder of the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria. The 1980s was an exciting and radical time for Victoria. 

In 2020 Marcia Neave continues her work in law and public policy as the newly appointed Chair of Justice Connect. Cheryl Overs continues her academic career as Senior Research Fellow at the Michael Kirby Centre at Monash University. 

In 2020 will Fiona Patten be able to revive some of that earlier excitement and sense of hopefulness inspiring sex workers in the 1980s?