27 October 2021: The Politics of Distraction

The coronavirus pandemic has loomed large over the campaign to decriminalise sex work in Victoria. From shutting down the sex industry to preventing in person meetings with members of parliament, everything changed once coronavirus hit Victoria. 

And now, ongoing debates about the appropriate level of government power and government transparency when responding to pandemics has stepped up. On the same day that the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 (Vic) is scheduled to be debated in the Lower House, a bill to drastically alter government powers to respond to pandemics is also being debated. 

The PUBLIC HEALTH AND WELLBEING AMENDMENT (PANDEMIC MANAGEMENT) BILL 2021 (Vic) is already generating controversy, with some widely differing views.

With around five weeks remaining on the parliament calendar, the Victorian Government has an ambitious target to swiftly pass a significant number of bills. As the media remains distracted by mainstream issues such as appropriate responses to pandemics, the sex work bill just might quietly, and quickly pass into law by Christmas. 

19 October 2021: 4 MP’s Suspended

Four MP’s in Victoria’s Upper House were just suspended for failing to comply with new vaccine mandate requirements. What does this mean for the prospect of the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 obtaining enough votes in the Upper House?

First, what does the suspension mean? Some argue that preventing elected MP’s from voting is an anti-democratic move, and one legal scholar questions the constitutionality of the suspensions. The four suspended MP’s, including the two Liberal Democrat crossbenchers, will still be able to participate in parliament remotely and ask questions as normal. However, they will not be permitted to vote on legislation. Unless the Victorian Government amends the suspension motion, or the suspended MP’s decide to comply with the requirement, the suspension expires on the second sitting day of parliament in February 2022. 

The four suspended MP’s represent 10% of the 40 Upper House MP’s. With the absence of independent Adem Somyurek as well as the absence of the four suspended MP’s, the government needs a majority of votes out of 35 votes in total. This should make it easier for any government bill to pass.

15 October 2021: Suspended from Voting

Will Victoria’s sex work decriminalisation pass into law if key MP’s are prevented from voting for the bill?

Yesterday, 14 October 2021, the Legislative Council passed a motion requiring MP’s to be vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination in order to physically attend parliament. Those who don’t comply will be suspended, which means they cannot vote on bills. 

The Victorian Government needs crossbench support in the Upper House to pass legislation. Right now, the MP’s most likely to be suspended as a result of the vaccine mandate are all crossbenchers – David Limbrick, Tim Quilty and Catherine Cumming. 

Any suspension of MP’s will change the voting pattern and shift the government’s majority position when voting on bills. This vaccine mandate could impact the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 gaining enough votes to pass into law. 

The pandemic, and our response to it, continues to dance around the progress of this bill.

13 October 2021: We Have a Bill

Yesterday, 12 October 2021, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Melissa Horne, tabled the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 (Vic).

This is a moment to celebrate: the Victorian Government begins the process of delivering on our hopes that sex work will finally be decriminalised after more than 40 years of lobbying from various groups in Victoria. In fact, the tabling of this bill marks the furthest advance Victoria has made in progressing sex workers’ rights to date. 

It’s a sad reality that, as we always feared, the bill seeks to retain some street solicitation offences. Sex work in public has always been very confronting to many people and we will continue to call for the clauses that criminalise solicitation to be removed. 

But the bill delivers well when it comes to anti-discrimination protections, prohibiting councils from discriminating against sex workers and putting an end to the sex work licensing system.

This bill also comes at a time when………

-we are on the eve of an election year (2022), the coronavirus pandemic reaches new crescendos, with a new record of over 2,000 new daily infections in Victoria.

-Melbourne breaks the world record for the longest coronavirus lockdown – 255 days and counting.

-A public corruption investigation casts a shadow over the Victorian Government, with more resignations.

-Melbourne sees violent protests against coronavirus vaccine mandates.

-The news media remains fixated and preoccupied with the pandemic.

It’s possible the parliament will manage to quietly pass a number of bills while the media remains focussed on the pandemic. Let’s wait and see.

13 September 2021: This is Morality Politics

Morality policies occur…..

“(…) if policies are explicitly ideological, a proxy for a larger cause, almost exclusively owned by the general public, impervious to facts, discussed in emotionally highly charged language, concerned more with the symbolism of strong measures than the details of implementation, and prone to sudden policy reversals, we designate them as an instance of morality politics.” 

Quote from page 49 of the 2017 book  ‘Designing Prostitution Policy Intention and Reality in Regulating the Sex Trade’ by academics Wagenaar, Altink and Amesberger.

The authors identify the six signs of what they term ‘morality politics’. At Sex Work Law Reform Victoria, we always knew it was coming, and now Boroondara Council in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs is taking the lead on morality politics. On 6 September, the council quietly passed an anti-sex work urgent motion 10 to 1, with 10 voting against sex workers’ rights (item 5.2 in council meeting minutes).

Even the Greens councillor Wes Gaultvoted against his party’s policies by voting to oppose the decriminalisation of sex work. The motion calls for an ugly, fear-based campaign where residents will receive communications from council about the awful impacts of sex work in the surburbs. Sex workers are already living and working in the suburbs across Melbourne. Almost no one notices us at all, because we operate quietly and without incident. 

But don’t forget, morality politics is ‘impervious to facts’.

8 September 2021: Liberals Take Back Matthew Guy

Liberal Party Leadership Spill

Yesterday, 7 September 2021, the Victorian Liberal Party removed Michael O’Brien as leader, reinstalling Matthew Guy.

The Victorian Liberal Party is currently in opposition and represents the conservative party in Victoria. They experienced a significant defeat at the last 2018 election. 

Matthew Guy acknowledged how hard it is to get air time for any opposition leader during a pandemic. 

ABC News’ Victorian state political reporter Richard Willingham gives us a hint as to what they leadership change might mean for sex workers. In his article, Willingham argues that ‘Matthew Guy is selling hope. His party needs it as much as Victoria does.’ Victoria has endured half a dozen coronavirus lockdowns, businesses have been ruined and people fear for the health of their loved ones and the virus continues to circulate in the community. The pandemic has indeed shown we all need hope. But it’s also shown us that fear also works in mobilising people. Look at the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, and bizarre Q-Anon conspiracy theories. 

Time and time again Victoria has seen individuals, groups and churches try to turn sex work into a wedge issue, fueling moral panic via fear based campaigns. We can only hope that the Victorian Liberal Party, keen to regain relevance, won’t try to politicise sex work via an irrational moral panic campaign about ‘sex work in the suburbs’.

27 August 2021: Is this a Rushed Process?

Today, 27 August 2021, submissions to the new Department of Justice and Community Safety consultation were due. I suspect we’re not alone in that we left our submission to the last minute. But you have to ask, is two weeks enough time for all stakeholders to put together detailed responses to nightmarishly complex policy questions involving churches and brothels?

The Victoria Planning Provisions provide a guide for council regulation in Victoria. They are hard to read….and 1013 pages long. The one thing councils and sex workers seem to agree on is the lack of time we’ve had to process, research and respond to the latest announcement. 

Melbourne is still in a coronavirus lockdown. Our team members are at home most of the time. Days blend into nights. We end up reading computer screens at all times. Coronavirus cases are once again surging around us. Bonding and connecting team members is so much harder when we cannot meet in person to chat, laugh and have those much valued light moments.

Most people and groups, including Councils, continue to struggle to fully comprehend what our key message is:

“Existing general business, council, tax, workplace and health laws already in place are adequate to regulate the sex industry and address all the concerns that people have. These laws apply to all industries, including the sex industry. If such laws are adequate for everyone else, why shouldn’t they be adequate for sex workers.”

The Municipal Association of Victoria represents councils in Victoria. Their submission to the August 2021 consultation gives you a hint about the mindset of councils; they’re anxious, uncertain and fearful. 

“Metropolitan councils have also immediately identified that their complaint load may multiply exponentially.”

This grave prediction is based on what exactly?

New South Wales decriminalised sex work in 1995. A 2015 survey of 16 councils  in that state analysed the number of complaints received by councils about brothels and home based sex work businesses. The study found a handful of complaints and that:

‘Over the period 2013-2015, within a population of 1.76 million people, only 1 complaint about amenity impact of a home based sex worker was received. After initial investigation it was decided that no action was required.’

When it comes to sex workers in society there has always been a wide gulf between feared impact on communities versus actual impact.

13 August 2021: It’s Happening

Today a Victorian Government press release announced the state would decriminalise sex work via a number of reforms over a two year process. A Discussion Paper and stakeholder consultation was also launched. 

Our press release welcomed the announcement, and our campaign now moves to a new phase. 

We no longer have to convince people why the state should reform its sex work laws; we need to convince them how to go about it. You see, local government interests often diverge from that of sex workers. We don’t really like being regulated by anyone, as most regulations don’t make us, or the community safer or better off. But if we have to endure regulations, we’d rather have councils than police as the investigating and enforcement authority. 

We know the Department of Health, WorkSafe Victoria and local governments will play a greater role.

Do hairdressers ever get asked ‘How far from a church do you think your business should be permitted to operate?’ Sex workers were asked this question in the Discussion Paper. The question alone indicates we may still experience discrimination local planning laws which unnecessarily restrict where we can operate. 

Home based sex work businesses and liquor in brothels will likely cause concern in some circles. 

This is a fantastic day for sex workers, and for Sex Work Law Reform Victoria. But the fight if far from over; we need to work to ensure the details of the laws will work for sex workers.

5 December 2020: The Coalition of Independent Women

Coalition of Independent Women

Fiona Patten and independent MP Ali Cupper have just announced their “coalition of independent women”. What will this mean for the prospects of sex work decriminalisation in Victoria?

Long time sex industry lobbyist Fiona Patten has been clear about her support of the decriminalisation of sex work. Ali Cupper holds the regional seat of Mildura, not a part of Victoria associated with a strong sex workers’ rights movement. Geographically speaking, Mildura is about as far away from Melbourne as you can get: 542km by road from the CBD. 

The Victorian Government, currently held by Labor, has a clear majority in the Lower House and can easily pass legislation there, despite resistance from the Opposition. However, in the Upper House, Labor only has 17 of the 40 seats and needs additional votes to pass legislation. Decriminalisation in Victoria requires new law, a bill, and requires a majority vote in both houses of parliament. If Fiona Patten can convince Ali Cupper to vote for sex work decriminalisation, it means one additional guaranteed ‘yes’ vote in the Upper House.

Reflecting the conservative nature of her electorate, Ms Cupper said “[Fiona Patten’s] Reason [Party] takes the best conservative ideas and the best progressive ideas and melds them together.”

The ABC’s political reporter Richard Willingham covered this story on 4 December, 2020.



16 October 2020: Review now in Minister’s Hands

Melissa Horne, sex work decriminalisation

Melissa Horne takes over from Fiona Patten in a new phase of the Sex Work Review.

Fiona Patten has spent close to a year conducting a Review into the best way to decriminalise sex work in Victoria. Fiona was tasked with conducting the Review on behalf of the Minister, and she consulted with dozens of sex industry and other stakeholder groups in the process.  This week Fiona handed her much anticipated recommendations to Melissa Horne, the newly appointed Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation.

Fiona Patten has been lobbying for the sex industry for decades – she is the founder of Eros, and the Australian Sex Party, which became the Reason party. She knows the industry inside out, having spent countless hours publicly defending brothels, porn and sex work more broadly. She worked in the industry herself and is clearly comfortable and fluent when discussing sex and sex work publicly. 

Most politicians are nothing like this. They shy away from discussing sex, or sex work. Sex work is not a subject that comes naturally to them. They avoid it, like most people. And when they’re forced to confront it, the most common reaction is discomfort, silence, awkwardness. Melissa Horne will face a sex industry desparate for reform, impatient and tired of decades of suffering under our wretched sex work licensing system that threatens the majority of sex workers with prosecution

Melissa Horne is in many ways very different from Fiona Patten. Familiar with ministerial portfolios, she is new to the role of Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation. Navigating a way to implement law reform during a global pandemic, while her party is under fire over the response to coronavirus, and with the competing narratives surrounding sex work, was never going to be easy. In fact, sex work decriminalisation is notoriously difficult. Which is why only three jurisdictions in the world have decriminalised sex work. It seems logical that some kind of bill will be tabled in 2021, but the government hasn’t yet confirmed anything. 

We don’t yet know if the list of groups who made submissions will be made public. We also don’t know whether the Minister will choose to publish Fiona Patten’s final report.

What we do know is that now the ball is now firmly in the court of Melissa Horne. She’ll decide what happens next. 

Listen to Fiona Patten interviewed alongside Lisa from Sex Work Law Reform Victoria representative on 16 October 2020. Interview aired on Australia’s sex work radio show, Behind Closed Doors.

Listen on Apple Podcasts: Fiona Patten: Victoria’s Sex Work Review update

Stream on website: Fiona Patten: Victoria’s Sex Work Review update