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.

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.

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.