Commissioner's address to the National Summit on Women's Safety - 7 September 2021

Good morning, and thank you for allowing me to speak at this vitally important summit, which will help inform the next national plan to end violence against women and children.

At a Commonwealth level, the AFP is the primary investigative agency for human trafficking, sexual servitude, forced marriage and online child sexual exploitation.

And through the AFP's ACT Policing role, our investigators are on the frontline when it comes to domestic violence, child neglect and abuse. In the past two years, ACT Policing received 3400 reports of family violence incidents – almost five a day – and that's only from those coming forward.

At least two in five assaults recorded nationally in 2020 were family and domestic violence related, ranging from 43 per cent in the ACT to 65 per cent in WA.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in 2020 reported that most victims of family and domestic violence assault were women, and many were assaulted by an intimate partner.

And in August this year, the ABS revealed 2.2 million women and 718,000 men aged 18 years and over had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.

The AFP has a significant interest and role in helping end violence and abuse against women and children.

Our maxim is Policing for a Safer Australia. However, a crucial mission for the AFP is to protect and shield vulnerable communities. And we have done this by:

  • Deploying at indigenous border communities to protect them from COVID-19;
  • Working extensively with culturally and linguistically diverse Australians, especially women, to protect them from human trafficking, sexual servitude and forced marriage offences;
  • Creating partnerships with Pacific Island countries to support and improve responses to gender-based violence; and,
  • Relentlessly protecting children from online predators in Australia and overseas, especially in South East Asia.

Arrests, charges and disruptions help keep Australians safe, but education, awareness and information are also vitally important.

And just last week, the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation launched Stop the Stigma, a campaign to encourage a national conversation about child sexual abuse.

Australian of the Year Grace Tame; relentless child safety campaigners Sonia Ryan, plus Bruce and Denise Morcombe; and indigenous survivor Jason Murphy, are the faces behind this initiative.

But we hope it will be their voices that amplify the voices of those who are not being heard.

We also hope the campaign will convince children to finally break their silence and get the help and justice they deserve.

Survivors, who provided evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, took on average almost 24 years to tell someone about their abuse.

That is not uncommon. We know there are too many victims who are not yet survivors because they are still within reach of their abusers.

And that means if victims of abuse are brave enough to speak up, then as a community we need to be brave enough to listen and act.

If it used to take a village to raise a child, today, because of advances in technology, it now takes a country to keep them safe.

Our research shows 21 per cent of parents and carers say child sexual abuse is too sickening to think about – and more than one in 10 parents would be too embarrassed to talk about it if their child was exploited.

This type of abuse is horrifying and it is a normal reaction for parents not want to contemplate one of their worst nightmares.

But please: when we start talking about this incredibly important issue, don't turn down the radio, don't walk away from the TV.

One best forms of protection and prevention is education. We must talk to our children about how to stay safe, not only in the real world, but the online world too.

Perpetrators want to keep discussions about child sexual abuse taboo.

That, coupled with secrets and the perception of shame, enables predators to keep offending.

And we know that these conversations we have about child sexual abuse – and the ones we will have on domestic and family violence during this summit – will be confronting and uncomfortable.

We will agree on many things, but laying bare the contributing factors of domestic and family violence can be hard to hear.

However, we need to be honest brokers if we want to make significant inroads in protecting women and children.

For example, some perpetrators may think they are not doing anything wrong – and we need to call that out, no matter their background or ethnicity.

And I want to reinforce that in the context we are speaking about today: it is always wrong to be violent. It is a crime.

We also cannot address this in isolation of other contentious matters still debated within the public discourse, such as decriminalising personal use of illicit drugs.

That is a policy decision for governments, and police obviously observe the laws that are enacted.

But the debate about personalised use or decriminalisation of drugs needs to be thought about in this prism: Will this make our community safer? Will our children grow up safer? Will it make parents, women and our vulnerable communities feel more secure?

A 2019 Deakin University research paper entitled, The Role Illicit Drug Use in Family and Domestic Violence in Australia, found illicit drug use was linked to involvement in incidents of domestic violence.

Illicit drugs corrode our community fabric, they can fuel violence and leave children at risk of abuse and neglect.

That is one of the reasons why the AFP invests a significant amount of resources in preventing drugs coming from other countries and arresting traffickers whose profit subjects the community to misery.

Illicit drug trafficking bankrolls a number of serious crimes, including people trafficking and sexual servitude.

Operation Ironside, the biggest organised crime operation in our 40-year history, exposed the unfathomable scale of drugs planned for import into Australia.

Operation Ironside seized five tonnes of drugs in Australia and also prevented 10 tonnes of drugs offshore arriving into this country.

I sincerely believe that keeping 15 tonnes of illicit drugs out of our cities and suburbs would have stopped many tragedies behind closed doors.

And knowing what really happens under someone's roof is essential when there are concerns about those who live there.

For some communities it is taboo to talk about it what happens in the privacy of someone's home.

And the AFP is very alive to how the pandemic is either fuelling or hiding crime.

Child sex predators are using COVID-19 to find more victims who are spending more time online because of lockdowns and restrictions.

During the past financial year, the AFP and our partners charged 235 people with almost 3000 (2772) child abuse-related offences.

But we are also concerned about crimes such as forced marriage, sexual servitude and slavery. The AFP believes lockdowns, the closure of schools and disconnection to other community services, which often are the first lines of reporting, are a contributing factor a reduction in the reports of these types of offences.

The AFP observed a 62 per cent reduction in forced marriage reports in the first six months of the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the same period in the preceding year. Borders do not have to be open for forced marriage to happen in Australia.

Despite these challenges, the AFP is ensuring we protect the vulnerable.

In January last year, the AFP secured Australia's first conviction for an exit human trafficking offence under Operation Eastwater.

A Sydney man used threats, coercion and deception to force a woman and her child to return to India.

The woman told police she feared for her life and was threatened with murder if she did not comply. When she left, the man adopted the identity of the woman and contacted Australian immigration authorities to revoke her legal visa status so she couldn't return.

However, the woman eventually returned to Australia. She contacted Anti-Slavery Australia, which referred case to the AFP.

After a thorough investigation, the AFP arrested the man trying to leave Australia and charged him with one count of trafficking in persons. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months' imprisonment.

And Operation Undavalli is an example of horrific crimes that can happen in ordinary suburbia.

A woman from the Philippines travelled to Australia on a tourist visa to help a couple after the birth of a child. But when her visa expired, she was prevented from leaving, was told she was not allowed to leave the house by herself and forced to care for three children, prepare meals and clean the house.

For years she was forced to work in the family's business and at home. When she was admitted to hospital she was told by the couple to provide false information so she could receive free healthcare under Medicare.

In 2017, the AFP began investigating her case and in 2020 the couple entered guilty pleas for a number of offences, including the modern slavery charge of forced labour.

In some cases, women vulnerable to these crimes are also the victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

And this is often where state and commonwealth offences intersect.

For the past five years, the AFP has been running initiatives to educate the public and the police about really understand what's happening in a household.

The AFP's Human Trafficking awareness training package, "Look a Little Deeper" is being delivered by the AFP to frontline responders across government, non-government organisations, universities; and state and territory police.

It provides resources to look for other signs outside of domestic violence, such as forced marriage, which carries a jail term of up to 25 years'.

The AFP also runs Project SKYWARP, which identifies and prevents human trafficking in the Australian aviation sector.

Right now, the AFP is pursuing funding opportunities to expand its Project SKYWARP into secondary schools. We did this because young women were being trafficked into and out of Australia for exploitation.

Human trafficking, domestic violence and child neglect and abuse is not a problem unique to Australia.

However, we do have some unique issues in Australia, such as our federation.

Police agencies across Australia are committed to women's safety and work collectively in a range of ways to enhance safety and protections, including through the national domestic violence order scheme.

State and territory agencies do some things really well when it comes to sharing information for the purposes of keeping women and children safe.

Law enforcement, health, education, child protection and housing departments, plus Centrelink and local government and non-government agencies – all these agencies have information that could help explain what's really happening under a roof.

And when we work closely together – and we need to continue to find ways to work even more closely together - we will be able to make greater gains.

Information kept in silos does not help women, children and others who need our protection.

We need to consider privacy but being truly connected will help law enforcement agencies share critical information to help protect the vulnerable who either flee states to move to another or those who cannot leave an abusive or unlawful relationship.

As a former Police Commissioner in the Northern Territory, it was the elders who reinforced that everything in the system needs to be connected. Everything.

Those elders, the resilience of those leaders, underscored that trust in our institutions is vitally important.

When they trust us, and barriers come down, our relationship with those communities transition to a partnership rather than enforcement.

And for the AFP, building a bridge to community – no matter the community - is a priority.

We will continue to strengthen relationships with agencies and the community, plus keep educating our own, to ensure we protect our vulnerable communities and continue to police for a safer Australia.

National Security Hotline

Read the AFP Annual Report 2019-20

The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation

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