Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 11 Hansard (9 December) . . Page.. 3339 ..
MR STANHOPE (Leader of the Opposition) (11.49), in reply: Mr Speaker, there has been some misunderstanding in some aspects of the debate about what we are seeking to achieve and what these pieces of legislation would do if implemented. The motivator in introducing these pieces of legislation is that it should be the aim of all of us to keep people out of gaol if at all possible. That is the underlying philosophy that drove the introduction of these Bills.
The Bills require the Magistrates Court to consider the option of a community service order before a fine defaulter is committed to prison. The legislation does not remove the option of prison for fine defaulters. In fact, when the Government introduced earlier legislation, the ALP supported the notion of imprisonment for fine defaulters once the range of other options had been exhausted. To that extent, these Bills do not change that position at all. The current scheme, the one that we voted on earlier, forces the registrar to imprison a fine defaulter even if a community service order would have been desirable in the circumstances of that particular case. The registrar has no option. The legislation does not currently allow for community service orders.
The underlying position is that all alternatives to incarceration need to be explored. The measures proposed in this suite of Bills are real and reasonable alternatives. It is the Labor Party's position that nobody in Australia, particularly nobody in Canberra, should be imprisoned for poverty, for being unable to pay their fines. You cannot but say that the inevitable result of the current process, which denies access to community service orders, will be that people are imprisoned for being poor.
Mr Kaine: We can reinstitute the debtors prison, Mr Stanhope.
MR STANHOPE: Maybe that is what we are attempting to do here. Maybe there is a bit of social engineering involved to get the undesirable unemployed people off the streets.
Mr Berry: Vagrancy.
MR STANHOPE: Yes, that is right. Send them all back. Any person without assets or income other than social security benefits who is fined by a court, once they get on this treadmill and once they find themselves unable to pay their fines, will ultimately end up in prison. These amendments provide protection in suitable cases.
Mr Humphries: Why did the courts impose the fines in the first place?
MR STANHOPE: For law-breaking, but that does not mean we should abandon the notion of a community service order. Why do we inexorably end up in gaol? Why do we skip the community service order option? Why has this legislature done that?
Mr Humphries: Most places do.
MR STANHOPE: But we do not have to do what other people do. It is quite likely that any Australian on only a pension or benefit who has been convicted on some matter and fined will default under any time payment scheme that the registrar permits under section 152. Sooner or later registrars will have no choice under the existing legislation