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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2002 Week 2 Hansard (21 February) . . Page.. 451 ..

Thursday 21 February 2002

MR SPEAKER (Mr Berry) took the chair at 10.30 am and asked members to stand in silence and pray or reflect on their responsibilities to the people of the Australian Capital Territory.

Crimes (Bushfires) Amendment Bill 2002

Mr Stanhope , pursuant to notice, presented the bill and its explanatory memorandum.

Title read by Clerk.

MR STANHOPE (Chief Minister, Attorney-General, Minister for Health, Minister for Community Affairs and Minister for Women) (10.31): I move:

That this bill be agreed to in principle.

Mr Speaker, the Crimes (Bushfires) Amendment Bill 2002 will create a new offence relating to the lighting of bushfires in the Crimes Act 1900. I am aware that, following last December's bushfires, there were calls to bring our penalties for existing offences into line with those applicable in other jurisdictions. With all due respect to the people who demanded stiffer sentences for firebugs, my government is not convinced that an increase in penalties for existing offences will solve the problem. In fact, one thing that is certain from the recent bushfires is that the existing ACT arson offences do not deal effectively with people who cause bushfires because those offences do not take account of the actions and motivations involved in starting bushfires.

By way of illustration, the offence of arson requires that the person intentionally and without lawful excuse damages property belonging to another person. In practice, however, when a person does something that ends up causing a major bushfire, he or she may rarely consider the possibility that someone else's property will be damaged, let alone have the intention of causing that damage.

It is generally acknowledged by criminologists that there are many reasons why some people light fires: a fascination with fire generally, the excitement associated with a response from emergency services and a desire to relieve boredom or to impress one's peers. In such cases it would not be possible to convict a person of arson, even if they deliberately caused the fire which ended up as a bushfire. What, then, would be the point of increased penalties?

It would have been possible for the government to propose increases in the penalties for the regulatory offences found in the Bushfires Act 1936. Most of these regulatory offences involve strict liability; the state of mind of the person who does the relevant forbidden act does not affect their liability. Merely increasing the penalties that apply to regulatory offences would not distinguish appropriately between the criminality of the person who, for example, lights a backyard barbecue on a fire ban day but whose actions result in no damage and the criminality of a person who deliberately starts a fire in dry bushland on a windy day with the intention of causing a bushfire.

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