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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2002 Week 3 Hansard (5 March) . . Page.. 565 ..

Crimes Amendment Bill 2001 (No 2)

Debate resumed.

MS TUCKER (3.30): This is one of those pieces of legislation that react to a particular shocking event by adding a new crime to the Crimes Act. I understand that this bill has support from the Liberal government and that Mr Stefaniak has withdrawn his own hoax bill. On the one hand this is understandable. We as a society want to be able to name the particularly abhorrent action and to make whoever did it accountable somehow. But in the rush to do something as legislators, we do need to be careful.

Mr Stefaniak and Mr Stanhope both presented bills to address the series of hoax and threat scares in the ACT that followed on from genuine anthrax attacks in the US and the terrorist attacks on September 11. Both sought to have the bills debated almost immediately. Mr Stefaniak has included a retrospective commencement date, which the Greens could not support and will not support today as an amendment. I am pleased that the Assembly has taken more time to consider what we should be doing.

Last year the ACT experienced incidents in which people sent or otherwise distributed physically harmless white powder, causing a great deal of distress and a lot of complex precautionary and clean-up measures to be undertaken. We, as the ACT news-watching sector of the public, experienced it via news reports; the people working in the tax office, in one case, experienced it more personally.

The public nature of these events was fairly clear. It did not just concern the tax office employees, which would have been horrific enough in itself; it was a public event, by nature of the expectations and fears that were aroused by the attack on New York's World Trade Center. But what if it had not been reported so widely? If there is a white powder practical joker or hoaxer in a years time, will it still be seen as causing the same public alarm and anxiety?

It is important to consider the context in which threats take place. In this case it was immediately following the malicious distribution of actual anthrax spores in the US, and there was a climate of fear that we do not usually have as a Western country. The bill addresses the climate surrounding the threat, which will affect the level of alarm or anxiety felt by the public. The words used are "in the circumstances in which it is done", but it will be interesting to see how public an event it needs to be. I understand that there is support for this bill, and I understand the desire to specifically make these public, non-specific attacks a crime. But we must be vigilant about its effects in practice.

Who knows who actually sent the white powder? And without having contact with the person or people who set up those hoaxes we cannot really know why they did it. Was it a practical joke that had more serious consequences than usual because of the climate of fear and the justifiable reactiveness to anything that looked like an attack? Was it someone's short-sighted idea of fun to cause a stop to work and the emergency services to be brought in? Was it someone trying to get attention? Was it someone trying to cause trouble because they felt themselves to be hard done by-a kind of revenge in general on privileged people or in response to a perceived slight? Was there some more malevolent intent? Or did someone just spill the talcum powder?

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