DECRIMINALISATION OF SEX WORK: Hon S Wade


The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing) (20:41): I rise to support the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill 2018. In doing so, I am basically reiterating what I said on the 2012 and 2015 bills for prostitution law reform. In my view, South Australia needs prostitution law reform. The current criminal law approach to prostitution does not provide effective policing of prostitution.

Many people who share my Christian faith have contacted me urging me to oppose this bill on moral grounds. Within my own personal moral code, it would not be appropriate for me to offer or receive sex services for payment. That is also the consensus of the Christian community and most faith communities. But many other citizens have a different view. The question for me as a legislator is whether, in a pluralist society, I should impose my personal moral code on others.

Our Christian forebears fought so that this state of South Australia would be a province of freedom, particularly freedom of religion. I am proud that we were the first part of the British Empire to separate church and state. But with all due respect to the Hon. Connie Bonaros, I do not accept that we have separated law from religion. I do not accept that morality and religion are not relevant to this debate. But as a Christian and as a Liberal, I believe that the laws of this state should respect the moral autonomy that God has given to each of us. It should not legislate a Christian moral code. It is spiritually and practically futile to try to coerce by the force of law what is not a response of the heart or the spirit.

The focus of the state should rather be on trying to prevent, or at least minimise, one citizen causing harm to another. In considering prostitution law reform, my focus will be to act to reduce harm and to support people to make their own choices, including ensuring that people are free to cease working in the prostitution industry, if that is their choice. Consistent with the 2017 select committee report, I consider that this bill is a better way to deal with sex work than the current law. In particular, I welcome the opportunity to improve public health outcomes, to improve the safety of workers and to support workers who choose to exit the industry.

In that context I would like to put on the record advice provided to me by the Department for Health and Wellbeing as Minister for Health and Wellbeing. I want to make clear that this is a department view. As this bill is a conscience vote, it should not be considered as a view of the Marshall Liberal government. I provide it solely as a considered health perspective on the bill and in the interests of an informed debate, and I quote:

National and international evidence suggests the decriminalisation of sex work is beneficial for the health and safety of sex workers and the people who procure the services of a sex worker.

Laws regarding sex work in South Australia have not been changed in over 100 years. SA Health has advised the Minister for Health that this regulatory environment creates barriers to accessing appropriate health care, as well as effective peer education and outreach—all protective factors in preventing HIV and STI transmission.

Sex workers across Australia have a consistently lower prevalence of HIV, STIs and viral hepatitis than the general population, yet are still often viewed as vectors of disease and subject to regulation and subsequent policing.

According to the Eighth National HIV Strategy 2018-2024, there is now definitive evidence that decriminalisation of sex work is linked to the reduction of HIV risk and rates. In addition, the Fourth National Sexually Transmissible Infections Strategy 2018-2024 states that, while Australian sex workers experience some of the lowest rates of STI in the world, sex workers experience specific barriers to accessing health care, and one of these barriers relates to regulatory and legal issues, such as criminalisation.

The World Health Organization's Policy Brief, Consolidated Guidelines for HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations (2014), affirms this position, stating that supportive legislative environments, including decriminalisation of sex work, is an essential strategy in creating the enabling environments required for an effective HIV response.

Australia's strong and sustained investment in evidence based health promotion programs among sex workers means that rates of STI remain low and HIV is 'virtually eliminated' from this population. However, increases in chlamydia and gonorrhoea incidence have been observed in recent years. It is thought that these increases may be due to increased testing, which is a goal of the previous and current suite of national STI and BBV strategies.

A study on the global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers published in The Lancet in 2015 found that decriminalisation of sex work would have the greatest effect on the course of HIV epidemics across all settings, averting 33-46 percent of HIV infections over a decade. In addition, it states that multipronged structural and community-led interventions are crucial to increase access to prevention and treatment and to promote the health, safety and rights of sex workers worldwide.

I note that there are alternative models available for reform. None have been brought forward to this parliament. I can only presume that either proponents of those models do not consider that they would work in South Australia or that they are being raised simply to distract from any reform. The need for reform is clear. This bill provides a way forward. No alternative models are being put forward.

I think it is important that this bill pass tonight, so this council makes clear its recognition of the need for reform. I take this opportunity to indicate that I am keen for the bill to be amended. Given that the sex work industry, in my view, is more vulnerable to criminal infiltration than other industries, I would hope that the council will consider putting in place protective measures such as those we have put in place for the tattoo and hydroponics industries and ensuring that police have the powers they need to deal with criminality.

I am also concerned about the lack of regulation of soliciting in a public place. That said, I consider that this bill offers a better legal regime than the current law. I support the second reading of the bill and will consider supporting the third reading if the bill is appropriately amended.