Cemeteries and Crematoria Amendment Bill 2021: Second Reading

Ms ADDISON (Wendouree) (15:14): I rise today to speak in support of amending the Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2003. That will ensure that Victorian families are protected from harm and distress after the death of a loved one from a violent crime.

Our government believes that an offender who has been convicted of killing a person should not have the right to make decisions about the grave or memorial of the person they have killed. This bill will deny killers that right, instead giving the final say to the families left behind.

These changes are not designed to further punish perpetrators of serious crime or associates of perpetrators; they are designed to protect and prevent people affected by that crime from enduring further pain, hurt and suffering. The changes proposed in this bill will enshrine in Victorian law that Victorian families will have the right to make decisions over their loved one’s grave or memorial after their death in cases of murder-suicide and indictable offences.

I genuinely wish to thank the Minister for Health, the staff of the ministerial office and the department for the work that they have done to bring this bill to the house and for the stakeholder consultation that has occurred.

It is very important to undertake stakeholder consultation, and the department have sought feedback from the cemetery trusts and the sector and will continue to consult with them as the bill is implemented. Impacted families, including the family of Karen Williams, have also been consulted about the proposed changes and have welcomed the move to protect the rights of victims and families.

I am very pleased to speak following the contributions of our two excellent parliamentary secretaries for health, the member for Ivanhoe and the member from Melton, and I thank them for their contribution. In listening to the member for Melton’s contribution, his empathy and compassion just shine through. He is such an outstanding member of this Parliament and brings such depth and empathy to us, so I am so pleased to be able to follow the member for Melton.

As the member for Ivanhoe stated, he actually chairs the parliamentary group of cemetery trusts, and I was pleased to welcome him my electorate of Wendouree in December 2019 to meet with the Ballarat Cemeteries Trust CEO, Annie De Jong, and the then chair, Judy Verlin, AM, to discuss a range of issues and have a tour of the Ballarat cemetery.

The Ballarat cemetery trust provides a great service to my community and offers comfort and support to families of all interred there. Our Ballarat cemetery offers much choice for burial, including a carefully maintained lawn section; the baby’s garden and tree of memories; a contemplation garden; the terraces; the conifer garden; and the Dreamtime, a special place of belonging for those to be buried within their ancestral homeland of Wadawurrung country. It also offers a variety of memorialisation options for cremated remains.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the trust board chair, now Gayle Boschert, and board members for the good work that they do, as well as Ballarat cemetery staff operations manager Charlie Stebbing, chief financial officer John Noone and all the workforce there. As mentioned earlier, the cemetery trusts were consulted, and this bill will have no major impacts on the current governance arrangements of cemetery trusts and the important work that they do.

The purpose of this bill and this important legislation is to provide respect for the victims and their families and friends by denying rights to the perpetrators who are responsible for the victim’s death. This bill proposes to protect people against significant harm, pain and suffering by making changes to the rights of interment by or in favour of certain persons and makes various other amendments to the act in relation to rights of interment and for other purposes.

The bill also makes a number of minor technical and other amendments to clarify ambiguity and address inconsistencies, which will improve the administration and the sector’s understanding of the act, which is very important.

So we are going to talk a lot during this debate about the right of interment. A right of interment refers to a specific place of interment within a public cemetery. It could be a plot, a grave, a crypt or a cremation niche. It is important to clarify a common misconception that the purchaser of a right of interment actually buys the land associated with a cemetery plot, grave, crypt or cremation niche when the right of interment is purchased. This assumption is not correct. It is important to clarify this, as all public cemeteries in Victoria are situated on Crown land.

So let me be really clear: what is actually purchased is the right to determine who can be interred in that grave or other type of place of interment and the type of memorialisation, if any, to be established at the place of the interment. That is very important because at the heart of this legislation we are addressing this issue of the right of interment.

The right of interment holders are usually next of kin or family members, but they can also be held by multiple parties. So what this legislation is seeking to do is to amend the power that the Secretary of the Department of Health has, and I will read directly what we are going to do. The bill will provide the Secretary of the Department of Health with the power to:

… direct the surrender or variation of a right of interment and ensure that the rights of all victims and other persons directly and adversely affected by serious crimes are given appropriate respect and a say in what happens to the remains and resting place of their loved ones.

Therefore the changes being introduced in this bill will prevent a convicted killer from having the right to make decisions about what type of memorial the victim should have and will prevent them from determining what words should be inscribed on the memorial, and they will have no rights over who can be buried with the victim.

Importantly, this bill has Australia-wide application and considers indictable offences from all Australian jurisdictions to ensure an equitable application of the scheme. Once passed, a ‘relevant offender’ is a person convicted on or after 1 July 2005 of an indictable offence, and whose appeal period for the conviction has expired, or whose appeal has been finally determined. Safeguards are in place to ensure appropriate consideration is given to the views of affected people.

This bill is being introduced following the high-profile conviction of a person found guilty of unlawfully killing their spouse and the campaign undertaken by her family to bring about change.

I wish to acknowledge the family of Karen Williams and offer them my deepest sympathies for the pain and suffering they have experienced following the murder of Karen by her husband in 2016. I also want to recognise Karen’s brother, Stephen Williams, and other family members for their strong advocacy to bring about this important change, not just for their family but for many other Victorian families now and, sadly, into the future.

This case identified a gap in current legislation and a circumstance that is out of step with community expectations and values. The Williams family deserve to have the right to make decisions about how Karen is remembered, including where she is laid to rest. This bill will act retrospectively and will mean that Karen’s killer will be denied rights over Karen’s place of burial and will no longer be the holder of the right of interment for her grave.

This bill is consistent with our government’s approach to gender equality. The Andrews Labor government’s gender equality strategy reinforces that all Victorians are to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness and that everybody should have equal access to power, resources and opportunities. With this bill today we are saying dignity and respect will apply not just in life but also in death.

The amendments put forward by this bill have been carefully considered with relevance to family violence, and I am pleased that this bill has been drafted to enable persons affected by the death of a victim of murder-suicide to make an application to the secretary under the scheme.

I will briefly respond to the member for Caulfield’s comments regarding our response to family violence. Victoria has invested more than $3 billion to make Victoria a safer place for families and address the scourge of family violence. We have agreed to implement the 227 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence and we are doing all we can to stop preventable deaths. So at the heart of these proposed amendments is dignity and respect for the dead and the living.

I commend the bill to the house.


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