An Australian Modern Slavery Act: Its Time has Come

The drive for an Australian Modern Slavery Act received a tremendous boost with the recent visit of Kevin Hyland, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, to Australia.

His visit galvanised support for Australia to legislate a “Modern Slavery Act”.  The primary focus of such an Act would introduce business supply chain transparency reporting on modern slavery, the creation of a filing repository and the establishment of a statutory office of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Commissioner Hyland’s emphasis on placing victims at the centre of our response to modern slavery was a theme that struck a chord with the large audiences at his public appearances.  He strongly argued that modern slavery needs to be recognised for what it is, a serious organised crime.

The policy announcement by the Australian Labor Party of their support for robust modern slavery legislation, coming so soon after the Commissioners visit, was a welcome contribution to the growing momentum for the Australian Parliament to legislate.

The submissions to the Federal Parliamentary Committee by Australia’s largest businesses and those of the investment advisory community strongly supported the call for legislation on supply chain transparency to assist business rid modern slavery from their operations.

The overwhelming business endorsement of legislation has discredited the argument of those inside Government who sought to resist legislation by arguing that that it would be an unwelcome impost of regulation on business.

The commitment by Chris Crewther MP, the Chair of the Committee, and members from all sides of politics has demonstrated that this is not an issue of left versus right but a bipartisan endeavour in the cause of humanity.

It is widely expected that the Committee’s deliberations and report will establish a compelling case upon which Australian legislation can be designed.

The Federal Government can have great confidence that a decision to introduce legislation would be welcomed across the Parliament.

The Government’s departmental review of the UK Act supply chain reporting provisions, announced by Ministers Keenan and Bishop in November, may be a catalyst for Government action even before the Parliamentary Committee has concluded its work.

Walk Free Foundation continues to press the case for an early commitment by the Government to legislation. Their commitment and leadership on the issue more broadly means that the introduction of modern slavery legislation is a logical consequence of everything they have done domestically and internationally.

An announcement before the G20 leaders’ summit in July and before the Bali Government and Business Forum in August would enhance the Government’s credibility and legitimacy to provide leadership on modern slavery in these important international forums.

It appears that there may be a reluctance within government to accept the need to establish an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Statutory Office in Australia.

Attorney General’s Departmental officers continue to defend the status quo, to assert their primacy in managing the National Action Plan (NAP), and maintain that the role of the consultative forum, the National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery, is an adequate policy and accountability mechanism.

This is not a view shared by the community sector, churches, business nor the Labor Party.

We acknowledge that Australia approaches this challenge from a far more advanced stage of legislative and policy development than many other countries.

An independent Office that, provided advice and recommendations to government and non-government bodies, monitored implementation of government strategy, reported to Parliament, and engaged with victims, agencies, business and civil society could do much more to mobilise Australian efforts to end modern slavery.

An Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner would be a powerful voice for holding us all accountable.

The office would encourage greater transparency, coordination and efficient use of resources and drive outcomes, not just activities.  The Anti-Slavery Commissioner would have both a domestic and international outlook, and complement the work of the DFAT Ambassador for People Smuggling and Trafficking.

The UK Commissioner has harnessed the power, status and independence of his Office to drive real engagement and change within government service delivery, the police, business and civil society. Business in the UK report that the Commissioner’s engagement with the private sector has driven up standards of minimum corporate behaviour.  The activity and commitment being displayed throughout British society could not have been achieved by legislation alone or by government departmental working parties.

Walk Free Foundation is confident that an office of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner is an essential element of any modern slavery legislation that would be supported by the Australian Parliament.

The reality of the suffering of so many of our fellow human beings demands we do all that we can.

The visit of Commissioner Hyland has brought attention to the momentum for action against modern slavery that is building in Australia and across the world. But momentum can be fleeting.

Walk Free Foundation believes we must seize the opportunity and act now.