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Keep an eye on what's going on here, Kamla

By Judy Raymond

Last Wednesday, Foreign Minister Suruj Rambachan praised the Prime Minister for promoting the empowerment of women in the Commonwealth and beyond, during her time as chair-in-office.

But women were far from empowered in the Lower House that day, when Justice Minister Herbert Volney piloted the DNA Bill.

Mr Volney has the air and the diction of a 19th-century squire, and his thinking is equally back-in-times. One of these days he'll propose that the peasants should be transported to Australia for life for praedial larceny.

The DNA Bill had about as much respect for civil rights. It needed a special majority, because, Mr Volney said breezily, "It may be arguable that the mandatory taking of a sample infringes bodily integrity and privacy."

Like the State of Emergency, another of the Government's anti-crime measures, this one will most definitely infringe on citizens' constitutional rights: it will allow the police, doctors and nurses to take samples of body tissue from people without their consent.

That's okay with Mr Volney, because DNA samples, he kept saying, would help prevent innocent people from being wrongly convicted. And they would catch all the bad guys.

"When a crime is done," he declaimed unctuously, "we will catch every last one of them, once they leave any sort of their presence (sic) on the scene of the crime."

But sometimes, try as he might, Mr Volney comes across less like a wacky uncle and more like Big Brother.

He listed those from whom samples may be taken by force—and force may come into it. Clause 23 says: "A person authorised under this Act to take a sample, or a person assisting such a person, may use reasonable force to take and protect the sample."

Samples can be taken from suspects and those accused or convicted of a crime—any crime. Deportees, non-citizens and anyone who has been at a crime scene must provide them. A sample can be taken from anyone at all on the ground of national security.

Furthermore, state agencies will be allowed to keep these samples indefinitely (a measure outlawed by the European Court of Human Rights when the UK tried it).

But this bill goes further still. Another category of people must provide DNA samples—intimate ones. They are the victims of sexual offences.

(Mr Volney said that meant "women who have been raped." Actually, this measure also applies to children and "incapable" people; so women aren't classed as competent adults.)

The "alleged" victim, he explained nonchalantly, must be examined anyway, so: "Her consent is not needed for samples."

The rationale was "not to subject her to further trauma," he went on, but because women often changed their minds in such cases.

"It may appear draconian," he conceded. It does. It also appears horrifying, stupid, sexist and useless.

The DNA Bill will authorise the State to assault people who are not only innocent of any crime, but have also just been the victims of one of the worst kinds of crime.

How does the Government justify this additional, official violation of rape victims?

By making out that they are liars.

The Minister of Justice opined—without a shred of evidence—that it was "often a fact that individuals are falsely accused of committing sexual crimes."

Adding yet another insult to further injury, he explained that "alleged" victims of rape are given to changing their minds about giving evidence because of "embarrassment"—thus trivialising the ordeal of both the attack itself and the trial.

Women MPs—including the Prime Minister, the champion of her sex—sat quiet through this jaw-dropping misogyny.

If this measure became law, rape victims would have to undergo further trauma and humiliation, possibly under the impression that they were being given a bona fide medical examination. Gathering such samples is a lengthy process, by the way, not a quick swab; it can take hours.

The Minister said there had been consultation over the bill; he didn't say whether doctors had been asked if they were willing to carry out invasive procedures on women without their informed consent, contrary to their professional ethics.

Surprisingly for a former High Court judge, Mr Volney appeared to believe that once these samples were obtained, then even if the victim refused to give evidence, a trial could proceed anyway. But it couldn't.

Rape cases are not whodunits; most rape victims know their rapists. They may be married to them, or live with them. So it's not a question of matching the attacker's DNA and tracking him down.

The issue in a rape case is usually not whether anything happened, or who did it—it's whether the victim consented.

How can a DNA sample provide evidence of that?

It can't. So these additional, state-sanctioned assaults on rape victims aren't even arguably in the public interest—because they will be useless.

Worse, they may deter not the offenders, but their victims.

If the Minister of Justice's portfolio includes providing justice for rape victims, he shouldn't push for them to be treated like criminals or accuse them of lying.

And in between making giant leaps for womankind all over the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister needs to keep an eye on what is being inflicted on women right here.

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