NSW Parliament House. Source: Wikicommons

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On November 12, along with members of Touching Base and Scarlet Alliance, I climbed into the leather-clad stalls of the public gallery to hear the findings of the NSW Select Committee Inquiry into the Regulation of Brothels. The seating is as cramped as an economy class flight but with an antique touch – an old world nicety. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, and there was high security despite an almost empty parliamentary chamber except for a few pollies, about six sex workers and one regular pensioner attendee, obviously finding parliament more interesting than the pokies, fishing or daytime TV.

I was reprimanded by the security team as my alarm went off (a reminder to be out of bed by afternoon tea), though despite this small act of recalcitrance, he later thanked us all for being so well behaved.

The Chair of the Enquiry, MP Alister Henskens, summarised the options, saying that decriminalisation would not be changed but also spoke about the possibility of bringing in a system of legal registration similar to the tattoo parlour registration in NSW. This seemed contradictory.

In another piece for City Hub, I spoke about the problems assoicated with this. In the Police Association’s submission, it was highlighted that because there are many more brothels than parlours, this would put a strain on resources.

Summer Hill Labor MP Jo Haylen, Gosford Labor MP Kathy Smith and Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich did not support the Inquiry’s findings, nor many of its recommendations, including the handing of greater enforcement powers to police, additional regulation, and a licensing scheme.

Mr Greenwich said that “licensing will create a two tiered system of licensed and unlicensed brothels,” and that there was “no evidence that licensing would reduce criminal activity.”

Mr Greenwich also remarked that “trafficking is a global problem” and dismantling decriminalisation would “create an underground class of sex workers”.

According to Touching Base, “sex work in NSW was decriminalised in 1995 as a result of the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption. Decriminalisation is seen worldwide as the best practice model of sex industry regulation, especially for sex worker health and safety.”

In submissions to the Committee, health professionals all consistently warned against a licensing system.

These submissions came from Head of the Sexual Health Program at the Kirby Institute Professor Basil Donovan, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant, the Aids Council of NSW, the Kireton Road Centre, and the Sydney Sexual Health Clinic.

The Committee was split in decision, with three of seven committee members not supporting the recommendations.

In a joint statement, the three dissenting MPs said “we are concerned that increasing police powers, especially entry powers, could compromise the safety and privacy of sex workers, and ignores the historic links between police corruption and sex work”.

Janelle Fawkes, CEO of Scarlet Alliance, said that the recommendations “are dangerous, will reverse the health benefits decriminalisation has delivered, and will have significant negative impact on sex workers’ health and safety.”

Ms Haylon said that it would not be wise to go back “to the bad old days when large sections of the sex industry were underground,” referring to the success of reforms emanating from the Wood Royal Commission.

Eleni Petinos, Miranda Liberal MP, introduced herself as being only in parliament for six months. She spoke of findings about “forcing workers to take drugs against their will” and other evidence of “sexual servitude”, and quoted Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas in saying that saving even a few women from “sexual servitude” will make it all worthwhile.

It is concerning that the police were given permission to withhold some of their key evidence, arguing that the information may compromise ongoing investigations.

The Chair of the Committee referred to three main ‘problems’ of the brothel industry, being worker exploitation, connection to outlaw motorcycle gangs and massage parlours providing a ‘full service’ rather than just a ‘happy ending’.

There seems to be no happy ending to this inquiry, with discontented sighs coming from the public gallery.

I note from my previous article that evidence given by the Victorian Police stated that licensing in Victoria has not stopped crooks, crims and bikies acting as managers.

In a small amount of cases, people with no criminal record just get the license in their name, leaving the criminals in charge.

Moral panics about ‘sexual servitude” and ‘sex slavery’ would best be backed up by evidence that is not suppressed from public scrutiny, especially if legislative change and use of tax payer money is required to service the implementation.

This inquiry raises broader philosophical questions about the public right to know in any democratic process. After two days in parliament house I didn’t envy the pollies.

The buzzer system of beckoning pollies to parliament sounds like a car alarm of one of my former neighbour’s, and left lingering sonic resonances somewhat redolent of a Darren Aronofsky film, like Requiem for a Dream, leaving you with a sensation of brain explosion.

I am happy to return to the quiet outsider introversion of indie journalism.