Review of Australia's Northern Territory Sex Work Laws Proposed in Response to Rapid Economic Growth

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Legislation regulating the sex industry may soon come under review in Australia’s Northern Territory. The Northern Territory’s Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Business, David Tollner, of the conservative Country Liberal Party, recently stated that he will attempt to solicit both public and political support for changes to the Prostitution Regulation Act.

Mr Tollner has cited the rapid economic growth of the Territory’s capital city, Darwin, in addition to an expanding population, as the primary reasons for reviewing sex industry legislation and has urged the community to engage in constructive dialogue around the issue. In late April, 2014, he said, “We have a rapidly growing economy and we have a growing population — my gut feeling is there are sex workers arriving in Darwin to meet that demand. As unpalatable as it may be for some in the community, I think it’s time for the government to have that discussion with the community.”

The Northern Territory Prostitution Regulation Act, implemented in 1992, contains some of Australia’s most outdated sex industry legislation. The Act requires sex workers to apply to the Northern Territory Police for a Certificate of Registration in order to legally provide sexual services within the Territory. A Certificate of Registration may be denied if a sex worker has any prior drug or violence related convictions. In addition to requiring sex workers to register with police, the Act criminalises street-based sex work, brothel-based sex work and the provision of sexual services from a worker’s home. Under the legislation, sex workers may only provide escort services, albeit from a hotel room or within a client’s home.

Many sex workers have protested the invasive nature of the legislation and have cited examples of how it has been used inappropriately by police. Madeline, a former Darwin based sex worker, said “Sex workers feel that being required to register with police is unnecessary, intrusive and open to breaches of confidentiality and misuse at the hands of police. How will having my name on a data base keep me safe at work or guarantee me decent working conditions?” Madeline also described her frustration at the lack of confidentially police accord to Certificates of Registration. “I was in court giving evidence in a trial related to the assault of a sex worker friend and the defence lawyer for the accused felt that it was relevant and appropriate to mention that I was a “known and registered prostitute”. This had no pertinence to my friend’s case and I can only speculate that it was raised in an effort to besmirch my character and as an attempt to undermine my credibility as a witness. What was equally disturbing was how the defence lawyer had known I was a “registered prostitute”?”

The announcement of Deputy Chief Minister Tollner’s intent to review Northern Territory sex industry legislation has raised cautious optimism amongst sex workers. Krystal Metcalf, Manager of the Sex Worker Outreach Project Northern Territory (SWOP NT) supports the removal of both police registration and the ban on brothels, citing them as work place occupational health and safety and human rights issues. Krystal called on the government to recognise that “Sex work is work and decriminalisation is the best model to address our human rights, labour rights and work, health and safety needs.” Meanwhile, Madeline stated that, “If Deputy Minister Tollner is genuine about engaging the community in the proposed review of the Prostitution Act; he should resource sex workers to lead the review process. Ultimately, sex workers will be the community most affected by changes to the Act, so it is integral that we play a significant role in guiding the review. Sex workers know what changes we would like to see made to the legislation, and we hope that this may finally be the beginning of a process which will end in a sex industry work environment that accords us a wider range of working options and excludes unnecessary contact with the police.”