Anti-bullying law proposal in South Australia sparks debate after teenager Libby Bell's suicide

Anti-bullying law proposal in South Australia sparks debate after teenager Libby Bell's suicide

Anti-bullying law proposal in South Australia sparks debate after teenager Libby Bell's suicide

Updated 10 September 2017, 13:50 AEST

An Australian Conservatives MP hits back at criticism of his party's tough anti-bullying policy that includes the option of 10 years' jail for worst offenders, a policy formulated after the death of schoolgirl Libby Bell.

The Australian Conservatives have hit back at criticism of their anti-bullying policy, describing comments by South Australia's first Commissioner for Children as "gobbledygook".

The party is pushing for a stronger response to tackle teenage bullying, including the option of imprisoning the worst offenders for up to 10 years, and has drafted laws that will go before State Parliament within weeks.

The legislation dubbed "Libby's Law" was prompted by the suicide of 13-year-old Seaford Secondary College student Libby Bell, who was bullied online and at school.

The proposal has the broad support of the teenager's uncle, Clint Gow-Smith, who described the physical and verbal abuse of his niece as "relentless" over three years.

"We need kids to be held accountable for their actions," he said.

"I just think there are some gaps around accountability. We use social media — adults and kids alike. It just seems like there's no control, there's no governance.

"We just want to see it fixed for the better and to prevent another family going through this and for the Education Department to have the tools to implement change."

Australian Conservatives MP Dennis Hood said Libby's Law was closely modelled on Victoria's Brodie's Law, which was introduced in 2011 following the suicide of young waitress Brodie Panlock.

"They have very substantial penalties for this sort of behaviour over there now, the schools and the Education Department take it more seriously because there are legal consequences," he said.

A tougher approach is also favoured by South Australian police, which has urged a review of anti-bullying laws.

But the Conservatives' stance has not drawn praise from Children's Commissioner Helen Connolly, who took up the newly created position earlier this year.

Ms Connolly said she favours a strategy based on prevention.

"I think actually focussing on the end, after some tragedy has happened, and trying to actually address the problem through that solution is not going to be a particularly effective one," she said.

"We need to think about why kids are bullying.

"We need to obviously have a focus on kids who are victims of bullying, but equally who's bullying — why are they bullying, what are the issues they're bullying about?

"Let's get kids involved in actually defining the problem and then working out what the solution is, rather than adults just jumping into the solution being a law."

Carrot and stick needed to address current policy failures

Those comments have been condemned by Mr Hood, who said the approach advocated by Ms Connolly has already been tried.

"It sounds like a lot of gobbledygook. All of those are lovely thoughts ... but the reality is children are literally dying or harming themselves," he said.

"We have had an approach for many years now which has been focused on preventing bullying and trying to essentially talk the talk, but clearly it's failing.

"How long are we going to sit on our hands and let this situation continue? There needs to be a carrot and a stick.

"There also needs to be significant consequences for people who utterly refuse to play by the rules. Some of this bullying is incredibly sinister."

Mr Hood said many South Australian schools were failing to treat the issue seriously, but is confident the law change will be approved by Parliament.

"In the five years that a similar bill has operated in Victoria, they've only charged 60 people. That's a reasonable number," he said.

But Ms Connolly said it was important to differentiate between types of bullying, from "teasing right through to assault".

"We can't have laws that are obviously blanket. We need to actually look at children's ages and stages of development," she said.

"It's incredibly simplistic to say that we can jail people who bully."