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Knife-edge vote on historic sex work reform

Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti authored the Bill. Picture: Supplied
Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti authored the Bill. Picture: Supplied

An Australia-first Bill that would have criminalised men who buy sex but decriminalise the women who sell it has been knocked back by a single vote after an emotional late-night debate in state parliament.

South Australia’s upper house voted 10-9 to reject the “Nordic model” reform to its prostitution laws that would have moved the state from its current regimen of full criminalisation to partial decriminalisation.

The Bill, authored by upper house Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti, would have guarded sex workers from prosecution but ramped up penalties for men and pimps who work the trade.

It would also have compelled government to provide exit pathways for sex workers to leave the industry through providing various forms of assistance.

South Australian Legislative Council Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti hugs Wahine Toa Rising founder Ally-Marie Diamond on the steps of Parliament House in Adelaide on August 30, 2023. Ms Centofanti pressed her Nordic model bill for months and it came to a vote on May 1, 2024 Picture: Supplied
South Australian Legislative Council Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti hugs Wahine Toa Rising founder Ally-Marie Diamond on the steps of Parliament House in Adelaide on August 30, 2023. Ms Centofanti pressed her Nordic model bill for months and it came to a vote on May 1, 2024 Picture: Supplied

The vote was a conscience vote and it received cross-party support, including from Labor minister Clare Scriven, who said she would vote for the Bill to roll back the commodification of women.

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Independent Frank Pangallo, speaking for the Bill, said the sex industry was rife with exploitation.

“You couldn’t find a more misogynistic world than prostitution, where pimps and thieves exploit and harm,” he said.

But Greens member Tammy Franks led the charge against the reform in a furious speech, denouncing the Bill as “slavery” for sex workers because it would have illegalised transactions from the demand side.

“They (sex workers) are not selling themselves, they are selling a service,” she said.

“I hope we might reflect on what the workers want in this debate.

“The contention of this Bill is to eliminate sex work, to cast it as a crime,” she continued.

Leading representatives from the sex work industry, including the advocacy group Sex Industry Network, came out against the Bill.

Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti debates the Bill on Wednesday night. Picture: Supplied
Liberal leader Nicola Centofanti debates the Bill on Wednesday night. Picture: Supplied
Attorney-General Kyam Maher opposed the Bill, arguing it would put women at greater risk of suffering violence. Picture: Supplied
Attorney-General Kyam Maher opposed the Bill, arguing it would put women at greater risk of suffering violence. Picture: Supplied

Ms Franks and other members of the Labor Party, including Attorney-General Kyam Maher, expressed support for full decriminalisation of the industry during the debate.

The vote was called just before midnight.

Ms Franks, speaking about the vote, expressed alarm about how close it was and what it meant for the future of sex work reform.

“I’m sure the campaigners for a recriminalisation model will be heartened by this vote tonight,” she said.

“I think they’ll be back for another attempt at some stage.”

Ms Centofanti confirmed with NCA NewsWire that she would press forward with the model.

“While I am obviously disappointed about the outcome of tonight’s vote, I intend to use this moment as an opportunity to continue advocating for the equality model here and across the country,” she said.

Greens leader Tammy Franks voted against the Bill, arguing it would deny sex workers their right to earn a living. Picture: Supplied
Greens leader Tammy Franks voted against the Bill, arguing it would deny sex workers their right to earn a living. Picture: Supplied

“There is a national conversation about what kind of society we want for women and girls here in Australia.

“I am of the view that we cannot have a serious conversation about gender-based violence without talking about a culture that allows women and girls to be viewed as commodities.”

Ms Centofanti also said provisions in the Bill on exit pathways could be split off into a new Bill.

“What I have learned throughout this process and the conversations I have had with many of my colleagues, they see the merits in the provision, around the safe exits strategies,” she said.

“It is my intention to re-evaluate those provisions and reintroduce a Bill that is focused on exit strategies, immunity and spent convictions.”