By Julian Bajkowski
The recurring problem of how local and state governments deal with unapproved and illegal brothels has been thrown back into the spotlight after a Victorian court heard evidence from an ex-cop convicted of taking bribes in return for tip-offs to feed his gambling habit.
The former Yarra City Council enforcement officer, who has already pleaded guilty to corruption charges and cannot be named for legal reasons, was giving evidence during a committal hearing of four people collectively charged with a string of more than 200 charges relating to bribery and sex industry offences.
The issue of controlling unapproved and illegal sex work premises is highly problematic for councils. In many states they are forced to regulate what used to be regarded as a police ‘vice squad’ function through local planning guidelines to shut down illegal premises.
In many states, the decriminalisation of prostitution came in part as a public health policy response to crises like the rapid rise of HIV infections in the 1980s and 1990s.
Around the the same time, Royal Commissions in NSW and Queensland established strong links between organised crime and vice and an entrenched system of kickbacks to corrupt police in return for a so-called 'green light' to operate illegal but tolerated businesses.
However the moves to legitimise the sex industry also handed councils a difficult to regulate because not all operators are prepared to play by the rules.
The proliferation of unapproved brothels is regarded as a substantial public health risk because operators are often exploitative and are prepared to accept unsafe sex practices not tolerated in approved businesses.
A key problem councils face is dedicating enough resources to shutting down illegal bordellos while at the same time ensuring compliance staff are not compromised.
One challenge is that illegal bordellos have access to substantial amounts of money for corrupt payments which are difficult to trace because the industry largely relies on cash to avoid detection.
Such access to large cash resources means that is comparatively easy to offer bribes without the source of money being readily traced.
The ability to control sexual health practices and the weeding out of criminal and exploitative prostitution operators was a key reason for the decriminalisation of the sex industry in most Australian states.
However the relative strength of the Australian dollar has made for a more lucrative market for illegal operators who routinely source labour from poorer overseas countries and bring in bonded foreign sex workers under the cover of international student or tourist visas.
While there are federal criminal laws that can be used to stamp out sex slavery rackets, the operation of illegal brothels still remains largely a local government planning issue that presents substantial evidentiary challenges when mounting prosecutions.
One is that there is an onus on councils to obtain sufficient evidence that an illegal sex business is being operated.
A number of councils have resorted to paying private investigators to use sex services in return for sworn testimony that that can be admitted as evidence in court.
However such tactics are not always popular with ratepayers because of the ethical and moral dilemmas they raise combines with adverse publicity.
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