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Senator Waters recommends Senate Inquiry report into domestic violence

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Larissa Waters 20 Aug 2015

Senator WATERS (QueenslandCo-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (15:54): I too rise with great pride to speak to this very important report on violence against women. I am thrilled that more than 12 months on from the establishment of this inquiry, which I am really pleased that we did together as a chamber, that we have now produced a report and an interim report with some very weighty and substantial recommendations. I am pleased that the Senate was able to come to a tripartisan agreement on the report. Whilst the recommendations are not as strong as the Greens would like, and we have made some suggestions for additional recommendations, I look forward to the implementation of these recommendations, given that we have had the government, the opposition and the crossbench, in the form of the Greens, sign onto them.

I want to start by thanking the witnesses who gave their time and shared of themselves to this inquiry with great courage and bravery. I echo the remarks of Senator Bernardi, and this is the first time I have done that, in thanking the witnesses for sharing their deeply personal stories, which were, I agree, harrowing and eye-opening for us in the Senate. To learn just how prevalent this scourge is was truly shocking. To see the issue finally coming out of the shadows and receiving the attention that it so desperately needs both in the media and in this place has been really heartening. That is how we start to fix this problem. It is not by ignoring it or pretending it is private business for behind closed doors; it is by revealing the true extent of these horrific crimes that are being committed, mostly against women and their children—sadly, against one in three women.

This is how we start to deal with this issue, by bringing it out of the shadows. I want to take the step of dedicating the Australian Greens additional comments to Rosie Batty, one of the strongest witnesses we heard from and, clearly, one of the strongest women who has faced horrific circumstances and managed throughout to be a strong and powerful advocate for women facing this terrible scourge. I want to personally thank Rosie, and I know others have as well, for her courage in continuing, in the face of true horror, to be a powerful advocate, to try to fix domestic violence and family violence.

We know that this is a national emergency and should be treated as one. This is a crucial moment. Never before have we had such national attention focused on domestic violence. We have to seize the momentum. In the interim report, which I felt was very strong and which, sadly, the government members did not sign on to, we focused on the funding cuts that have been made to front-line services, to homelessness programs and to community legal centres. I am very disappointed that, after the 2014 budget that made those cuts, much of those were not reversed in the 2015 budget. Some of them were and I commend the government for listening to the community in that regard. Those remaining funding cuts urgently need to be reversed. I take the opportunity in my additional comments for the Greens to reiterate the desperate need for those cuts to be reversed. There were cuts to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, to community legal centres, to legal aid and to the family violence prevention legal services, and indeed there is still $44 million from new emergency accommodation that desperately needs to be reversed.

I want to go through the additional recommendations that we made. The first ones are in regard to those funding cuts. We heard from the women who staff the crisis lines who said that they cannot actually answer all the calls that are made. They really feared for the women who have taken the strong step of phoning. If they cannot get through, what does that do to a woman who is seeking help? How far does that set her back? It may have taken an awful amount of courage to even pick up the phone in the first place. We have to make sure all of those phone calls are answered. Likewise, when women arrive at crisis shelters, often with their kids, turning those women away should not be an option in this wealthy nation, in this day and age. We need to provide the funding for those services as a federal government working in partnership with the state government, not passing the buck, saying, 'This isn't our problem; we don't normally fund housing,' but working together to make sure that no woman or child is ever turned away from that crisis accommodation service.

We heard evidence about the gendered nature of this violence and we heard that gender inequality is driving much of the violence that we are now seeing wrought on women and children. Our first recommendation is that the federal government lead a broad and far-reaching program of reform to achieve gender equality in this nation. Yes, we have an awfully long way to go, but we have begun some steps towards equality. We need to close the gender pay gap. We need to boost women's financial independence. We need to address the deficit of women in leadership positions in both government and business. We need to share unpaid caring responsibilities more equally and encourage women into non-traditional industries.

Some of our other specific recommendations went to the funding for respectful relationships programs in schools. This is a commitment that is in the Second National Action Plan to Eliminate Violence Against Women and their Children, but we have not actually seen much follow-through in terms of the money and in terms of including that in the national curriculum. Prevention is, of course, better than cure—that is so obvious as to be trite—and if we do not address the attitudes and the behaviours that are being formed at that very early age then we condemn ourselves to repeat these behaviours. It is a wonderful opportunity to help kids learn about respectful relationships, about the role that they can play and about their own self-worth and self-determination. That is the chance we have to try to fix this problem once and for all. A clear focus on prevention needs to be taken. Instead of that being at the expense of front-line services, we need to grow the pie. We need to fund those front-line services as well, and that is why we have recommended that the federal government conduct a needs assessment of state-staffed crisis lines, which are supplemented by one federal-staffed crisis line, to make sure that all of those calls can be answered.

We have made some extensive recommendations about funding, particularly under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. We know that those crisis centres are underfunded—they run on the smell of an oily rag—and they are not able to help everyone who needs help. And what then after the initial crisis period? We were told in the inquiry that women are being forced to choose between homelessness and violence. That is not okay. No-one should have to make that choice. In this wealthy nation we need to be able to provide not just crisis accommodation but, in the post-crisis period, affordable housing so that women and children can remain safe and not be forced back into violent homes because they have nowhere else to live.

We have talked about the need for dedicated specialist services for women and children, with long-term funding. We have heard some reports of a worrying trend towards specialist women's services being subsumed into more generalist practices that are larger but are not specially focused on the needs of women and children escaping violence. That is a worrying trend and it means women and children will not be able to get the dedicated specialist support that they need. We are urging the federal government to make sure that those specialist services remain funded with secure long-term funding.

We have also talked about the need to increase funding for legal services. The Productivity Commission in fact recommended a boost of $200 million for legal services, and we would love to see that provided by this federal government. There is a funding cliff in 2017 coming for community legal centres, and that urgently needs to be addressed. On law reform, we talked about the need for proper training for magistrates, for judicial officers and even for family law report writers—who I am sure do their best at their work but do not currently receive specialist training to be able to detect and therefore make appropriate recommendations about situations of family and domestic violence. We heard that that has huge implications for the legal aid provision to those women and children, to the effect that if they challenge those family law reports they then lose their entitlement to legal aid, which effectively shuts them out of the justice system. That is not justice by anyone's definition, so we urgently need to ensure that those judicial officers are properly trained.

The implementation of the national domestic violence order scheme is very welcome but it has taken an awfully long time; it has been five years now. It needs to urgently be implemented. We remain of the view that the Commonwealth should act to give 10 days of paid domestic violence leave to all employees over whom it has jurisdiction so that women and children can attend court appearances, can attend appointments and can find accommodation. We got somewhere towards that in the majority report but the Greens—and I believe we have the support of the opposition in this—are firmly of the view that the Commonwealth needs to act to deliver on that. I conclude my remarks by saying that, when two women a year die at the hands of a partner or former partner, something has to be done. The ball has begun but it is up to us to keep it rolling and to fix those funding cuts and stop this scourge once and for all.

Report and Australian Greens’ additional comments: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Finance_and_Public_Administration/Domestic_Violence/Report

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