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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 4994

Dr STONE (Murray) (13:00): I too rise to speak on the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This bill amends the Family Law Act 1975 in relation to protection for children and families at risk of violence and abuse, so it is a very significant bill and one that both sides of the House are most concerned to see is as right as it can possibly be. We need to have world's best practice in this area of legislation and we certainly do not need any part of this bill to be captured by minority groups who cannot justify their claims with facts or the realities of what happens throughout Australia.

The bill makes several technical amendments which correct drafting and minor policy oversights and provide other efficiencies for the court and litigants. But we as the opposition are most concerned by some other amendments. The coalition reaffirms the 2006 reforms which we made. These were to help build healthy relationships and to try wherever possible to prevent the separation of parents, leading to the need for special arrangements for their children to live in different places. We aimed to encourage greater involvement of both parents in their children's lives after separation but at the same time we knew we needed to protect children from violence and abuse that may have been occurring within the relationship. We wanted to help separated parents agree on what was best for their children, ideally through mediation or agreements outside the court system. We wanted to establish highly transparent and easily accessed services for families. We wanted those to be available and accessible in the regions as well as metropolitan areas and we wanted to be able to cut the red tape, the bureaucracy and the delays which make the trauma of family separation and the need to support children even more difficult.

The proposed amendments in the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill include provision to give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which decision makers may consider when dealing with children's matters. The convention requires that the best interests of the child are considered first and foremost. Protection of the child from harm is therefore weighted above the child having a meaningful relationship with both parents if there is harm involved or threatened in that relationship. We argue that this need is already in the act and the amendment is not necessary. The existing legislation provides for the interests of the child to be paramount and take pre-eminence over the maintenance of a meaningful relationship between both parents.

The bill aims to change the definition of family violence. The exposure draft definition of family violence includes behaviour that is emotionally, psychologically or economically abusive or threatening. Many stakeholders have voiced their concern that the extension or generalising of the definition of family violence can lead to vexatious claims—that is, the use of this broad definition could more reflect the marital discord than the realities of abuse within the family. It is very important that we make sure the court always deals with facts rather than responding to children being used as weapons to inflict greater harm on an ex-partner. It must always be the case that claims are based on fact. When you have a broadening of a definition, as proposed, there is real concern about the opportunity for more vexatious claims to be made—claims not based on fact but relating to marital discord or ex-marital discord rather than the children's needs.

The bill aims to repeal the 'friendly parent' provision. The bill aims to strengthen the obligations of lawyers, dispute resolution practitioners, family consultants and counsellors to prioritise the safety of children. Again, we argue that that is already in the act. The amendments repeal the provision for costs orders to be made in the case of false family violence allegations. We wonder why you would want to do that. Surely this is a very common sense provision and it helps to make sure that we do not have claims being made which are more about the great hatred between the two partners than about reflecting the realities of family violence. The amendment also provides for simpler procedures for the participation of child welfare agencies in family law proceedings. Certainly that is a good idea.

There are many forms of violent behaviour perpetrated against women in Australia and inevitably against their children. There is no doubt that we have a major problem in Australia in relation to domestic violence and sexual assault. In fact, it is one of the most pervasive and damaging forms of violence experienced across Australia and it has been for a very long time. I would like to say that evidence shows it is diminishing; unfortunately that is not the case.

Violence not only affects the victims themselves, the partners, but invariably impacts on the children who are exposed to it and the extended families. We know there can be intergenerational abuse when a child learns in their household that striking out to cause physical harm, abuse and threats are ways to deal with frustrations rather than learning that there is an alternative way of dealing with the problems of life. We need to make sure our children are no longer seeing violence in their homes.

One in three Australian women say they have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and almost one in five have experienced sexual violence. In 2005, over 350,000 women said they had experienced physical violence. The key results from the Bureau of Statistics are that 23 per cent of women who have ever been married or in a de facto relationship say they have experienced violence by a partner at some time during that relationship. Moreover, 42 per cent of women who had been in a previous relationship reported violence by a previous partner. Half of the women experiencing violence by their current partner experienced more than one incident of violence, and these incidents included stab or gunshot wounds and other serious injuries. It is extraordinary and shocking too that we have had research in Australia asking teenage boys and girls whether striking a partner was appropriate and that the response was often yes it was appropriate in a relationship. Thirty-five per cent of women who experienced violence from their partner also experienced that violence during periods of separation. Of all the women who experienced this violence, only 4.5 per cent contacted a crisis organisation. I think this is a very serious problem. Only 19 per cent of women who were physically assaulted in the previous 12-month period contacted the police. That is less than 20 per cent. Forty-two per cent, nearly half, gave the main reason for not contacting police after the incident as wishing to deal with the problem themselves.

Unfortunately we know that when women do contact police or other emergency services that is when the prospect of the violence against them escalating becomes real. As the Federal Police have said to me, the most dangerous time for a woman in a violent relationship is when she seeks help. That is when she is most likely to be even more seriously injured or even killed. This is a terrible problem for Australians. We need to be dealing with the incidence of domestic violence. We need to be making sure that our support agencies, like the police, the ambulance services and the medical profession, are well able to protect women when they come forward and beg for assistance.

I have to say that I have been hugely disappointed that a program started under the coalition government in north-east Victoria called BSafe has not been re-funded. 'B' stands for Benalla and 'safe' is self-evident. This program provides support and protection to women who have had restraining orders taken out against abusive partners. They are issued with a fairly low-cost monitor. They are a bit like the monitors you see the elderly use to call for help when they have fallen. The monitor is given to women and some of their children who are old enough to understand its use. Through these monitors they can contact a monitoring service that is aware that they have a restraining order and they then immediately call the police should this small monitor be activated. Whenever the abusive partner comes near the home or tries to break the restraining order in any way, they simply press the button on the monitor. A call centre is immediately informed and then that call is immediately redirected to local police. Women have found that this simple device has substantially lessened attempts by abusive partners to break their orders. Police have seen different behaviour from the abusive partner when they are aware that the police will come quickly when the monitor is activated.

The tragedy is that this program runs out of funding in August this year. We are talking about several hundred thousand dollars to fund the program and a coordinator who manages the use of the monitors. There are some 70 women who have had these monitors and have found them to be so effective in giving them back freedom and a life without fear. Unfortunately, already the coordinator is having to tell these women that the service is to be cut off. Already the coordinator of this program is having to tell the police and other local community service providers that they cannot take the new numbers of women who are being referred to the agency.

We know that the program has been enormously successful. It has been demonstrated to be such. It even won an award recently as one of the most successful programs in dealing with the issue of domestic violence. Despite all that, this program is not to be funded after August this year. I find that extraordinary. The program should be expanded across Australia, not cut off. It has been the means for a lot of women to regain a decent life and break the cycle of intergenerational abuse. It has allowed women to stay in their homes. It has allowed children to continue to go to their local schools and retain proximity to grandparents and other supporting family members. Until these small devices were in the hands of these women, too many of them simply had to continue to run and hide because they were forever being pursued by partners breaking the restraining orders that were out against them. I ask the government to forget non-essential amendments to an act which has been working effectively. Instead they should be focusing on the programs which actually do great good when they are in the community in the hands of service providers such as the BSafe program.

We also have a great deal of difficulty in properly staffing our counselling, monitoring and mediating services in rural and regional areas. We have to make sure that we do not always have a two-speed economy, with better services provided to metropolitan families in need than to rural families in need.

I also need to refer to the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. This plan recognises the diversity of the needs of women with disabilities, young women, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Indigenous women, same-sex attracted women and older women, and provides scope to tailor responses based on individual needs.

We find that this bill today contains many measures which will not help at all in ensuring that children are always given priority when discussing their future. It does not make sure that, after a separation, where there is no issue of child safety, both mother and father can continue to have a meaningful relationship with their child. It is not a perfect act; no-one argues that. But certainly we in the coalition believe the amendments that have been proposed in this bill need to be re-examined, because the issues are just too important to listen to only a tiny minority with an agenda whose greatest priority is not always the safety of the children in our community.