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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1340


Senator CROWLEY(10.16) —I rise to support the Supported Accommodation Assistance Bill 1985, which is before the Senate this evening. I preface my remarks by stating my disbelief at Senator Messner's contribution to this debate. In concluding his speech in this place he talked about the brakes and checks on a piece of legislation that he regards as quite reasonable. It seems to me a very curious way to approach support of legislation. Formal arrangements exist for those brakes and checks at the best of times. As any examination of this legislation will show, it has been a very proper and appropriate attempt by the Government to introduce rationalisation to a fragmented and inadequate provision for homeless people under three particular headings. Yet Senator Messner talked about how all those useful provisions to rationalise and to bring some order, where previously there was fragmentation, should be watched very carefully in case this Government was being a little less than proper and that maybe we might have to put on the brakes and block the purpose of the Bill. That is quite a remarkable way to talk about a piece of legislation, but that is not unlike Senator Messner on previous occasions.

This legislation addresses agreements that will be arrived at to provide, in particular, assistance for accommodation in three areas or sub-categories-the general supported accommodation sub-program, the women's emergency services sub-program and the youth supported accommodation sub-program. Those honourable senators who have had the experience of working in the community know full well of the need in those areas. The number of homeless people in our community is rising and, in particular, there is a horrifying increase in homelessness amongst young people. I suppose that, in some ways, the presence of youngsters amongst the homeless has shocked our society and drawn attention not only to their presence but also to the homeless older people whom we might have been accused of becoming used to and disregarding. I hope that that is not this Government's position and that this Government should not be seen in that position.

It is precisely because this Government is aware of the need to provide for homeless people that it has introduced this piece of legislation. It is an umbrella to make provision for homeless people of all ages and, in particular, to attend to the increased homelessness amongst young people and the needs they have. Included in that provision is what was previously known as the women's emergency services program. I want particularly to refer this evening to some difficulties, more imagined than real, for the women's emergency services program. The imagination of people in that program was very lively, particularly late last year, when they published advertisements in a number of States. I cannot speak for all States but I am certainly very aware of the provision in my State of South Australia. The shelters ran advertisements that claim, amongst other things, that women's refuges had been ignored by the Labor Government and were advantaged by a Liberal government, that in fact there had been no consultation with State government or Federal government and that they felt very angry and dissatisfied with the outcome of the provisions, as they understood them, under the supported accommodation assistance program. It was a matter of some curiosity to me that no matter how we spoke with the women, the problems they raised seemed to persist in their minds. It has been a long process and a persistent effort has been required to make the women involved in the women's emergency services program, and in particular those in the women's shelters, feel that their needs have been heard, that their claims for assistance have been accommodated and that the provisions under this piece of legislation will be no less but, in fact, as the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) has said on a number of occasions, will be more, both in hard dollars and in the range of support services that the Bill will accommodate and address.

The women in the shelters movement were particularly concerned that this was an accommodation program and therefore not going to provide them with the necessary support and back up that they had established over many painful hard years of grind without very much funding to support and provide for the women in the shelters. It was a very important point that they raised. It was something that they feared had not been recognised and a number of us had to make a considerable effort to allay those fears. But it was a clear misunderstanding. At no time did the Government, in its proposals for this legislation, require that women's shelters would have any cutting off of services that had been arrived at or were being provided in the shelters. The word 'support' matters as importantly as 'accommodation' in all of these categories but most particularly when we are talking about the women's shelters.

It is important to know that the women's shelters have struggled. It is easy to understand how they can fear, even at this stage, even with this Government's commitment and even with the increased funding from this Government under the women's emergency services program, prior to the increased funding under the supported accommodation assistance program as proposed-that what they had fought for for so long was still vulnerable and it was possible to have it all taken away. I believe that fear has been allayed. I believe the women in the women's emergency services program now know that it is not the case and that the Government's claims of commitment are real and that they do not have to continue to worry about whether their program will go on. What they should turn their attention to is the items listed as very important by the Government, under the heading of the 'women's emergency services sub-program' section of this legislation. The Government is quite clear about what is needed in this area because it has consulted at length with the women in the emergency services program.

In particular, one area that the women from the women's shelters movement have highlighted, and which the Government is aware of, is the problem of staff arrangements and salaries for staff provisions in the shelter movement. It is still a matter of discussion and continuing negotiation. As in other areas of the provision of community services, it is very difficult to arrive at an award that adequately and equitably covers the people working in that area. We have the very comparable difficulty in the provision of child care in other than official pre-school or educational school facilities. That is a matter of current negotiation with the Government and in the same way the salary provisions for the staff working in shelters is one of the highest priority items for negotiation between the Government and the shelters. Although considerable steps have already been taken to arrive at a more satisfactory provision of salary and description of jobs for people working in the shelters, more needs to be done and eventually an award will have to be established and negotiated and the proper provisions of holiday pay, superannuation, compensation and other matters will have to be finalised for the women in the shelter program.

Those are matters of considerable importance. They address the people working in the shelters. The Government has, as a priority concern too, the provision of the care of the women who come to the shelters in need, not in need of a job but in need of the provision of care that the shelter movement offers. When I last spoke to the people from the shelter movement I was advised by them that 80 per cent plus of the women who come into women's shelters come as a result of domestic violence. Usually that domestic violence is aimed at the woman; that is, the wife leaves the marriage because she can no longer stand being beaten, but sometimes the domestic violence extends beyond the woman to include the children. At this stage I cannot be clear, and I do not believe the data is yet clear enough for any of us to be clear, whether the domestic violence figure of 80 per cent includes the children in every case. But we can be quite clear that 80 per cent of the women seeking attention in women's shelters come because of domestic violence in their original home. It is a matter of difficulty for some people to recognise what happens to women when they seek entry to a shelter. They are acknowledging that they can no longer stand the problem in their homes. They admit at last that something must be done, either for their own care or for the care of their children, and very often there are children involved.

There is remarkable evidence of how long women will submit to domestic violence for all sorts of reasons, largely economic constraints, of course, but when it comes to violence to their children, the women can also see that this is now the time for them to make a move. So they come to the shelter. They are people who have submitted to violence, not on one occasion but over a considerable time, and when they arrive at the shelter they are usually exhausted, both psychologically and physically, and for some days may be in need of considerable immediate care and support. One of the things that the shelter women report is that the women who come to the shelters do not know what to do when somebody in the shelter smiles at them and says hello. They are used to a confrontationist, violent approach from the people they know or live closely with. They are not used to pleasantness and politeness. They have to learn how to respond to civility. From all accounts it does not take them long at all to learn to respond, but for a time after arrival in the shelters-usually a matter of days, not longer-the immediate needs of the women are for support and assistance to discover that it is possible to live peacefully and not to be bashed up day after day or night after night. That is their first need. They have made their break from home and they need that kind of support when they first make it to the shelter. They also invariably need to contend with the difficulties of a marriage break up, the difficulties of finances, the difficulties of travelling and of getting the children to school and doing all the normal living requirements from somewhere usually not near to home. It is a matter of some privacy. Where shelters are located is not publicly announced, though of course women can find them if they really try, and that leads to another problem. It is a matter of fear for those women that they will not be found. They are often found and so the shelters provide them with that kind of support against a violent man.

I will elaborate in more detail on the pattern of what happens to women when they come into the shelters, the very clear pattern that emerges of what happens from then on. The story is told so often now that the shelter women feel very confident of it, on the evidence of the many cases they have now seen over the 10 years or more that we have had a shelter movement in this country, told so consistently that it needs to be documented and told very widely. First of all the husband, on realising that his wife has left him and realising that she will have told somebody why she has gone, that is, that he has been beating her, usually is overcome with grief and remorse and desperately needs to absolve his guilt. He tries to find his wife and make peace. When he finds her he says 'Let us please get together', begging her to come home and so on. There is enormous pressure on the wife to return to the home, and this is seen in every case of marriage breakdown following domestic violence, although that is not to say it does not happen in other cases of marriage breakdown. It may well, but in terms of domestic violence--

Debate interrupted.