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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 129

Senator LUNDY (10:20 PM) —Last Thursday, 25 November, was the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To mark this campaign to stop violence against women, many wonderful organisations in Australia, including Amnesty International, UNIFEM and many others, have combined to support the wearing of a white ribbon as a personal pledge not to commit, condone nor remain silent about violence against women and children. One event held to mark the campaign to eliminate this violence was the 10th anniversary celebration of the incorporation of the Women's Services Network, WESNET, which I attended on Wednesday, 24 November.

What a courageous, honest, resourceful, and absolutely essential organisation WESNET is. The Women's Services Network provides leadership as a national women's peak advocacy body in relation to domestic and family violence. WESNET began when, in 1992, an evaluation of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program identified the need for a national representative body for the women and children using those services. WESNET was established to represent the women's services, including refuges, safe houses, housing programs, domestic violence outreach, information and referral services. Its aim was to improve and promote high-quality service provision to women and to women with children who are escaping domestic violence or who are homeless for some other reason. In 1994 it was incorporated after extensive sector consultation.

WESNET works within a feminist framework and recognises that domestic and family violence is gendered violence. Domestic violence is fundamentally about abuse in a relationship of unequal power and control. This is often physical violence, with alarmingly high statistics of assaults on women and children, but verbal, cultural, financial and emotional abuses are also prevalent. Reports of out of control anger in domestic relationships resulting in the killing of partners and/or children are not uncommon. WESNET does not hesitate to point out that males are the perpetrators of approximately 88 per cent of all crimes against a person in the home.

The situation for Indigenous women and children is much more extreme than the average in Australia. Nationally, 24 per cent of women who are escaping family violence and accessing SAAP services are Indigenous. In the Northern Territory this figure is 76 per cent and in Western Australia it is 50 per cent. The National Indigenous Representative for WESNET, Shirley Slann, said recently:

The levels of violence experienced by Indigenous women is a national outrage. Too many Aboriginal women experience far shorter life-spans and have a life characterised by abuse and poverty.

Pauline Woodbridge, the current WESNET chairperson says:

Ultimately women and children facing violence continue to be victims not only within the context of their family but also by a system that should protect them.

WESNET has been a major contributor to the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence, or PADV, projects. Much of its work has concerned the links between homelessness and domestic and family violence. SAAP data shows that the single most common reason nationally for clients seeking assistance has been domestic violence. WESNET is also concerned with the children who experience domestic and family violence and homelessness and by the increase in the number of children accompanying their parents to SAAP services. The majority of these children are under 13 years, with the largest group being aged under four years. Yet many of these women and children have to be turned away from refuges because there is insufficient emergency accommodation and insufficient funding for both the refuges and peak bodies.

While Labor are in total support of the PADV program and material, we were dismayed at the postponing of the campaign's release. It was originally planned and developed for release before last Christmas. The only apparent reason for the six-month delay was to allow the first advertisements to form part of the election campaign, displaying the government's concern for families and women, and including a taxpayer-paid, pre-election mail-out with a message from and photo of the Prime Minister.

WESNET was bravely outspoken when the Howard government scandalously delayed and watered down the national antiviolence campaign. It criticised the government for its early underspending in the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence program and then its `borrowing' from PADV funding for the antiterrorism fridge magnets. The question asked by WESNET and many others was: are any Australian women any safer because of those fridge magnets? To Senator Patterson's rationale for the delay in the antiviolence campaign, which was that a hotline needed to be established, WESNET protested, saying:

The creation of a new 24-hour helpline for 12 months ... is another example of the government just not having a clue. This will bypass well-established and existing service systems which operate in each State and Territory, creating not only unnecessary duplication but confusion for services and for women and children seeking help. This is a waste of money which could instead be redirected to existing services that have the knowledge, expertise and infrastructure to provide the services.

Only on Wednesday of last week did the government belatedly launch the education pack, aimed particularly at year 11 and 12 students, which has the objective of preventing young people from becoming domestic violence victims. This material was developed as part of the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence campaign and probably could and should have been released much earlier.

A post-election media release from WESNET last month was headed `Domestic Violence Peak Body Dismayed at the Howard Government's Disregard for Women'. In protesting the downgrading of the Office of the Status of Women, a WESNET representative said, `When Mr Howard is finished with his restructuring, women will simply become invisible.' Another example of how women are going backwards fast under this Howard government was shown last week in the new Bureau of Statistics figures showing the widening gap in male and female wages.

WESNET publicly praised—I think this is the alternative—the commitments that the ALP has made to women and to tackling the issue of violence against women. Labor recognises that the safety of children and women must be a top priority. Labor's plan to combat violence included a pledge to work with existing non-government organisations such as WESNET and the National Association of Services Against Sexual Violence to build and to fund a national advocacy peak body to complement the work already being done in the sexual assault and domestic violence areas.

Labor values the work and expertise of those working for women's domestic violence and family services. In contrast, the Howard government has demonstrated an insulting disregard for the advice given by WESNET and other women's organisations, for example over the `No respect, no relationship' antiviolence campaign. Despite the attempts of Howard government members to portray themselves as desiring to combat family and domestic violence, they have denied funding to WESNET, a peak body with nearly 400 domestic and family violence services across Australia, including refuges and shelters.

In 1997 operational funding for WESNET as a peak body ceased, but from 1998 on it was funded for three years on a consultancy basis. In 2001 the organisation and its essential services faced closure. That WESNET still exists is a tribute to the hard work of its members and volunteers. Member services pay fees and WESNET has been commissioned to provide research and submissions by such bodies as the Office of the Status of Women and the Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations.

WESNET's battle for funding appears desperate. And I suppose it is timely to reflect on the optimism of the late Helen Leonard when in 2001, as National Executive Officer for WESNET, she spoke of breaking the nexus between dependence on government funding and its inevitable influence on directions and priorities. From its origins as a government initiated organisation, WESNET was becoming `a peak with its feet firmly planted in the grassroots and accountable to its members', Helen said at the time.

It is certainly a tradition, of the Howard government at least, to make funding of organisations contingent on their toeing the line, and that is disgraceful. I am proud that WESNET had its origins under a federal Labor government and that Labor in government will reinstate funding and support these services. I would like to congratulate WESNET on its 12 years of service as a national women's peak advocacy body combating domestic and family violence and on the 10th anniversary of its incorporation. I call on the federal government to reinstate funding for WESNET's essential services and to value and be guided by the advice and expertise of its executive and members.