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Thursday, 19 March 2015
Page: 1980

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (16:09): I rise to speak on the interim report of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the scourge of domestic violence that Australian women are being subjected to on a daily basis. I wish firstly to commend the work of the chair, the senators who participated in this inquiry and also the secretariat. I particularly want to thank the witnesses who came before us in this inquiry who poured their hearts out and showed us just how hard they work and how they go above and beyond the call of duty to try and help these women and children.

We know, sadly, from the statistics just how many Australian women are suffering from family and domestic violence. One in three women over the age of 15 will at some point in their life experience domestic and family violence. We know one in five will experience sexual violence. Until this year, there was that horrific statistic that one woman a week would be killed by her partner or former partner. This year that is up to two women a week. I am really pleased that the Senate has agreed to investigate what we can do better to try and fix this terrible problem.

When I referred this issue to the Senate in the middle of last year, I wanted to make sure that we would look at the full gamut of the prevalence and impact of domestic violence, what on earth was contributing to why these statistics was so horrific, whether or not the policy and community responses were adequate and if not how they could be fixed. Particularly I wanted to look at the effect of recent policy and funding decisions by this government on whether that was in fact making the problem worse. I am very sad to say that throughout the course of the inquiry, all we have heard is that the funding cuts to housing services, the funding cuts to community legal service services and the other funding cuts through a variety of other buckets have meant that women are choosing between violence and homelessness. Now that is a choice that no woman should have to make nor should any government bring that choice down upon any Australian woman.

I commend this report to anyone who is listening and who cares about this issue—we all should. I think anyone who knows that evidence cannot close their eyes anymore. It has been wonderful to see that there has been increased attention to this issue. It has been a taboo issue until very recently, but in the last 12 to 18 months the mainstream media have started giving this issue the attention it deserves and many people in the community are now lifting that veil of secrecy. That is how we help address this issue. It has been an absolute pleasure to bring the resources of this Senate to shine a light on the issue.

This report has eight actions that will help stop family and domestic violence. Will Tony Abbott do any of them? I want to take the Senate through each of the eight recommendations because they are excellent. The first recommendation is to reverse those funding cuts to legal services, both to the Legal Aid Commission and to community legal centres. We heard some evidence right across the country but the one that stuck with me—and I see senator Nova Peris in the chamber here for the Northern Territory—was that one of the Northern Territory's legal services no longer could afford to employ paid lawyers. They had one coordinator and they were going to have to rely on law students to give advice to their clients on what women's legal rights were to try and escape domestic violence, to try and get apprehended violence orders, to try and sort out their housing situation. That is an absolutely atrocious situation when we know the statistics of violence against Indigenous women are even worse. Indigenous women are more than 30 times more likely to end up hospitalised from family and domestic violence yet the funding cuts are seeing staff get laid off from community legal centres. Likewise the housing cuts are seeing phone calls in crisis centres ring out and women being turned away from crisis shelters because they are already full and there is nowhere to go. We heard very powerful evidence from countless witnesses that women are being forced to choose between violence and homelessness.

The second recommendation talks about not just reversing those funding cuts but actually boosting funding to community legal centres, which that Productivity Commission has recommended, and we endorse that wholeheartedly. The next recommendation talks about the important area of prevention as well as early intervention and crisis support—the full gamut. We cannot focus at any end of the spectrum here. We need attention at all levels to try and prevent the terrible increasing statistics of domestic violence. An increased coordination between the levels of government is crucial as well as between the community sector.

One interesting recommendation is rather an old one: to expedite the harmonisation of intervention orders across jurisdictions. This was a commitment that the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children included about four years ago. Interestingly, it is an announcement that the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, also made about two weeks ago. Well, we have been waiting four years now; it is about time we saw some action on harmonising those apprehended violence orders across the state so that when women flee they do not have to go through that whole process again to get a fresh order.

The next recommendation talks about including respectful relationships education in the national curriculum. We know that the real driver of domestic violence is the belief that men and women are not equal. As a woman who certainly does not subscribe to that view, I find that very hard to compute—that anyone believes that. But the statistics show that in societies where there is less gender equality that there is more domestic violence. There is a clear correlation there. We need that education and awareness raising to change those attitudes, and in what better place than in our schools and in what better way than through our national curriculum?

The next recommendation goes to the need for behavioural change programs for perpetrators. I want to flag that there has been some wonderful work done by men's groups to help work with their peers and to help change those behaviours, driven by those fundamental beliefs. We commend the programs and the work that is being done by those men's groups.

The next recommendation is about funding certainty for the Australian National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, or ANROWS, as it is known. This has been a wonderful initiative, to establish a research program. Unfortunately, the funding envelope is so small, many of the research programs cannot be completed. Clearly, that is a farcical situation that could easily be rectified through budgetary decisions by this government.

The last recommendation goes to addressing the particular scourge of family and domestic violence against Indigenous women. I have mentioned that already, but the recommendation is for a review of policies and services, particularly around the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse in the Northern Territory. And I look forward to the contribution by Senator Peris in that regard.

What we have here is a plea for the Abbott government to reverse those funding cuts to community legal centres and to women's shelters through the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and—unfortunately, no longer—through the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which this government axed completely. There is a plea to reverse those funding cuts. They are hurting Australian women. I was so pleased to hear the Prime Minister say that he thought this was a national priority. We welcome that. This should be a national priority.

But you cannot just say the words; you have to do the actions. We know that there have been some terrible budget cuts—it is certainly not just in this area. But the evidence is clear and the solution is perfectly clear: reverse those funding cuts. Let's do everything we can to help Australian women and children get free from violence, and let's then invest in those programs to change the underlying attitudes that are leading to these horrific statistics.

I talked about gender inequality. We need to look at that right across the board in society. Here in this place, we still do not have 50 per cent female representation in the parliament. We certainly do not have that in our federal cabinet! That is a great shame. The women in this place are incredibly capable, as are women across the country. We deserve our rightful place in accordance with our share of the population. If we look at the business community, likewise—no equal representation of women on boards. If you look at any leadership roles women are, sadly, still not represented equally. We need those strong female role models and we need legislative change to help drive that so we can stamp out this belief, once and for all, that somehow men and women are not equal. If we change that fundamental belief and address that gender inequality, that is when we can start to see real change in the domestic violence statistics that this country is facing.

I am confident that there is enough goodwill to tackle this issue seriously. Of course, the purse strings appear to be getting in the way. But we have a budget coming up, and the reason that this committee has decided to release an interim report is to try to influence the decisions of government in that budget. So I would plead with the Abbott government, please, to reconsider those funding changes to community legal centres and housing, because they can help. It is incumbent on all of us to do everything we can.