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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1156


Senator DEAN SMITH (Western AustraliaChief Government Whip in the Senate) (16:43): Former Senator Heffernan is a formidable member of the audience for anyone, but I'm sure that the new senator from New South Wales, Hollie Hughes, will impress everyone very shortly with her first speech. On behalf of all of your coalition Senate colleagues, Hollie, we wish you all the very best for your first speech.

I've been asked to make a contribution this afternoon on Senator Hanson's matter of public importance. For those who are paying attention to the radio and those who are listening or arriving in the galleries, the matter before us today is:

That Australia's failed family law system is contributing up to 21 male suicides and one female murder a week, and must be urgently fixed.

While some of us in the Senate chamber this afternoon might disagree with some of the points that have been made, no-one would disagree with the theme of what Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts have sought to bring to the attention of the Senate, which is a very, very important issue.

Everyone is part of a family. Those of us that are parents or aunts and uncles know that family trauma, family violence, can leave very damaging consequences for children who have to witness that, children who have to grow up in that particular environment.

I do want to challenge the comments of the Labor Senator Watt, because I do believe the coalition government is acting on this issue. I want to talk briefly in a few moments about what we have been doing to reform the family law system and also to reflect on the fact that it was the former coalition Senate leader George Brandis who initiated the first review into Australia's family law system since 1970. Senator Hanson, you beat me to it. I was just about to acknowledge your advocacy on that important point. I think that Senator Brandis, with his eminent legal qualifications, is someone that we could trust stewarding that particular review. And now, with Christian Porter in the Attorney-General's portfolio, I'm someone that has a high degree of confidence that the member for Pearce, Mr Porter, will be able to shepherd those necessary reforms through the parliament, though, I'm also sure that the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, will bring his own forensic legal eye to those particular issues and will advance those ones that he thinks are genuinely in the interests of women and men, but also children, in the family law system.

To begin, I thought it important to restate some important statistics because I think it does remind us in the Senate chamber this afternoon of the gravity of the situation that we're dealing with, particularly in regard to women, but, of course, not exclusively, and that's the point that Senator Hanson has been making in her motion. I want to share with the Senate a number of statistics which I think continue to bring home the urgency and the significance of the matter which we're all trying to grapple with.

One of the statistics that stands out to me is that on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. One in four women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15. One in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. Eighty-five per cent of Australian women have been sexually harassed. Almost 40 per cent of women continue to experience violence from their partner while temporarily separated. One in six women have experienced stalking since the age of 15. And statistics indicate that domestic violence rates are higher in rural and regional areas than they are in metropolitan areas.

I'm someone who doesn't believe that our country is broken. I'm someone who is proud of Australia, proud of what it's achieved and very, very optimistic. I think you can be someone that has that optimism for our country but also recognise that there are pockets where we need to do better and there are pockets where we need to have the courage to call these things out, like you have Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts, like Senator Watt did in his own way and like Senator Perin Davey, the New South Wales National Party senator, did.

The point that I do want to make is that it's not right to suggest the coalition government hasn't been doing anything. It's not right to suggest that this matter isn't top of mind for coalition senators like myself and Senator Brockman, who's in the chamber. I want to identify six initiatives specifically with regard to the family law system that demonstrate that the coalition can be trusted to shepherd, to steward, some of the reforms that have been proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission. You can trust the coalition to shepherd those that we think are necessary, because we have been doing things already. Let me list what I think are the six most prominent things. The coalition is responsible for having established, and now extended, specialist domestic violence units and health justice partnerships to the tune of almost $32 million over four years, which provide important legal and social support assistance for vulnerable women experiencing family violence. I think that is a worthy and necessary initiative. We've established an extended family advocacy and support services to the tune of almost $23 million over three years, which provide duty lawyers at family law courts to provide services to families affected by family violence. We've provided $50 million over four years for family law property mediation as part of the Women's Economic Security Package, a package that the former member for Higgins Kelly O'Dwyer brought to the parliament. We've provided $11 million to improve information sharing between the family law, family violence and child protection units, including the co-location of state and territory family state officials in family law courts. In addition to that, we prohibited perpetrators of family violence from cross-examining their victims in family law proceedings and provided $7 million to legal aid commissions to represent affected parties. Finally, there was $10.7 million over four years for the family law courts to employ up to 17 additional qualified social workers and psychologists as family consultants.

Before we move onto Senator Hughes' first speech, can I make this final point: what Senator Hanson says in regards to grandparents is absolutely correct. Those people who know of the suite of issues that I'm interested in as a Western Australian senator know that I'm particularly interested in the issue of grandparent carers. A constant theme that is shared with me by those grandparent carers is the difficulty they have accessing the family law system to secure the guardianship, the custodianship, of their grandchildren who, without the care of their grandparents, would be put in harm's way because of the mental health issues and the drug and alcohol abuse that their children unfortunately have to confront. This is a worthy issue. It's been a worthy debate this afternoon. I will leave my remarks at that.