Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Matters of Public Importance
In rising to speak on this matter of public importance, I note that this is not my first speech. I thank Senator Roberts for raising the issues of our family law system, as well as suicide and women's safety, and providing me with an opportunity to highlight to the Senate what the Liberal-National coalition government is doing with respect to these issues. The coalition government is committed to ongoing improvements to the family law system to ensure that they help families separate in a safe, supportive and, importantly, timely way.
In 2017, the coalition government directed the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct the first comprehensive review into the family law system since the commencement of the Family Law Act in 1976. That's the first comprehensive review in over 40 years. That review, released in April this year, contained 60 recommendations for the family law system. That's a big ask. We are carefully considering their wide-ranging recommendations across the whole family law system. As a government, we are intent on ensuring that the system works for Australian families in order to keep them safe and to allow for efficient and timely separations.
This government has already committed to delivering structural reform in the federal family law courts to help end the unnecessary costs and delay for thousands of Australian families that arise from a split in the family and Federal Court systems. This reform aims to allow families to have their matters dealt with as efficiently as possible and under a single set of rules and principles. The goal is to improve the family law system, reduce the backlog of matters before the family law courts and drive timely, cheaper and more consistent resolution of family disputes. It is estimated that these structural reforms have the potential, in time, to allow thousands of additional cases every year to be resolved. The Federal and Family Court of Australia will become in effect a single point of entry into the family law jurisdiction to the Federal Court system and create a consistent pathway for Australian families in having their family law disputes dealt with in the federal courts.
Thousands of families every year are involved in proceedings, and this issue touches on many lives. Thankfully, I've not had to go through the Family Court system myself, but we all know someone who has. This is not just an issue of evil husbands or greedy wives; this is an issue of friends, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews—everyone—who is touched and caught up in the legal wrangling of the Family Court system.
Our government is committed to improving this system. This is clear from a range of significant measures that the coalition government has taken in recent years. We've established and extended the family advocacy and support services, providing duty lawyers at family law courts to provide services to families affected particularly by family violence. We've established and now extended specialist domestic violence units and health justice partnerships, which provide legal and social support assistance to vulnerable women experiencing family violence. These recent measures are on top of $160 million per year for family law services to support people with family law disputes outside of the court. These services include counselling and education programs and were accessed by 70,000 men and 86,000 women last year alone.
White Ribbon Australia estimates that, on average, one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner, often after a history of domestic violence, so it's very important that this issue is raised here today. Women have the right to be safe in their homes, in their communities, in their workplaces and online. Since coming to government in 2013 the Nationals, in coalition with the Liberal Party, have invested $840 million to address domestic violence.
Our government has zero tolerance for domestic violence in any form—be it against men or women. Yes, Senator Roberts, I am aware of men who suffer at the hands of domestic violence, but, as Senator Watt quite rightly pointed out, women vastly outnumber men when it comes to domestic violence issues. To this end, in March this year our government committed $328 million to delivering the fourth action plan to reduce violence against women and their children. This funding includes improvements to build on frontline services to keep women and children safe; prevention strategies to help eradicate domestic violence and family violence in our homes, workplaces, communities and clubs; support and prevention measures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, funded under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy; providing safe places for people impacted by domestic and family violence; and the important 1800RESPECT helpline, which is the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service.
Senator Roberts also made the link between the family law system and mental health and suicide. I acknowledge that mental health issues contribute to family breakdowns and family breakdowns in turn contribute to mental health issues. It can't be gilded over. The coalition government has also made the mental health of Australians a priority. The tragedy of suicide touches far too many lives in our nation. It is the leading cause of death in our young people, and that's particularly true in our regional and remote areas. The National Rural Health Alliance estimates that male youth suicide in rural, regional and remote areas occurs at almost twice the rate as in metropolitan areas. It is something that is particularly close to my heart. As the Nationals senator for New South Wales, I represent some of the most isolated communities in our state, and I know all too well that those living in our rural communities encounter barriers in accessing services that those living in the cities do not. Just like those who live in the city, those living in the regions experience symptoms of mental illness. However, they are more likely to struggle to find the right support, because there are fewer mental health practitioners in the country, and long delays can result. While we do have good telehealth services, sometimes that's not adequate for the seriousness that is mental illness.
Since coming into government in 2013, the coalition has done more than any previous government to safeguard the mental wellbeing of Australians, with an estimated $5.3 billion expected to be spent by the Commonwealth on mental health care this year alone. We are delivering more frontline services to meet the specific needs of local communities through a record $1.45 billion investment in our primary health networks. We are providing long-term support for local psychologists, mental health nurses and social workers, ensuring that the right services are available at the right place at the right time. The coalition government is also funding a range of telephone and online digital mental health services, either free of charge or at a very low cost. They range from telephone and web counselling to web-based treatment programs and peer forums—and sometimes in the regions that's all you can get.
I am especially proud of the work that this government is doing to address the mental health needs of those living in rural and regional Australia. The government is funding the implementation and evaluation of 12 suicide prevention trial sites in identified priority areas. These are being led by primary health networks and are targeting at-risk populations, including men, veterans, young people and Indigenous communities. I'm proud to say that in my home state of New South Wales these trial sites are located in regional areas. On the North Coast we've got the Clarence Valley, Tweed, Byron, Lismore and Kempsey communities, and in western New South Wales there is Bourke, Brewarrina, Cobar, Grenfell and Walgett. All these communities seriously need the assistance.
Because of the complexity of suicide, this government recognises that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. I'm proud of the work we are doing with our primary health networks to address suicide in our rural communities. The government is committed to keeping Australians safe in all areas of their lives, regardless of their circumstances. That is why we will continue to work on family law reform. (Time expired)