Senate debates

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Finance and Public Administration References Committee; Report

3:55 pm

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the interim report of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on violence against women.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I do so acknowledging that this issue has stepped right into the public spotlight, thanks in large part to an extraordinary woman. This woman is the Australian of the Year as a result of her efforts. Her name is Ms Rosie Batty. On behalf of the committee, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge her—her courage, her commitment, the fact that she has endured the most tragic personal circumstances, which have led her to this very public role—and to say to her: thank you, on behalf of all of us, because you are helping us find a way to stop this terrible phenomenon of family violence throughout Australia.

The reference was made to the committee on 26 June last year. We have received 163 public submissions, as well as confidential submissions. The committee has held six public hearings. During the inquiry, the need to extend the reporting date became clear, and the committee is now scheduled to produce a final report in June this year. I do not know what the committee will decide. It may well decide to continue to extend. Whilst acknowledging the need for more time to conduct further hearings, the committee agreed on the importance of providing an interim report ahead of the 2015 federal budget, hence the tabling of this interim report today.

As I mentioned, the Australian public are becoming more aware of the prevalence of domestic violence, or family violence, in our communities. I note with sadness that in my own electorate of the ACT we have seen three homicides in as many weeks that have been attributed in some way to family violence. On evidence presented to the inquiry, it can be noted that the emotional and personal costs of domestic or family violence in our community are enormous. Violence affects the victims themselves, the children, the extended families, the friends, the work colleagues and, of course, the broader community.

The statistics are damning. One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and almost one in five has experienced sexual violence. A study of Victorian women demonstrated that domestic violence is the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and illness in women between the ages of 15 and 44. As well as the emotional and personal costs, there is an enormous economic cost attributed to family violence. A study commissioned back in 2008-09 estimated this cost as being $13.6 billion and rising.

Given the enormity of the issues surrounding family violence in our community, we know the community is concerned about the Commonwealth funding cuts to a broad range of services essential to supporting victims of family violence and indeed addressing it at its cause. These cuts include over $64 million in cuts to Australian legal services over a four-year period, $44 million in cuts to new shelters and emergency accommodation, $21 million in cuts to housing and homelessness peak bodies, abolition of the National Rental Affordability Scheme and abolition of the National Housing Supply Council. The government has failed to guarantee funding under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness past 30 June this year, placing other services at risk. There has been a $240 million funding cut to the Department of Social Services grants program, which has affected the funding certainty of many front-line family violence organisations delivering crisis services and men's behaviour change programs. While it is very difficult to quantify the full impact of the discretionary grant cuts on domestic violence reform, the committee has heard that the victims of domestic violence rely on many of the services provided with these funds. That concern was well reflected by witnesses who appeared before this committee.

One of the key recommendations is, of course, that the government restore funding to these vital programs. The cuts are real. I appreciate that, with the excellent goodwill in which government senators have approached this Senate inquiry, they are discomforted by the strong recommendations that the government restore the funding cuts as a baseline from where we go to develop new, better and more effective policy. But it has to be said—and this report recommends—that those cuts should be reversed.

I would like to conclude by acknowledging my Senate colleagues who participated in this inquiry. At times it has been incredibly moving, incredibly sad and incredibly meaningful in helping us understand how our system works and, indeed, how our system fails to support those experiencing family violence. Our system is not working; we need to improve it. We are not going to improve it by allowing a series of cuts to be inflicted across all of the services that surround and support how we respond to women and other family members enduring violence—by seeing that fall away. We need to come back to where we were and then build new, better and more effective programs and policies across all spheres of government. Local, state and territory, and federal governments need to work closely together to achieve far better outcomes. We have the insight now, and we will continue to get it. We had an excellent hearing, for example, in Darwin, where we heard from front-line supporters about what needs to be done in the Northern Territory to improve the support and to improve the systems so that we can help those in greatest need.

I would also like to acknowledge the secretariat of this committee. The Finance and Public Administration References Committee has not done a lot of inquiries into such a profound area of social need. I acknowledge the secretariat's enormous workload and their absolute diligence and professionalism in supporting the inquiry through recent times. Because I am retiring soon, it is with some regret that I will not be able to see this inquiry through to fruition. But I entrust in my colleagues their ability to take up the next stage of this inquiry, where we investigate fully what the policies of the future need to look like to improve this environment, to improve the landscape and support those in need. It does not do that now. If you need to get an insight into that, I would refer you to the transcript of the evidence of Rosie Batty herself, when she talked about what did not work for her, what does not work for others and what we ought to be doing to fix it. This is the next phase of this committee's work, and I am sure my colleagues will forgive me in projecting that, at this opportunity, to them.

I commend this report to the Senate. I commend the future work to my fellow senators. There is not a more important social issue facing Australia right now.

4:04 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to make a brief contribution to the tabling of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee's interim report on violence against women. I would like to note the contribution by the chair of the committee, Senator Lundy, particularly in outlining statistics on violence against women, and her commitment to this area. I also note that, if we look around the Senate chamber now, we see that the majority of senators, from all parties, are indeed female. I think it is a good thing.

I am pleased that this report has been tabled today. It is important and it is very timely. One reason it is timely is that the Senate has recently heard of several incidences of violence against women in the workplace that are of significant concern. As the chamber has heard on several occasions this week, there is disturbing evidence of a subculture of aggression and violence towards women emerging from some quarters of the union movement. Earlier this week, the front page of The Australian Financial Review reported an instance of a union blockade of a workplace in Sydney. The employer called Fair Work Building and Construction, whose inspectors arrived at the worksite on Monday to investigate the blockade. Those inspectors were treated abusively by the blockaders. Of particular relevance and concern was the report that one union official actually spat at the female inspector in what, I suspect, was an attempt at intimidation. This is the same female inspector who was last year abused by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's official Luke Collier. When he saw her at a construction site, he swore at her and called her names that were both sexist and aggressive. This female inspector was simply doing her job. I have great respect for her willingness to continue to stand up for lawfulness and fairness on our building and construction workplaces.

However, I was saddened to hear during Senate estimates that this is not always the case. Director of Fair Work Building and Construction, Mr Nigel Hadgkiss, gave evidence to the committee that I chair that some inspectors, particularly female inspectors, are so distressed by the threats and abuse levelled at them by aggressive unionists that they have to be moved on to other duties within the inspectorate. Mr Hadgkiss also told Senate estimates of two serious instances of attacks on women. One was where the CFMEU Victorian assistant secretary, Shaun Reardon, made late-night threatening phone calls to a female member of his staff. I saw the Herald Sun report that as a result, Mr Reardon was consequently stripped of his role as a White Ribbon ambassador, a role that would require him to stand for women and against violence perpetrated on them, and certainly not himself to engage in such violence.

The second incident Mr Hadgkiss relayed was also very serious. He told my committee that another CFMEU official had made a late-night threatening phone call to a female member of his staff and threatened her with gang rape by him and seven of his mates. In Mr Hadgkiss's words, one of our female staff members received a phone call. I will not mention her name. I will change the name. He said, 'Mary is it? Mary, me and my seven mates are going to come and F-U-C-K you tonight.' He also told the committee that social media was used to deride his staff including using such terms as 'dogs' to abuse them. Indeed, Mr Hadgkiss told the committee that he had concerns about the safety of his staff and that in recent years he had 25 serious security matters involving his staff.

The Labor Party and the Greens are led by women in this place. The ACTU is also led by a woman. Where is the reprimand of action from these bodies to call out and chastise these actions by aggressive union officials? I hope that all our female senators will consider what can be done by us to protect women against these types of attacks. I also asked the Finance and Public Administration References Committee to address these very issues in its final report on violence against women in June. I look forward to reading the interim report.

4:09 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

4:19 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak also on this very serious and important issue of domestic and family violence in Australia, and on the interim report tabled today by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee.

Before I proceed any further, I would like to echo the sentiments made earlier by my colleague Kate Lundy about our Australian of the Year, Ms Rosie Batty. We all need to recognise her bravery in championing the issues around this national atrocity. I also want to thank Senator Larissa Waters for giving her good overview of all the recommendations in the report. I think she articulated very well the importance of reinstating the funding to those essential services that can combat this and make Australia a better place for women and children.

As Senator Waters mentioned earlier, I would like to draw everyone's attention to one of the recommendations, which relates directly to my electorate in the Northern Territory:

The committee recommends a review of policies and services dedicated to the treatment of alcohol and other drug abuse in the Northern Territory and their impact on domestic violence, including urgent consideration to reinstate the Banned Drinkers Register.

I am very pleased that the committee makes this recommendation, because it is a win for all Territorians. And this issue has finally got the attention of the federal parliament.

I am sincerely grateful that the committee came to Darwin last week at my invitation and heard evidence from a range of frontline service providers, including the Northern Territory police, medical services, women's shelters, legal services—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—and Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT, all of whom are dealing with the daily horror of domestic and family violence against women and children in the Northern Territory.

There was one issue that all witnesses were unanimous about, and that was that the banned drinkers register was an extremely effective tool in reducing alcohol related violence against women. Make no mistake, alcohol misuse is an enormous factor in family violence in the Northern Territory.

In August 2012 the incoming Northern Territory government scrapped the banned drinkers register. It was one of its first acts as a new government, and it was totally irresponsible. The banned drinkers register—or BDR, as it is also known—is an electronic identification system at the point of sale which prevents anyone with a court order banning them from purchasing alcohol from doing so, including those with a history of domestic violence.

The BDR was rolled out across the Northern Territory from 1 July 2011, and in the first quarter alcohol-related assaults dropped by five per cent, Territory-wide. At the end of the third quarter, in March 2012, a staggering 2,369 people were placed on the banned drinkers register. Around 25,000 people were on the banned drinker register when it was scrapped. Domestic violence perpetrators were again free to buy as much alcohol as they liked. As predicted by police, lawyers and doctors, domestic violence rates soared through the roof.

The Northern Territory's current minister for women, Ms Bess Price, told the inquiry—and I thank Ms Price for attending the inquiry—that:

The statistics regarding the incidence of violence are breathtaking ... for the 12-month period ending November 2014, there were 7,076 assault offences in the Northern Territory, of which 4,262, or 60 per cent, were recorded as being associated with domestic violence.

Since August 2012, when the Country Liberal Party took government, domestic violence related assaults have increased by 7.4 per cent territory-wide and are up 14.1 per cent in remote areas, 39.5 per cent in Darwin and 21.4 per cent in Palmerston.

In 2011, the former territory Labor government introduced the enough is enough alcohol reforms. Crime statistics recorded prior to this initiative found 60 per cent of all assaults and 67 per cent of domestic violence related assaults were all alcohol related. A study undertaken by the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies, Harms from and costs of alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory, estimated alcohol-related crime and illness costs the Northern Territory community is $642 million per year or $4,197 per adult, compared to $943 nationally, with this including the cost of police, ambulance and hospital resources. Labor's enough is enough alcohol reforms committed $67 million over five years, including $34 million for more treatment options.

One of the most alarming facts about these horrendous statistics is that so much of it is preventable. We have heard that from previous speakers. It is preventable because so much of it is caused by alcohol abuse. The Northern Territory government must take responsibility, because this has happened under their watch. Previously, an assistant police commissioner noted that the banned drinkers register was the most powerful tool to deal with antisocial behaviour and violence in the community in a public place. I need to make mention of an incredible Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory, who is very well-respected in her work for 13 years at the Darwin Aboriginal and Islander Women's Shelter, Ms Bennett. She told us that there were very noticeable improvements when the BDR was in place and she pleaded for it to be reinstated.

If the Northern Territory government is serious about tackling alcohol-related harm, then it must reinstate the banned drinkers register. It must listen to people who deal with this day in and day out, who deal with the atrocities of domestic and family violence in the Northern Territory. They must take note of all of these recommendations. The banned drinkers registry is a tool that has been set up and it has been proven to work. It can actually assist with reducing the statistics of violence against women and children in the Northern Territory. Territorians need an urgent response to this challenge, so let's stop the rivers of grog. Let's stop the violence. It can be prevented. Let's do it. The evidence is clear. Let's take action now. I thank the Senate for the opportunity to participate in the hearings. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.