Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Statements by Senators

Domestic and Family Violence

12:31 pm

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

For almost three years now I've moved motions each sitting acknowledging the number of women killed by violence since the previous Senate sitting—a small gesture to keep this issue in the minds of senators and in the minds of the public and to recognise violence against women for the national crisis that it is. I can't move those motions anymore, since motions have been axed by the big parties because they don't like voting on issues they'd rather avoid. But I will keep talking about the epidemic of violence against women.

The national government doesn't even keep real-time figures, but, according to Counting Dead Women, a volunteer project of Destroy the Joint, 25 women have been killed by violence so far in 2021. Women are three times more likely than men to experience intimate partner violence and 2½ times more likely to be hospitalised from domestic violence. Intimate partner violence causes more illness, disability and deaths than any other risk factor for women between the ages of 24 and 44—and all of those statistics are much worse for First Nations women, for women with disabilities and for young women. We've all heard the figure of 'one woman a week killed by a current or former partner'. We've all heard that figure but still the violence persists.

Those figures don't take account of the children killed in those acts of violence and they don't take account of the long-term trauma of coercive control. They don't take account of the reports made to police and ignored. They don't take account of the women who haven't been believed. And they don't take account of women who don't report because they fear they won't be believed. This is a national security crisis.

The experts have told us time and time again that it is gender inequality that is driving domestic violence. The massive response to Chanel Contos's call earlier this year for young women's stories demonstrates the need for structural change to address rigid gender norms that stifle men and devalue women. They devalue their time, their points of views, their unique contribution to the world, their reproductive autonomy and their care work. They create a rape culture in which victims are blamed for what they wear, for where they were, for what time they were there and for how much they drank and where harassment and assault are excused as 'boys will be boys'.

It's no coincidence that the highest rates of sexual violence in Australia are perpetrated by men aged 15 to 19. We desperately need expert led, age appropriate holistic education programs, from early childhood education onwards, that dismantle gender inequality, that teach kids about respectful relationships and consent and that eliminate the sexism and misogyny that lead to and excuse gendered violence. What we got was the milkshake video. Chanel Contos and the thousands and thousands of students calling for decent consent education deserved so much better. The program for the upcoming National Summit on Women's Safety 2021 has no specific mention of education and only briefly references primary prevention. Our Watch's expert-based and well-regarded online resource, called The Line, has been waiting for many months for approval from the minister to get it back online. To live up to their campaign slogan 'Stop it at the start', the government must get The Line back online. We also need an urgent rollout of Our Watch's effective whole-of-school respectful relationships education in primary and secondary schools.

The Australian Human Rights Commission's comprehensive review of workplace sexual harassment, Respect@Work, shone a light on how prolific gendered harassment and violence remain across Australian workplaces. The Respect@Work report set out a clear road map for action to eliminate harassment in workplaces, including, unsurprisingly, calling for greater investment in respectful relationships education. The 55 recommendations in that report laid down a comprehensive plan. But the government are not acting on all of those recommendations, despite initially implying that they would. The government's so-called Roadmap for Respect—which was finally released more than a year after the commission's report was handed down—has cherrypicked recommendations: it has deferred some and has noted some others for later consideration.

The bill that was meant to be before us in this place today to implement the report, but has been pulled from the program, only does half of the job, and it ignores the strongest recommendation, which is to introduce a positive duty on employers to create a safe workplace and to create a culture in which harassment doesn't thrive, is never ignored and will always have consequences, and where employees feel secure knowing that their jobs are not on the line if they dare to challenge a colleague who has harassed or demeaned them. Report after report, inquiry after inquiry, evidence from sector experts, academics, practitioners, health professionals, teachers, social workers, counsellors, lawyers and survivors—over and over, they all say the same thing about how to end gendered violence and harassment.

We know what we need to do: first and foremost, fund frontline services. The demand for crisis services, helplines, support services and legal services far exceeds their current capacity to help everyone that seeks their help. Women's legal services in many states have reported having to turn away nearly half the calls that are made to them, particularly during COVID. We need specialist services that deal with the intersectional issues faced by young women, First Nations women, women with disability and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The government's funding under the national plan falls well short of the $1 billion per year that the sector says is needed to ensure that no-one is turned away when they reach out for help. This year's budget doubled the funding for domestic and family violence services, but it's still only one-quarter of what the sector says is needed to meet existing demand, let alone the likely increase in demand as this pandemic continues. We need a major investment to keep women safe.

The next thing we need to do is invest in prevention and education, including behaviour change programs. We also need to invest in affordable housing—that is, crisis housing, transitional housing and long-term housing, the full spectrum—so that women fleeing abusive relationships have got somewhere to go. Older women are the fastest-growing cohort of people facing housing insecurity and homelessness in Australia. Rapid investment to increase housing stocks is essential to guard against women staying in abusive relationships because they have got nowhere else to go. We also need to give workers paid domestic and family violence leave so that their job is not at risk as they deal with the trauma of an abusive relationship.

We also need to improve women's economic security, first of all by addressing the gender pay gap. Companies are currently required to report on their gender pay gap, but they suffer no penalties if they do nothing to fix that gender pay gap. The review of the Workplace Gender Equality Act this year provides an opportunity to strengthen reporting and compliance and to take action against companies that do nothing to close the rampant gender pay gap in their workplaces. We also need to improve women's economic security by making the superannuation system fairer so that women are not retiring into poverty, after a lifetime of unpaid care work and taking career breaks to look after children. We also need to improve women's economic security by making child care free and requiring employers to provide flexible working arrangements to give families more choices and to allow women to re-enter the workforce.

We need to make workplaces safe. We need all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report to be implemented in full. We in this place need to lead by example. Thanks to the courage of women like Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller, Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter, Australia knows how toxic parliamentary workplaces can be. Things need to change. While the Senate has finally reached gender parity, as a whole, parliament, across both politicians and senior advisers in particular, remains male dominated. We've seen sexual harassment and bullying dismissed, belittled and ignored. We've seen a senior minister not only not subjected to an independent inquiry over serious allegations but elevated to Acting Leader of the House. The Jenkins review must be a turning point in the cultural change needed to make parliament a place that women are not only safe to work in but proud to work in.

In March, tens of thousands of women marched across Australia, demanding better. This government needs to start listening. The Greens want action that rewrites the rules for gender equality and improves women's economic security, safety and wellbeing. We want an Australia where women are safe, respected, valued and treated as equals in public and private life. Gendered violence and harassment is a national crisis, and it's high time that this parliament and this government treated it as such.