By Ludo McFerran, National Project Manager, Centre for Gender Related Violence Studies at the University of New South Wales
Domestic and family violence which affects one third of Australians at some time in their life, has been high on the federal government’s agenda since the 1970s and has generally received bipartisan political support- the core difference being that Conservatives understand this as a problem of personal behaviour, while Labour has an analysis of structural disadvantage creating vulnerability to violence. The Labour Government is to be congratulated for grappling with some of the ‘big’ issues, including harmonising domestic violence laws, introducing domestic violence into the Fair Work Act and producing a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.
It remains true however, that domestic violence is a symptom of how fairly women and children are treated in societies- so progress to reduce the impact of domestic violence on the safety, health and well being of those exposed depends on a progressive political environment. This means an environment where women’s wages, career prospects and job security are rising, where discriminatory practices are on the decline, where the sharing of caring responsibilities is on the increase. The Labour Government did well on equal pay, on parental leave and disability insurance but has made some horrible mistakes - the cut off of Supporting Parent payments; voting against discrimination protections for victims of domestic violence; hiding its head in the sand on same sex marriage.
The National Plan is well intentioned but finally it is hardly innovative or bold. After consensus was reached by the National Council members and Federal bureaucrats had ironed out what remained, there was little left that was conceptually or practically cutting edge. To be fair, when it comes to domestic violence Commonwealth Governments can directly affect only certain areas - Family Law, Centrelink Payments- but they can use cost-share funding to leverage better performances out of the States and Territories where most of the work is done. A benefit of Australian Federalism is the innovative practice that can be developed in individual states and territories, and there is much that has been innovative in response to domestic violence, but the current Labour Government missed the opportunity, as have many previous Governments, to set national benchmarks for good practice. Take, for example, Safe at Home Programs, conceptually developed and implemented at a state level since 2004 to support the victims of domestic violence to stay safely in their homes with the support of security upgrades and court orders, and now funded with Commonwealth funding in all States, but still without national benchmarks or standards. So, what do we know works? A great deal actually, but this evidence frequently remains localised knowledge, with the resulting idiosyncratic and uneven service support across states.
The Labour Government’s adherence to the named concept of ‘Violence against Women’ has also been baffling. This is a collective term that encompasses all acts of violence, including domestic and family violence and sexual violence. Historically, the responses to sexual violence and assault and domestic violence parted ways in the 1980s - into the health system or homeless programs resulting in different service sectors and practice ideologies. Over time this has become more blurred but there remains little crossover between the two issues in terms of joint services, research or policy development. Critically, representative bodies at a state level have remained under-developed, with, for example, only two broad based state domestic violence peak bodies until recently. So the Government’s announcement of a National Centre of Excellence to Reduce Violence against Women and their children appears to many as top down policy that does not reflect what is occurring at the ground level. Like the national helpline for violence against women, it may have been more productive to consider first how to ensure that the infrastructure is there at the regional and state level to support national initiatives.
Nevertheless, the Government (or the unions who drove the collective bargaining process) has gained recognition by the United Nations for delivering the best paid domestic violence leave in the world to workers experiencing domestic violence, and while the Labour Government could have done better, the Opposition has maintained an ideological position that is truly disturbing.
For if domestic violence is affecting a worker’s capacity to get to work, their work performance and their safety, the Shadow Attorney General claims not to understand why should ‘he (the employer) wear the cost of that as opposed to government through social service provision?’ Similarly, the Senator believes that in cases where a tenant’s property has been damaged by an ex-partner, the owner is not doing anything wrong by evicting the tenant (Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Melbourne 23 January 2013). The Shadow Attorney General Senator surely is not suggesting that the many workers being harassed and abused at work and in their homes by ex-partners should be made homeless or ‘sacked’ and put on to unemployment benefits?
So of the many questions all parties should be asked at the next election why not ask- if elected, would you support discrimination protections in law for people experiencing domestic violence? If they say yes, ask them why they didn’t support the two Bills where this was proposed (Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination and Fair Work Amendment Bills).
I am retiring this month after thirty five years working in the domestic violence sector, or ‘insecurely’ working, dependent on the vagaries of government funding. I had a once in a lifetime experience, thanks to the then Minister of Education and Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, when she funded our work on domestic violence clauses. It took a morning for the decision to be made and her office nearly tripled the funding applied for. What a woman of vision, who got the job done.