Family Violence

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — Of course it is a privilege and an honour to contribute on behalf of the Victorian Greens to this important discussion on family violence today. All of us today stand in Parliament, which is a place where laws are made and where laws are changed. But changing the law is one thing; it is another thing entirely to change the culture.

As legislators we change laws, and we hope to influence our culture by doing so. But real and sustained cultural change often requires an incredible confluence of factors. It depends on many, many hours of difficult behind the scenes work by dedicated and coordinated activists, often a minority of activists, over years or even over decades. Then sometimes you get a tipping point, a single event that galvanises everyone’s attention, and on a very few occasions an extraordinary leader emerges at a crucial moment.

Today in the Victorian Parliament we have been privileged to hear from one of those extraordinary leaders. For years Rosie Batty endured circumstances that are all too common for far too many women around Australia and the world and that have remained hidden from view for far too long. The family violence that Rosie Batty endured ended in the most unimaginable way in April 2013. Her words in the aftermath of her son Luke’s death broke the silence that had blanketed the issue of family violence for too many people. ‘Family violence happens to everybody’, Rosie Batty told us. ‘No matter how nice your house is, how intelligent you are. It can happen to anyone, and everyone’. Today Rosie and the other speakers have challenged us not just to change laws but to actually attempt to change culture.

I want to thank the other speakers we heard from today, who have given us valuable insights and moving stories and have worked hard on this issue for years, if not decades. I know, as many other speakers have said, probably everyone in this place has a personal experience of violence or knows someone who has experienced family violence. I myself have been incredibly lucky to grow up in a loving family without the threat or experience of violence, and many of my friends grew up in similar circumstances. Family violence seemed like something that just happened to other people, that did not happen to people like us. But, as we know, it can happen to anyone.

A couple of years ago one of my very best friends left a five-year-long abusive relationship. She is, like so many other survivors, intelligent, educated, strong, confident, with a professional job and a loving family, and she had a stable upbringing. But still it happened to her. The emotional and financial abuse was devastating. It took years for her to escape it. Her partner, like I am sure many others, tried all the tricks in the book. He isolated her from her friends and family, including moving her to a small town far away from us. He eroded her confidence. He made her feel worthless, like she did not deserve any better. He made them financially dependent on each other, so that it was even more difficult for her to leave the situation. He made her worried that he would harm himself if she ever left. He even used their dog as a way to keep control over her when she finally did manage to leave.

Seeing her go through it, trying to help but not knowing how to help, was pretty harrowing for myself and for my friends. While she is now clear of the relationship, the scars stay with her in so many ways. But of course she is just one story of so many stories. Throughout my last year as a member of Parliament I have met many women — and, yes, predominantly it is women — who have experienced similar violence firsthand. I want to thank them for sharing their stories with me, particularly the women I have met through McAuley House in my electorate.

I have been also very fortunate, as many others in this place have been, to meet people campaigning for an end to family and gendered violence, some of them for decades. Thank you for your courage, your resilience over years when you did not get the support or attention that you deserved. These campaigners, these service providers and people escaping family violence have carried the burden of dealing with the violence for far too long. As they have found, far too often it is those experiencing the violence who are the ones forced to take action. They are the ones who have to change their circumstances or move away. They are the ones who have to suffer financially. They are the ones who have to leave, even though the simple act of trying to leave is often when they are at the most risk of being seriously hurt or worse by their partners.

But now hopefully with this event in Parliament we can send a signal to these people that it will not just be up to them to act, that we as legislators and as a broader society will take responsibility for doing everything we can to lift the burden, because we recognise that this is not an isolated problem that just happens to a few people or a few suburbs or a few groups in society. It is a society-wide systemic problem, and therefore it has systemic causes that we must address. As Rosie Batty has challenged us, we must be committed to cultural change, to moving away from just a crisis response to something deeper, sustained, and something that will fix the root cause.

Given this is a society-wide problem and has systemic causes, the solutions will be just as complex as the problem. There are broadly three areas where we need to act. Firstly, of course we must focus on the needs of those experiencing family violence — the need to feel safe and secure, to have options. We need to expand the funding for crisis shelters and services to meet actual demand, which we know at the moment is rising. About a quarter of calls to Australia’s national domestic violence hotline still go completely unanswered. It means making sure Victoria Police and our courts are properly trained and resourced to deal with this problem, so that people experiencing family violence are not belittled or not believed or blamed or kept in dangerous situations. It means making sure that those experiencing family violence are not forced to confront their assailants in court when they need to apply for an intervention order.

Secondly, we need of course to address the rates of offending, and to do this we need to look at what actually works in dealing with perpetrators and offenders. It means making perpetrators properly accountable for their behaviour, introducing behavioural change programs, voluntary and mandatory referrals and peer counselling. It means providing real housing alternatives for perpetrators so they do not end up back in the houses of the people they have abused because they simply have nowhere else to go, not allowing them to hide inside the walls of houses and apartments away from the scrutiny of the law, and introducing a national domestic intervention order system that would allow intervention orders to travel with perpetrators around the country, across state and territory borders.

It means properly looking at the justice system, recognising that in some circumstances perpetrators may never change and prison might be the only option. Perpetrators must absolutely be held accountable for their actions, but in some cases prison can be a violent and authoritarian place that actually increases the likelihood of someone reoffending. We need to look at where the justice system is failing not only the victims and those experiencing family violence but where it is actually failing in preventing future family violence as well.

Thirdly — and we have heard a lot about this today, pleasingly — we need to look at prevention and we need to look at early intervention. This includes things like gender and respectfulness education, not just in schools but across the board — in sporting clubs, workplaces, even here in Parliament; and we need well-resourced public education campaigns, and I was pleased to see one launched today.

It means digging deep and looking at our culture, especially the way women are perceived and treated, because we know that not all sexism and disrespect towards women ends up in violence, but we know that all violence starts with disrespect towards women and sexism. Society currently tells our daughters that they are worth less than our sons through those subtle signals like paying men more for the same work as women, paying our sportsmen more than our sportswomen, appointing more men than women as CEOs or to boards or to parliaments. These actions send signals to women that they are worth less than men. If our society tells women they are worth less than men, is it any wonder that they feel like they are worth less than men and that that can result in violence and the sense of entitlement by men.

We know that in over 95 per cent of cases of intimate partner terrorism the women are the ones who are being attacked by their male partners or expartners, and it is unacceptable that two women die in this country every week at the hands of their partner or their expartner. We are struggling here in Australia and around the world with the recognition that there are ways of being a man in our society that involve too much of a sense of entitlement and that often resort to physical or other violence as an option. The culture must change.

What really struck me about the seven speeches we heard this morning is the real focus on the fact that this violence is so gendered and that changing culture comes down to every one of us in our everyday lives, not just here in Parliament. Here in Parliament we as politicians often think of our role as being about legislating, but we are so much more than that. Our role and leadership in society is more than just our vote. We are seen as leaders in our local communities, in our workplaces, in our societies and also in our political parties. Today I heard a real challenge from these speakers, challenging us not just as parliamentarians but as individuals, asking us to look at what we are doing that is part of the problem and what we are doing that is part of the solution.

I want to ask: are we preselecting in our political parties an equal number of women and men? Are we employing an equal number of men and women as our chiefs of staff? Are we employing an equal number of women and men as our secretaries and administration staff? Are we actually speaking up when we see sexism in community groups or at community events that we go to? Importantly, are we selecting an equal number of women and men in leadership positions in our political parties — as leaders, as deputies, as whips or in key portfolio positions?

Are we treating each other respectfully in this place? If we are not, then we are part of the problem, and we are part of the problem that sends those subtle signals to women in society that they are worth less and that they are capable of less. But we can choose to fix it and send the opposite message, that women are worth just as much as men and are capable of just as much, if not more than men. If we are not willing to do this in our political parties or in our lives or in our communities, how can we expect the broader culture to change?

We know that cultural change is hard. We know that the government cannot choose between a crisis response or early intervention and prevention. We must in fact do both. In fact we must do many, many things at once, acknowledging that violence does not just come in one form. It can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial — there are many forms of family violence. Although it is most often men’s violence against women, there are women and men in same-sex relationships who experience violence, men who experience violence at the hands of their partners, children who experience violence at the hands of parents or relatives, parents and grandparents who experience violence at the hands of their children or grandchildren. As Rosie told us, family violence can happen to anyone: rich people and poor people, people of all religions and people of no religion, people in all suburbs, all cultures and all professions.

There is no doubt that dealing with this issue is complex. We cannot do just what sounds good; we must do what works. The good news is that here in Victoria we will soon have an extensive evidence base out of the proceedings and reports of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. We will be able to look at what is working and what is not working, and I hope the government will use this information to develop comprehensive plans to tackle the issue on all the fronts where we need it. In the short term I know there are some frustrations associated with the sense that beyond reinstating some of the funding for family violence services that has been cut in recent years, the Victorian government has tended to respond to additional calls for reform with a blanket, ‘Wait for the outcome of the royal commission’.

I know it is a difficult one. On the one hand a good government wants to do what works, and what works depends on a good evidence base that the government may not have yet and it will want to wait for the results of the royal commission to achieve that evidence base. On the other hand we know how under-resourced the sector is and existing services are, let alone the initiatives aimed at real prevention. Many of these groups have decades of evidence that shows what works, so let us resource those.

We in the Greens absolutely welcome the Andrews government’s pioneering decision to call a royal commission and to instate a specialised ministerial portfolio for the prevention of family violence. It is a welcome reform. It is also welcome that the government has committed to respectfulness education in schools. We also welcome the government’s decision to lead the nation in ensuring public sector employees will be entitled to family violence leave under new enterprise agreements.

We in the Greens would have liked to have seen even greater support in the government’s first year for already stretched services that are now experiencing even greater demand and for some frontline services like McAuley House in my electorate that have missed out entirely. Anyone who complains that it would cost too much to properly resource family violence services must confront the stark reality that family violence currently costs the Australian economy $14 billion every single year. Of course the lives that are lost and the lives that are destroyed are priceless.

We are pleased that the government has committed to implementing the royal commission’s recommendations in full, and the Greens are here to hold the government to that promise. But of course there is more to be done, and Rosie Batty and the other speakers have told us that today. I hope we all heed her words, especially the government, because nothing can bring back the people who have lost their lives to family violence. Nothing can bring back the years that my friend lost. Nothing can restore the childhoods of those who have endured family violence as they were growing up.

As legislators and as policymakers, and simply as human beings, we should have acted much sooner. But we can no longer ignore the imperative to act now. All the survivors and those who did not survive make it impossible for us to ignore that imperative. Rosie Batty makes it impossible to ignore that imperative — Rosie and the memory of her son, Luke.


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  • published this page in News 2015-12-04 15:37:20 +1100

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