The national crisis of violence against women is the culmination of many issues — and some of them the government can fix

The national crisis of violence against women is the culmination of many issues — and some of them the government can fix
  • PublishedMay 4, 2024

Alison Scott’s beloved sister Jessica was murdered by her husband five years ago.

On Tuesday, she will be one of several women who have lost female family members to violence who will speak to a national crisis roundtable in Canberra dealing with the shocking rate of murders of women in Australia.

It will be notable for being primarily a meeting of people who work in the area, rather than politicians and bureaucrats.

But it is also one of many meetings going on right now as politicians are pushed to finally do something serious to protect women at immediate risk and, hopefully, reduce the numbers who find themselves in that situation. 

This week there has been a meeting of national cabinet, a police ministers meeting, and others in various states, including a meeting of the NSW Cabinet on Friday.

The frustration from many in the community was palpable after Wednesday’s national cabinet meeting. The announcement that an existing pilot scheme to help the immediate needs of women fleeing violence with a package of assistance worth $5,000, and some measures to address online misogyny, was met with quite a lot of “is that it?” disbelief, even if it involved new spending of $925 million over five years.

Alison Scott’s message this week ahead of the talks in Canberra was simple: “We have been controlled for a very long time, not only by perpetrators but also by systems.”

It’s a message you hear from many people who have been calling for too long for change, and it is one that this week’s frustrations only seem to have reinforced.

Interventions — from the level of a police call-out to the way financial and legal support systems work — are a nightmarish knot of paperwork and conditions that have to be met by people who are often on the run from a violent, controlling partner and not in a prime position to be managing paperwork.

That’s on top of the dilemmas facing police who often find themselves powerless to act.

Broader issues need to be addressed 

The fact that support systems can be weaponised against women is widely acknowledged in advice to government.

Long-term advocates for action on domestic violence say that something that is notable about the Canberra meeting next Tuesday is its very clear focus on women who are murdered, missing, or dying as a result of suicide — rather than the broader, complex set of issues that need to be addressed on prevention, intervention and protection for women who might not be at immediate risk of being killed but are living in daily fear and in a world they don’t feel they can escape.

A protest sign reading JUSTICE FOR WOMEN is held up in front of Canberra Parliament House
Advocates say urgent change is needed, and many feel the spending announcement is not enough.(ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

And that’s before you even start to consider the related issues which are too often another part of this broader community failure: drug and alcohol abuse, gambling addiction, mental illness, as well as the workings of judiciary.

Advocates say there are a range of policy changes that can — or at least should — be made immediately that could help reduce the risks and open up the options for women.

Bodies, including the federal government’s own Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, have noted the ways the social security and child support systems can be used by perpetrators to continue to exercise coercive control over their partners, as well as limiting women’s choices about leaving because of the sheer financial impossibility of doing so. 

In addition to income support payments putting women way below the poverty line, there are rules on waiting periods and accessing payments which mean you can’t even get support for an average of nine weeks, and even then you must prove that you have first exhausted your liquid assets.

These are things that the government can fix.

And it can fix the interaction of the social security system with child support payments which penalise women’s access to income support — even though their partner may not be paying them the amounts they say they are.

The government has also received numerous recommendations that the two systems should be split.

Funding laced with bureaucracy 

When Anthony Albanese announced the $925 million Leaving Violence Program, many frustrated voices welcomed the initiative but wanted to know why the government could not just have increased funding to frontline legal and other support services.

In the case of community legal centres, the answer lies at least partly in the bureaucracy of how they are funded.

An unidentified woman watches as police approach from a police car.
Advocates say there are policy changes that the government could make immediately that could help women fleeing domestic violence. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

In 2020, the Morrison government changed the system of funding so that it is now distributed via the states, rather than being purely federal government responsibility.

There is now a Commonwealth-state agreement to cover that. And it doesn’t run out until next year.

While the Albanese government isn’t saying so, there will be money made available before that — possibly even before the federal budget — to add to the funding.

The question is: what sort of money? The history of these centres is that the funding for them was savagely cut in 2015.

This was partially restored in 2020. But the centres face a real-time, ongoing decline in their funding because the indexation rate on their money was set in the days of low inflation and wages.

So for starters, they need a more realistic indexation rate so that they can confidently keep staff on. And then they need a big increase to help deal with the huge demand for their services.

There is so much to be done

Then there is housing — both emergency accommodation and the longer-term sort.

The first-ever State of the Housing System report by the government’s own National Housing Supply and Affordability Council, released on Friday, projected the crisis in the undersupply of housing is going to continue, and that is particularly the case for social and affordable housing.

Social housing had declined as a share of the housing stock for three decades, down from 5.6 per cent in 1991 to 3.8 per cent in 2021.

In NSW, the government has pledged to look at all options, including retrofitting vacant motels and aged care facilities and erecting modular homes.

The state government is also awaiting advice about reforming bail laws.

Police ministers meeting in Canberra on Friday were looking at how to improve police responses to “high-risk and serial perpetrators”, including using “focused deterrence”.

What that means is police taking a much less black-and-white view of their interventions which, according to a 2020 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, has seen offenders who are “not assessed as high-risk receive a standard response and a small group of high-risk offenders receive a high intensity response”.

The focused deterrence approach would involve more graduated responses and bringing different levels of law enforcement to bear, while also introducing social services to the policing equation.

There is so much to be done. And so many of the issues show how domestic violence has somehow been allowed to become an endemic product of decades of neglect or misguided funding cuts — often driven by ideological agendas, like the ones targeting single mothers, or the drive for governments to get out of areas like social housing.

How to ensure the momentum to properly address just some of these issues continues is one of the biggest challenges now facing all our politicians.


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