Back to All News

Speech: Domestic violence

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 8 Sep 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:06): How wonderful was the news that Rosie Batty was to be the Australian of the Year. It was a most important decision. The Baird Liberal government in New South Wales, however, is not doing enough to protect the women and children fleeing from domestic violence. When you look at what is happening in my home state you really wonder if they have listened to the Australian of the Year. The New South Wales government's rhetoric does not align with their stated position, which has seen the shocking closure of 25 New South Wales women's refuges. The choice of Rosie Batty did put the crime of domestic violence on the map, and people rightly expected that governments around the country would listen to her message and assist women to escape domestic violence, that they would work to change the discriminatory attitudes to domestic violence-but this is not occurring in New South Wales. Policy is changing the situation that victims of domestic violence find themselves in. It is getting much harder for them. Australian police deal with a domestic violence matter every two minutes. Last year, 84 women were killed by violence in Australia, and as of today this year's count is 59 already. Official figures show that there were 28,870 domestic violence related assaults in the year to March. That is an unbelievable 80 attacks per day. We know many more go unreported.

Over this period the Baird government has closed 25 women's refuges. They have been making a difference to women's lives and children's lives, saving lives, but they have been closed. A year into the New South Wales Baird government's overhaul of the crisis accommodation services that has caused these closures we have seen a 14.3 per cent increase in the incidence of domestic violence in the greater Sydney area. This is a sad, chaotic state of affairs that the Liberal government has brought to women and children in New South Wales. This is where we have to question the Abbott government's role. How is it that their New South Wales counterpart continues with this disgraceful dismantling of domestic violence support structures? I want to bring the Abbott government in here, because very fine words have been said about the scourge of domestic violence. It is worth remembering what the Prime Minister has said. In May this year the Prime Minister said that governments were working 'in the closest possible harmony'. If he calls it working in harmony with the New South Wales government, clearly the Abbott government also has to take responsibility for the state of affairs in New South Wales. The Prime Minister also said:

We want to look at really lifting our came when it comes to dealing with the scourge of domestic violence.
So let us look at how the Abbott government is supposedly lifting its game in New South Wales. While the empirical impact of the Baird government's cuts are yet to be measured, the raw figures are alarming. We are seeing a reduced number of available beds for victims of domestic violence, a lack of specialist individual care by experienced staff and a range of other problems. Up to a couple of years ago New South Wales had 340 services for the homeless. Now, the Baird government's new package offers merely 140 centres. Across New South Wales this comes out at 350 bedrooms in 63 government-owned shelters.

The way the government is tendering out these services is adding to the problem. By opening the tender for all homelessness sector services in New South Wales, the Baird Liberal government has effectively pooled homelessness services with women's refuge centres. This requires centres to cater for all types of homelessness. The refuges are the poor cousins here. Refuges once were available solely for the victims of domestic violence. You will not find that now. Experience has shown that responding to domestic violence requires small, intensive services, but the government's tender process favours larger agencies. Many small specialist services that have been providing support for over 40 years-again I say saving lives-are being affected. The Baird government has just unravelled a very successful, constructive way of dealing with the crimes of domestic violence. Twenty-five women's refuges have closed as a result of the Baird government's reforms-refuges that were built in some cases, or buildings were occupied, governments were lobbied and the services were established. They were women-only services, and they have been so important but now they have gone.

Under the new system women are not getting the individual care from experienced staff that is so valuable to their recovery and empowerment. A monthly essay in March this year by Jess Hill commented:

Nowhere have women's refuges been in greater turmoil than in New South Wales.

It is worth, again, looking at some of these examples-and so much of it goes back to this policy of putting services out to tender. It is interesting to look at the comments of Assistant Police Commissioner Mark Murdoch. He said that the police received no prior warning about which shelters were going to close, so they did not know where to take victims. We know the police have a very difficult job here, and they have come to know where the services are, what refuges they should take women and children to. Assistant Police Commissioner Murdoch said:

... if they were going to close or withdraw funding for shelters, it would have been nice to know in advance.
What a way to run a government policy; what a way to conduct such an important issue involving responding to the needs of women and children who are experiencing domestic violence and also homelessness. While everything has been bundled in here, everybody is a loser under the Baird government's new policy.

Christine Bird, spokesperson for the advocacy group No Shelter, describes what happens when people who have different needs are bundled together. She describes a cottage that has separate sections in it, and there will be somebody with mental health problems in one unit; right beside them they can have a family with intergenerational poverty; and then there could be a woman and children fleeing domestic violence in the next one. Christine Bird said that it is absolutely unworkable in terms of the link between safety and confidentiality.

Then we go to Maitland, in the Hunter. This is Carrie's Place-another incredibly important service that has been there for over 35 years. This is what it has been reduced to. The CEO is Jan McDonald. She talks about a really worrying trend here. She describes how it creates potential for conflict because victims of violence and the perpetrators, sometimes from the same family, end up under the same roof at the refuge, as a result of the way it now has to carry out its work. She described an incident that was in the Maitland Mercury: she had helped a male, and the male turned around and boasted to a female in the refuge, who was a relative, 'Ha ha ha-they're helping me as well.' This is an enormous setback, and I emphasise again-a serious setback to safety and people's recovery, and an enormous setback for people escaping domestic violence.

Then we go to Broken Hill. Broken Hill has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Australia. In Broken Hill there is a refuge called Catherine Haven. The refuge there is now run by the Salvation Army. The managers are a couple who both have diplomas in theology. They have just moved into the town. This refuge used to be a 24/7 operation. It was open all the time because it was needed at all hours of the day and night. Now it operates within business hours, Monday to Friday. The manager couple have introduced a strict scheme whereby accommodation is now dependent on payment. Lieutenant Philip Sutcliffe, one of the managers, has said: 'It's not simply a service that they can use and abuse. It's not just a free service that they can just come in and go as they want.' This is not the way that one helps to restore people who have been so damaged by domestic violence. Those who do pay often find themselves being taught lessons by the manager couple. A particular favourite, I hear, is that they are taught about responsibility-what their responsibility is in the circumstances.

Let's remember that refuges, by their very design, are a free, optional service, allowing women to enter and go as they require. That is essential. It is not about locking up people and it is not about ordering them around; it is about assisting them to rebuild their lives, to find accommodation where they and their families can feel safe. The name 'refuge' comes because it has been a refuge, but that is something we have lost under the Baird government policy.

Going back to the Broken Hill example, the fact that a man in charge of providing a service is describing it as precisely the opposite of the safe, supportive, free service it needs to be in order to be effective shows just how much danger the refuge sector is in in New South Wales. The whole concept of it is being unwound. This is and was understood by women who ran the 25 local women's refuges in New South Wales that, I repeat, are being closed by the Baird government.

People often say to me, 'You have a pretty good premier-you might have a Liberal government, but Premier Baird is really on the ball.' They say he surfs and does all these things. But look at what the policies are that are playing out for people who have a right to expect that government will be there for them. The Catherine Haven example from Broken Hill is just one among many which captures the tragedy that is now impacting on the lives of so many victims of domestic violence.

The Baird government spouts that it has the Going Home Staying Home program, and that that is what should get urgent consideration. Again, I would argue that it is disturbing that the Abbott government has allowed this to continue for as long as it has. I remind you of that quote that I gave you earlier from the Prime Minister, where he talked about, not just how serious this problem is, but about how all governments around the country are taking it seriously and working together. So surely the Abbott government has to take responsibility as well.

In terms of housing, there is an obvious correlation between domestic violence and homelessness; 36 per cent of homeless women are victims of domestic violence. This is where we need to have a change in policy. In New South Wales that needs to start with restoring refuges that are specifically for victims of domestic violence. It is time that the Baird government and the Abbott government acknowledged that the policy towards domestic violence victims in New South Wales is a failure, and it is time that those refuges were restored as places for women and children to gain safety and to get assistance to restore their lives.

On another matter, this July saw the sixth biennial Talisman Saber war rehearsal. The Abbott government boasted that the Talisman Saber operation was the largest military exercise ever to have taken place in Australia, involving 33,000 military personnel, 21 ships, more than 200 aircraft and three submarines. The people who should be congratulated are those who protested. I congratulate the members of IPAN-the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network. One of the member organisations is a group that I work closely with, the Marrickville Peace Group. I also congratulate the many activists from across the country that joined the protests. As these war games are growing, it is necessary to counter the narrative that paints them as necessary and beneficial.

This was the message from the peace activists. Talisman Saber is sending the wrong message to our neighbours. They are war games that waste resources and do not promote an independent foreign policy. This was the message of the peace activists, a message that they took onto the area where those war games were being held. Peace activists were arrested. On 12 July, two of the protesters entered the prohibited military area of Shoalwater Bay in Queensland. This was in the midst of the Talisman Saber exercises. They knew they would most likely be arrested. They remained in the prohibited area for two days and used the opportunity to hang up their conspicuous banners reading, 'War games don't bring peace or security' and 'Save the reef from war games grief'. The protesters engaged in many creative actions. Jo Vallentine, a former senator from this parliament, joined the protesters. I am very proud that Jo Vallentine was the first Australian Greens senator in this chamber.

The Greens are historically linked to peace activism. We argue that the root causes of war and conflict must be examined and understood if we are to build a peaceful world. On 13 July this year a group calling themselves three Quaker grannies, which included Jo Vallentine, held a tea party at the gates of the Shoalwater Bay training facility. There they had cups of tea that they shared with any of the soldiers who were willing to partake of it. I understand that they had scones and lamingtons. They took their picnic table from one side of the gates into the prohibited area. They were arrested-after a lot of friendly conversation, I understand. These are the sorts of actions that are so important. And yes, probably very few people in here have heard about it. But again I congratulate them very warmly, because the message of peace is a message that we need to elevate, particularly in the light of these so-called war games that are just so damaging to Australia's reputation and to our standing with our neighbours and that are a waste of resources.

These protests have been occurring since 2005, when Talisman Saber first came to our country. The protesters take a variety of creative actions. They are actions that the Greens stand with. We stand with those who are protesting. They also take up the issue of the damage to the reef and the damage to the land of the traditional owners. Shoalwater Bay, where much of this exercise was conducted, is the ancestral land of the Darumbal people. Under the Talisman Saber program the traditional owners ended up being left with restricted access to their own special places, their own significant areas. The training facility also, as we know, encompasses that most beautiful part of the Australian coastline the Great Barrier Reef. Within the training facility where these war games are played not only is there part of the reef marine park but also there are adjacent areas that are ending up degraded because they are so fragile. Yes, the games only occur every two years, but the damage is enormous. Former Senator Jo Vallentine has voiced her concern over the damage that such war rehearsals cause to the Great Barrier Reef, already at risk from global warming. I congratulate former senator Jo Vallentine for her courageous work here.

Perhaps more ominous than the obviously threat to our natural environment is the insidious impact that Talisman Saber war games have on our real and perceived military relationship with the United States. This was also a theme of the protesters, who very much gave voice to the need for an independent foreign policy. What many of them identified is that, when these games are held, to onlookers it looks like Australia is just another US military base. So it is time to question these policies. There has been an enormous shift, and again I acknowledge that the peace movement is much smaller than it was. But these activists continue to call for an independent Australia. An independent Australia would be more able to play a role of peaceful leadership in world affairs. Our place is not to be a servant of the United States but to take a cooperative approach to the enormous challenges in our region. I finish by warmly congratulating the Marrickville Peace Group, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, the Quaker grannies and all those who spent July taking up the cause against Talisman Saber.


Back to All News