Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks in support of Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave

7 September 2022

I rise today with a hopeful optimism that one of Australia's most pressing social issues may see the implementation of strengthened support mechanisms. I commend the government for its bill to legislate 10 days of paid domestic violence leave, the Fair Work Amendment (Paid Family and Domestic Violence Leave) Bill 2022. This will be a clear step in improving the systems of support for women and families escaping violent situations. It's a good first step that will help survivors of violence undertake the immense change and recalibration that is endured when leaving an abusive partner.

I feel compelled, though, to illustrate how much more is needed to combat this epidemic. While 10 days of paid domestic violence leave is a good systemic improvement, we simply cannot stop there. We must be prepared to adequately tackle the issue of family and domestic violence at a national level. It means taking steps that we have not yet taken. This means adequately investing in prevention and solutions. This means we must keep working until we see meaningful change. This issue is too important. It is an absolute scourge on our society.

In consultation with survivors and stakeholders in my community, the consensus is clear: the bill is good, but it is ultimately a drop in the ocean for what we need to do to eradicate domestic violence. Leaving a violent situation at home is a mammoth endeavour that extends so much further than merely walking out the door. Those I have spoken with detail horrific experiences of continued adaptable abuse that often takes many years and extensive legal proceedings to separate from. Having spent many years in the family law courts as a family law barrister, I can attest to those experiences. Relationships that are physically abusive can continue after a survivor has left, in the forms of coercive control, character assassination, financial and legal abuse. We need stronger national definitions of these forms of violence. We need to ensure that the Australian public is educated and aware of the many forms that violence and abuse can take. We need to ensure that existing support systems are better resourced, and we need to improve ease of access to these frontline support services. Leaving a violent relationship can be a terrifying and dangerous time for survivors. The onus is on us, as elected representatives, to implement change to improve holistic safety and to bring our communities with us.

The economic impact is often overlooked when it comes to family and domestic violence. But, according to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, family and domestic violence will cost the Australian economy an estimated $13.6 billion this year alone. This cost has increased from previous years. It needs to be reversed, and the cost of inaction is far too great to ignore. The report finds that vulnerable groups are likely to be disproportionately financially impacted due to circumstantial challenges. It finds that, without intervention, violence against immigrant and refugee women is estimated to cost the economy just over $4 billion; against women with disabilities, $3.9 billion; and against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, some $2.2 billion—and, in relation to children who witness violence, it is some $1.5 billion. These figures are astronomical, and to see how severely these impacts are felt by some of the most vulnerable in our community is truly gut-wrenching. So I implore the government to maintain a high standard of transparency with regard to the economic impacts of domestic violence. We need to ensure these figures are subject to profound change and improvement.

The Education and Employment Legislation Committee's report on this bill clearly outlines that a whole-of-community response to family and domestic violence is needed. This should be led by our parliament, with an acknowledgement of existing needs and a swift implementation of thoughtful improvements. When reviewing this legislation, I was pleased to see a thoughtful, considered approach to ensuring this leave is available to all employees, no matter their full-time, part-time or casual employment status. I'm also pleased to see that the full rate of pay entitlement of 10 days will be available upfront when needed, with this option extended to workers upon the commencement of new employment. Further extensions are also good to see. With the passing of the bill, the definition of 'family and domestic violence' will be extended to include conduct of a current or former intimate partner of an employee, or a member of an employee's household. This widened definition considers the diverse contexts and unique circumstances that deserve our acknowledgement.

The emotional impacts of leaving a violent situation are severe. People fleeing domestic violence must undertake a profound recalibration of personal safety, e-safety, accommodation, financial security, property, custody of children—and the mental health implications. Ten days is not a lot of time to investigate and come to terms with all of those intense changes. The bill indicates a solid start to improving the systems designed to support those afflicted by family and domestic violence, but I am concerned it doesn't go far enough. In consultation with one of my constituents, I learnt that her corporate employer already extends 20 days of paid domestic violence leave to its employees. This is double the proposed allocation in this bill. Yet I was told every single one of those 20 days was necessary, in her circumstances, to undertake the immense task of leaving. The committee recommends that the Senate pass this bill, and I concur with that. However, when the recommended independent review takes place following the implementation of the first schedule, I will firmly implore the government to seriously consider whether 10 days is adequate and whether this needs to be extended further.

My constituents also want to see more guidance from the government and to have systems put in place to streamline access to support services, therapy and education. Ideally, employers will be equipped to help workers instigate access to services during the paid leave period. It's feared that much of the allocated paid domestic violence leave days will be wasted due to the complexity of navigating the system on their own by the people who need to use it.

There is a need for national definitions and public awareness. In 2020, the House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs conducted an inquiry on family, domestic and sexual violence. From its report, the need for nationally recognised and consistent definitions of non-physical and complex types of abuse was clear. In the report, the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance explained that 'coercive control' is an umbrella term that refers to an ongoing pattern of controlling and coercive behaviours that are not exclusively physical but can pervade an individual's daily life, with a devastating impact. Coercive control is insidious and covert. Its proposed criminalisation in states across Australia will be aided by heightened awareness and clear, consistent definitions that consider the complex nature of this abuse.

The issue of family and domestic violence is prevalent in every area of Australia, in every community. There is no economic or geographic area that is exempt. Similarly, in my electorate of Warringah, from April 2021 to March 2022, 427 recorded domestic violence assaults were recorded across Warringah's three local government areas. In the same period, 451 domestic AVOs were issued. We know that these figures got a lot worse during COVID. We know that it was an incredibly difficult and stressful time. Shockingly, when we look at those 451 domestic AVOs, some 229 of those were breached, indicating the system of protecting victims is not enough to prevent further threats and harassments. This has all occurred across three local council areas over one year, and these are just the instances that were reported to authorities. We know that many more occur.

I've met with several local women who bravely shared their stories with me. I have heard of the extreme adversity they have faced within their abusive relationships, but also of the continued abuse they have experienced through the legal system. The prohibitive expense of leaving is keeping people trapped in violent situations, and that's unacceptable. For a person to leave violence, they also have to be prepared for lengthy legal processes with extremely high legal fees, contributing to the longer-term financial crippling of women.

I've also heard about alarming experiences due to the uncoupling of the family law and the criminal law courts. For obvious privacy reasons, I won't share with the parliament the details of these experiences women have shared with me, but I do need to be clear that the extent of continued non-physical abuse was shocking, debilitating and terrifying for these women to experience over the course of many years. Even as a legal practitioner, having practised in that area, I know firsthand how incredibly frustrating and difficult it was at times to be able to assist clients through that system. Much of this continued fear was associated with the family law system. It's being under-resourced. The delays and time lines are incredibly difficult.

I strongly opposed the last government's move to end the Family Court of Australia; a specialised jurisdiction that was incredibly important. It's clear that there is still much to be done to ensure that that system is sufficiently resourced to deal promptly with issues and disputes. Perpetrators still have too many options and abilities within that system to tarnish the character or deplete the finances of victims.

I would say there have been inadequate authority responses. This is a common thread of some of the tragedies that hit our front pages in Australia. A common pattern expressed in some of the consultations that I've had was that the systems designed to adequately protect victims and children have been inadequate, with some still living in debilitating fear of their former intimate partners, despite having left them several years ago, and now receiving other forms of abuse. It was highlighted in the report Inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, which thoroughly explored instances of sustained financial, legal and technological abuse. The report read:

The Committee received evidence that, in many cases, authorities did not appear to understand the problem and were thus taking ineffective or even counterproductive action.

This affirms why Australians need clearer definitions and consequences for non-physical forms of domestic violence. We need our authorities to clearly understand complex abuse. We need heightened public awareness so insidious, oftentimes covert forms of abuse can be more easily identified and prevented.

Further to the passing of this bill, the parliament must address the adaptability of abuse and legislate meaningful change to define and prevent complex violence. We know there is a disproportionate impact on women, and so we have to talk of this in gender equity terms as well. Domestic and family violence is a social issue that disproportionately affects women. I have spoken with constituents whose professional development suffered due to the lack of gender equity in their workplaces. So we also need robust mechanisms in place to prevent financial penalties for women who must take time out from work to deal with the immense challenges of leaving violence.

It is so important that, when we talk of this, we recognise and acknowledge the incredible work done by local supports. I want to take this time to commend the work of frontline family and domestic violence services across the country. I know how intense the work is to support and guide survivors and their families, and I know that many lives would not have recovered without their active care and support. In Warringah, we are lucky to have local services that actively assist constituents in crisis. This includes Josie Parata and her team from Lighthouse for the Community. This local organisation works with survivors to create a safety plan, a strategy, to move them forward in life following their violent situation. Lighthouse for the Community and other community organisations across Australia are instrumental in guiding those leaving violence, with patience and compassion. That guidance is vital. While paid domestic violence leave is a welcome step, we must ask ourselves what comes next. How are those fleeing violence supposed to navigate the ordeals on their own? I ask the government to urgently explore the expanded resourcing of services. Survivors need ease of access to services that can reliably guide them through the emotional and legal journey to independence and safety.

This bill is a good first step. It is considered and practical, and I welcome it. But I would ultimately urge that we consider how much more is needed and how much further it needs to go to provide adequate respite to those undertaking the immense task of leaving violence. We must monitor the adequacy and success of this support and be willing to revisit it should an expansion be needed. The government must continue to legislate meaningful change, including nationally consistent definitions and public awareness of complex abuse.

Domestic and family violence is a complex and urgent issue. We need a full community approach to implement meaningful change, and as federal representatives we must all take a legal role in this. This is a good start, but this is very much an issue that must stay at the forefront of our endeavours.