Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence

17 May, 2021


I rise to speak to the report tabled by the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs on its inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence. I thank the committee members—in particular, the chair, the member for Fisher—for guiding what must've been a very difficult and emotional inquiry. I thank the 298 individuals and organisations who took the time to make submissions to the inquiry and, in particular, all of those who appeared at the 16 public hearings. No doubt some of the experiences were incredibly traumatic for those telling and for those hearing. I commend you for your strength and courage and I really hope your contributions will help inform us as decision-makers and assist other victim-survivors in getting the support and assistance they need.

I thank the secretariat for their assistance and professionalism in supporting this vital inquiry. The report is extremely thorough and detailed, with 88 recommendations. My hope, though, is that the report is not just actioned but prioritised. Committees, witnesses, expert organisations and secretariat staff commit a great deal of time resources and energy into these inquiries, which produce well-research reports with a list of much-needed recommendations. But too often, unfortunately, the reports sit idle. So I call on the government to carefully consider the full list of 88 recommendations made in this report, particularly as they draft the new national plan to reduce violence against women and their children.

The reality is that, in this place, we are acutely aware of the scourge of family, domestic and sexual violence. As community leaders, we see it in our neighbourhoods. We work with the shelters and the charities supporting the victims. We attend vigils., we send condolences, and we post about our thoughts and prayers. But what action are we taking in this place to really address the issue? As the chair highlighted in the foreword, in Australia, on average, one woman dies every eight years, making it statistically likely that, over the duration of this inquiry alone, 40 Australian women have lost their lives at the hands of a current or former partner. That is a shameful statistic and it cries out for action.

We should note the origin of the inquiry, which was an embarrassment in itself. We had a complete failure by a Senate inquiry which was supposed to be into domestic violence. It wrapped up three months early, having not taken any submissions or held any public hearings. It was the public outcry that led to this inquiry being put in place. I commend the government for their response back in June to establish this inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs. The terms of reference covered a range of areas and were specifically designed to inform the next national plan to reduce violence against women and their children. I was particularly pleased to see reference made to an examination of all forms of violence against women, including but not limited to coercive control and technology facilitated abuse.

There were 88 recommendations in the report and they are grouped into five key things. Firstly, the next national action plan to reduce violence against women and their children should involve a more uniform approach across jurisdictions and one that is more inclusive of the various manifestations of family violence. This should include the development of a uniform national definition of family, domestic and sexual violence that takes into account the non-physical forms of violence such as coercive control, financial abuse and technology facilitated abuse. Secondly, the national plan must seek to engender a culture of accountability and greater workforce support, and all Australian governments should work collaboratively and transparently and be held to account through quantitative targets. It needs to be measurable. Thirdly, education is critical. There remains a need for greater awareness and understanding of the many forms of family, domestic and sexual violence, the causes and impacts of violence, and the ways in which it can be prevented. Fourthly, in response to family, domestic and sexual violence, the welfare of victim-survivors and their children should be paramount. The next national plan should seek to improve victim survivors access to Specialist services as well as housing, legal aid and financial assistance. Fifthly, the next national plan must continue to hold perpetrators to account for their use of violence. This should include increased penalties for breaches of domestic violence orders and improved information sharing about perpetrators.

I strongly support greater deterrence through harsher penalties. I am astounded and quite outraged by this aspect. I contrast the response that we have to domestic violence with the response implemented by state governments to the spate of one-punch attacks which we saw in Kings Cross, Sydney, for example. We saw entire industries shut down with the introduction of controversial lockout laws. I note that Victorian and Queensland governments have also introduced specific legislation with regard to coward punch attacks. A one-punch attack—predominantly a male-on-male assault—has mobilised state governments to implement harsher sentencing and stricter liability laws, but domestic violence, where one woman is killed every eight days, on average, has not done the same. Domestic violence fails to attract anywhere near the same sense of outrage, censure and legislative action.

Between 2000 and 2016, there have been 127 deaths from coward punch attacks. In contrast, the accepted statistic is that one woman dies every eight days at the hands of a current or former partner. So I've done the maths. In the same period as there have been 127 coward punch attacks, 730 women—daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and aunts—have been slain, but there has been no action. The statistics are even more horrific. Even when found guilty, only about 16 per cent of perpetrators will face a custodial sentence, and the average length of incarceration is 370 days for the most serious kinds of assault. On top of that, only 1.5 per cent of perpetrators will complete the full sentence in custody. That is outrageous, and it is so symptomatic.

Because the victims of intimate partner violence are predominantly women, we are completely failing to have the same sense of urgency to act and put in place strong deterrence measures. I do not accept this. If we have harsher laws in relation to coward punch attacks, with mandatory minimum sentencing regimes, why on earth do we not have similar regimes for intimate partner violence? It must change. The point of legislation is deterrence, and we must send a clear and strong message to society that perpetrators will face significant minimum mandatory sentences. I truly hope the government can take on the integrated and holistic approach of implementing all the recommendations, particularly the recommendation to look at strengthening sentencing.

I was pleased to see in the budget, released yesterday, nearly $1 billion over four years for initiatives to reduce the incidence, and support the victims, of family, domestic and sexual violence against women and children. I welcome the increase from the $150 million announced in the COVID response package in March last year. The budget papers note that violence against women is estimated to cost Australia $26 billion annually. Money certainly can't fix everything, but $250 million a year to fix a $26 billion problem seems like a very small investment to address the issue. Whilst I commend the government for addressing it, it's clear that a lot more needs to be done. The family law system needs reform, but, from my experience in the courts and on the family law committee inquiry, funding is a major problem when it comes to ensuring access to justice and appropriate protection. We need to do more in that respect, and I note that some funding was provided to that system as well.

We cannot have a proper conversation about addressing domestic and family violence without the honest discussion of broader cultural change, and for that we need to make sure respect for women—respect for all—is above and beyond all else. There are many actions in this place where we've failed to uphold that standard, and that needs to change. Leadership is important. We will only get cultural change if it comes from the top, and it must come from this place. We must determine the standard that we simply will not allow to drop. We have to raise the standards. We have people in this place who have behaved appallingly, and that needs to stop. We have to act on intimate partner violence.