Australia’s ‘urgent’ action on family violence has fallen years behind

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his state and territory counterparts have promised a stronger national response to violence against women – but will they deliver? Stefan Postles/AAP

At first glance, domestic and family violence has never been higher on the national agenda. “Reducing Violence against Women” was the top item in the communique at the end of the latest Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, bringing together the prime minister, state, territory and local government leaders.

While the states’ squabbles over the Goods and Services Tax largely overshadowed domestic violence in the news coverage of the April 17 meeting, the COAG communique declared that:

As of 13 April, the media had reported 31 women who have died in Australia in 2015 as a result of violence. The most recent verified annual data show that on average one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner. COAG agreed to take urgent collective action in 2015 to address this unacceptable level of violence against women. [My emphasis.]

Speaking after the meeting, Tony Abbott backed that call for urgent national action, saying that while Australia’s “complex federation” made change slower than he would like,

we will get on with it as quickly as we can because you only have to listen to [Australian of the Year] Rosie Batty for 30 seconds to realise that there is an unfolding tragedy taking place in hundreds of thousands of homes right around our country.

But when is this long-promised “urgent” national response finally going to begin?

Everything in the latest COAG communique had already been canvassed by the federal government since January, with no surprises and little sense of urgency apparent in what our political leaders have now agreed to.

And this is not the first time COAG has raised the need for stronger, faster action. Four years ago, when the Gillard government was still in power, COAG endorsed Australia’s first National Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. That action plan began by saying:

One in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. Almost one in five have experienced sexual violence. It is time for that to change.

The latest promises for action

At Friday’s COAG meeting, Australia’s political leaders promised that by the end of 2015, we will have:

  • a national domestic violence order (DVO) scheme, where those DVOs will be automatically recognised and enforceable in any state or territory of Australia
  • progress towards a national information system so that courts and police across different states and territories can share information on active DVOs
  • consideration of national standards, so that perpetrators of violence against women are held to the same standard across Australia (to be brought into effect in 2016)
  • and that COAG will “consider strategies” to tackle the increased use of technology in abuse against women.

COAG also agreed to contribute A$30 million to fund a national awareness raising campaign – which was announced more than a month before the COAG meeting. In rather vague terms, the communique notes that these funds may “potentially” be allocated for “associated increased services to support women seeking assistance”.

The governments also “noted the importance of ensuring frontline services in all jurisdictions continue to meet the needs of vulnerable women and children”.

That’s an important point – because rather than drastically ramping up support for families escaping violence, over recent years both the federal and some state governments (such as NSW) have been cutting funding to legal and services that help those vulnerable women and children. Without these services, COAG’s promised actions will mean little to the very people we’re supposed to be doing more to help.

So what progress has been made at COAG?

The first two points in the communique – making domestic violence orders work across Australia and making it easier for courts and police to track active DVOs – have attracted the most interest. So it’s worth looking at what is significant about them, and where there are still important gaps needing further political action.

Violence doesn’t stop at state borders

Making domestic violence orders (DVOs) work across Australia is an important measure that will help women and children escaping violence, who often move from one state or territory to somewhere else in Australia. It will also assist women who live close to borders, which may mean that they live in one state or territory but work in another.

Currently victims who move have to apply to register their existing DVO in that new state or territory if they want their order to continue to protect them in that new location (for example, with a form like this from Queensland). This application is then listed before a court to ensure that it complies with the law in that new location and can be enforced.

COAG’s proposal for automatic recognition would cut the red tape of having to register a DVO in a new state. But is it a new idea, or a sign of great progress? Hardly.

The need for automatic recognition was recognised by the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children in 2009 and was subsequently included as part of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children 2010-2022, as a key action for Australian Governments in 2010-2013 (see Strategy 5.3). In other words, Australia is already running years behind in this area.

What is currently being proposed also fails to grapple with the critical problem of enforcing those DVOs, regardless of where you live in Australia. More work needs to be undertaken in this area to assist women in reporting breaches, ensuring police act on such reports, and that any breaches found by a court are treated seriously. (You can read more on the enforcement challenge, including a national overview and work from New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.)

Sharing violence orders across Australia

A national information system to let courts and police share information on active DVOs is important. Without such information sharing it is difficult, if not impossible, to effectively enforce orders under the national recognition system promised above.

But it’s also not new. Last year, the government provided CrimTrac with A$3.3 million dollars to work on this issue. It is not clear from COAG’s April 17 announcement whether further levels of information sharing, beyond what is already happening, will be considered.

Knowing the presence of a current DVO is important – however, what about those who flee without a current DVO? How can we share information about previous police and court contact that might not have resulted in a DVO? Or what about those DVOs that have expired, but where the threat of violence hasn’t gone away?

How do we assist police and the courts to see beyond a individual incident, and see the pattern and history of violence over time? Without that more comprehensive picture, it is easy to dismiss that individual incident as trivial or minor.

One of the key difficulties in this area is the state of data collection. The need for better data capture by police and courts has been a common theme through successive inquiries, including a current senate inquiry, a past NSW upper house inquiry (see recommendation 8), and the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women.

The absence of such easily accessible data hinders the development of well-informed policy and service responses to domestic violence. The absence of data means that we are unable to identify gaps in service delivery, or to adequately know whether services are assisting the most vulnerable people.

Long-term certainty, not short-term announcements

All of COAG’s recent pledges to reduce violence against women will mean little if there aren’t the services – legal help, housing, counselling, health and financial assistance – to assist women and children fleeing violence.

But the reality is that all of these sectors are either inadequately funded (as this year’s Queensland Taskforce on domestic and family violence noted in its comments) or have had their funding cut.

Importantly, the federal government recently announced that it had reversed its decision to cut funding to much-needed community legal services. But that reprieve is only for two years.

Services such as these are vital to women experiencing domestic violence, particularly groups who are more vulnerable. Who will provide legal advice about seeking a DVO? Who will provide advice about how to enforce the terms of a DVO?

Across Australia, we won’t make real progress on domestic and family violence without a longer-term focus.

That means long-term, and adequate, funding to vital services and programs. Too many of the government services and programs helping women affected by violence are only funded for short-term or for limited time periods.

For example, the COAG communique quoted “the most recent verified annual data”, showing that “on average one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner”. That data came from the Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), which was set up to identify ways to reduce and prevent violence against women and children. It only has funding until June 2016.

Even more importantly, we need to be working harder to give long-term certainty to women and children escaping violence. That means doing more about long-term housing options, counselling and financial assistance. It is here where long-standing change can be made to assist women and children to live free from violence.

Anyone at risk of family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault can seek help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, either online or by calling 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Information is also available in 28 languages other than English.

Read other articles in The Conversation’s ongoing domestic violence coverage.