In March 2015, then-prime minister Tony Abbott acknowledged that domestic violence was a “tragic and deadly epidemic” affecting the entire nation. This sentiment might be new to some in the broader population, but it resonates more with the Indigenous communities that have been enduring family violence crises for at least two decades.
Many communities have significant histories of intergenerational trauma. It is a result of the policies and practices of colonisation, and the substantial disparities in Indigenous health outcomes. All of these factors contribute to family violence.
Successive state and federal governments have failed to adequately address or reduce the violence in Indigenous communities. This is despite numerous government reports, both Indigenous-specific and mainstream-focused, that have provided evidence-based insight and recommendations.
How is the problem being approached?
In September 2015, the Coalition government provided A$100 million in new funding to tackle domestic violence over three years. A further $100 million over three years was also allocated in the 2016-17 federal budget.
Information has come to light in recent weeks that these funds include $30 million to frontline legal assistance providers for victims of family and domestic violence and $25 million for improved provision of domestic violence support services. The latter includes developing an Indigenous workforce in the sector.
Of the funding committed to domestic violence to date, $46 million is directed toward specific measures to help Indigenous women and communities. A significant proportion of these measures are focused entirely on remote communities, and aim to reduce re-offending by Indigenous perpetrators by increasing police responses.
The limited scope of this investment fails to acknowledge that family violence equally occurs in urban and regional environments. The majority of Australia’s Indigenous population reside in the latter.
There is also a false assumption in the current approaches that Indigenous community members experiencing violence in urban and regional areas can access mainstream services. In a limited sense they can, but they are often discouraged by the lack of cultural safety in such services.
This inaccessibility has been recognised in successive government reports, including Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence. The commission made recommendations that the mainstream service sectors need to improve their cultural access and safety.
However, they need to be supported in this endeavour with sufficient resources. This would enable the development of partnerships with Indigenous communities to improve and attune service delivery to local Indigenous needs, as well as to broker cultural awareness training for staff.
What else is needed?
The limited scope of the government’s commitment to Indigenous family violence is also reflected in that $19 million is allocated to improving policing. Policing alone will not halt this crisis.
Services that can unpack the intergenerational trauma and help Indigenous people rebuild meaningful lives on their terms are what is needed. While safety is an essential requirement, on its own it does not assist in healing or reforming behaviour.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion this week announced a further commitment of $25 million (increasing the total commitment since September 2015 to $46 million) to combating Indigenous family violence. These funds would be allocated to individual programs identified in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council.
Scullion suggested that initiatives to be supported may include training an Indigenous workforce to deliver family violence support services within their communities, and trialling perpetrator intervention models that use a law-and-order system to change behaviours.
But decision-makers need to be careful of placing all their eggs in one basket – the law-and-order approach alone will not fix this problem. A balanced approach is required – one that provides both safety and healing.
The Labor and Greens’ policies on family violence shouldn’t escape criticism either. Their policies also intend to invest millions in frontline legal services to ensure women suffering from family violence get legal support.
Violence cannot be stopped by the blunt application of the law alone. While the law may provide protection (via intervention orders or criminal charges), it is individual attitudes that need to be changed. This is often only attainable through focused behaviour change programs and individualised counselling that tackles the factors contributing to violent behaviour.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the availability of men’s behaviour change programs. There has been criticism that there are still not enough programs available, and that they don’t sufficiently cater to the nature of the factors that contribute to Indigenous men’s offending. More investment in this area is needed.
Labor has committed to close the gap in Indigenous incarceration and victimisation rates by continuing trials in justice reinvestment. Justice reinvestment aims to redirect funds spent on the justice system into prevention and diversionary programs. It aims to tackle the underlying causes of offending in communities with disproportionately high levels of incarceration.
However, Labor has provided little detail that could help determine how successful its policy measures could be, and certainly the financial commitment to be made has not be announced. Ultimately, success will depend on the trial’s location and the strength of the local community’s engagement and leadership to own the issues and solutions.
Short-term vs long-term solutions
Successive governments and political parties have tended to focus on short-term, rather than long-term, funding commitments to family violence. This approach does not provide the support services that the average person experiencing violence needs.
The impact of family violence has lifelong ramifications. Short-term funding impacts significantly on the sector’s sustainability and capacity to effectively respond.
The Indigenous community has said they “have been piloting pilots for long enough”. Pilot programs and short-term contracts are inadequate when developing and implementing programs that are responsive to local needs. They fail to provide the time needed to foster the trust of community members.
When pilots conclude, often after only six months, the community is left in worse condition. Issues of violence and self harm can increase as a result.
While the government’s and Labor’s funding commitments are not small, they are effectively a band-aid solution to a long-standing crisis.
When considering how to respond to Indigenous family violence, political parties should commit to supporting the evidence-based recommendations of decades worth of reports into the problem, rather than looking for new and innovative solutions funded as pilot initiatives or investing in old approaches that continue to fail.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.