Last week, Tony Abbott made two announcements in response to family violence in Australia. On January 26, he named family violence survivor, Rosie Batty, the 2015 Australian of the year, signifying that the issue is firmly on his radar. Two days later he announced that a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) national advisory panel into family violence would be established later this year—with Batty as its chair—along with plans to fast-track a scheme to nationalise domestic violence orders.
In Australia, one woman is killed each week, on average, as a result of family violence. Further, one in three Australian women over the age of 15 will experience violence at the hands of someone at home in their lifetime. In light of figures like these, Abbott's moves would seem like an appropriately high-level response to an insidious national problem. But is it the full story?
Last year, funding was cut to several front-line services dealing with family violence. Bodies forced to slash spending include the Victorian Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service and the Yarra Ranges Legal Centre. Both of these groups help women leave abusive relationships, and both are facing potential closure.
So while the government makes headlines with high-profile inquiries and appointments, how will that balance out against the services forced to shut down?
Acting chief executive of Domestic Violence Victoria, Alison MacDonald, said: "It's a real worry that you have an announcement from the PM at the same time that other government portfolios are actually making decisions that really do impact on the vulnerability of women and children experiencing violence."
MacDonald agrees family violence should be a priority of the COAG agenda but calls into question government decisions to make funding cuts to programs and giving no commitment to continue funding the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which provides a range of family violence programs.
The timing could also be called into question. The announcements were made by a slumping Prime Minister long accused of being out of touch with women. Simultaneously, many services are facing funding cuts just when demand is peaking.
In the state of Victoria, reported incidents of family violence have increased by 83 percent in the last five years, a spokesperson for Victoria Police told VICE. In 2014, police responded to 65,393 family violence incidents. Children were present at about a third of these, which is a 19 percent increase on the previous year. And there's also been a rise in repeat offenders, as people have been breaching intervention orders or their bail requirements.
"We believe that increased community awareness of family violence and increased confidence in reporting family violence to police is driving this increase," the spokesperson said. While it's reassuring that the nation is coming to grips with family violence, it raises the stakes for those on the front line. The COAG inquiry will raise awareness even further in 2015, and funding cuts mean there's a danger of there not being enough help to go around.
So what's needed more; more research or a commitment to on-the-ground services? The smart money would be on both.
While the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence has come under fire for its $40 million budget, Victorian Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, Fiona Richardson, said the amount is justified when inquiring into such a crucial matter.
"The role of the royal commission is to investigate the problem of family violence from every perspective and recommend whole-of-government solutions that are based on evidence," Richardson told VICE. "An inquiry of this size was required in order for all aspects of the issue, from police and legal responses to emergency housing and family counselling, to be fully investigated in a holistic way."
Perhaps a better question is whether we're making appropriate use of existing knowledge.
A recent study from the UK found that most men who underwent behavioural change programs stopped using violence. According to Rodney Vlais, acting chief executive of No To Violence, there's been a shift in recent years towards these reform programs, which focus on the perpetrators of family violence, rather than the survivors.
"There's often so much questioning by the community as to, Why doesn't she leave? There's not that strong understanding of the incredible difficulties that women face when they're trying to," Vlais said. "Now it's changing the focus away from that."
Vlais said a national system of program accreditation should be established to ensure the quality of reform programs, along with sufficient federal and state funding. But he points out that although current reform programs are largely state funded, the federal government (you guessed it) cut their funding at the end of last year.
Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said the family violence crisis "is a national emergency that needs to be solved" and that the Senate Inquiry into domestic violence already found services to be struggling.
"If the Abbott Government is serious about eradicating domestic violence, it needs to reverse its funding cuts for the services that women escaping domestic violence rely on," Waters said.
On Friday, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison granted a last minute reprieve to front line social services – including some family violence groups – that had their funding cut in December. They'll continue to receive funding, but only until June in order to bridge any service gaps.
If you want to seek advice or assistance on a family violence issue, call the national domestic violence and sexual assault helpline 1800 737 732 or the Men's Referral Service 1300 766 491.
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