Inquiry, without inquiry
The work of the committee
I almost always start additional comments or dissenting reports by thanking a committee for its work in relation to the inquiry, irrespective of whether I agree or disagree with its findings and recommendations. But today I cannot in good conscience do that and so I will not.
The inquiry was established on 26 February 2020, when the Senate adopted my motion to refer the issue of domestic violence with particular regard to violence against women and their children to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for report by 13 August 2020.
The committee was charged through its clear terms of reference to inform itself of past reviews and then examine where domestic violence policies, programs and services needed improving. The terms of reference called for a full appraisal of the current environment, successes and failures, services provided and services in need, with a view of recommending both immediate and longer term measures to reduce the incidence of and death toll from domestic violence.
As it states in the report, the committee was not required to ‘reinvent the wheel’. It was, however, required to closely examine the wheel to see what parts of it were performing well and where improvements could be made, and also where there were flats spots on the rubber and where there was rust that needed to be tended to.
The committee did not do that. It did not discharge its responsibility to the Senate and, more importantly, the public. It failed in its duty in the shadow of the most horrific recent incidence of domestic violence, the death of Hannah Clarke and her three children, and in the context of an increase in occurrence of domestic violence as a result of COVID-19 related disruptions, and as the United Nations is urging all governments to ‘make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19’.
The committee is reporting three months ahead of time and doing so without seeking a single submission and without holding a single hearing. This is extraordinary, and somewhat unprecedented for a Senate inquiry.
The committee did not need to traverse ground already covered, it did not need to establish the cause and contributing factors to domestic violence, it did not need to re-examine the effects domestic violence has on its victims and it did not need to start from scratch in respect of remedies. It did need to hear from sector experts and listen to them to understand what is working well, what could be improved and where there are gaps and inadequacies.
Calling what occurred an ‘inquiry’ is a total misnomer. A review, yes, an inquiry, no! In some sense the committee acknowledges its own failings when at paragraph 1.8 of the report it states: ‘The results of the committee’s review are presented in this report’.
There was work to be done
There was work to be done – but the committee did not do it.
The committee finds that the results of the government’s efforts in reducing domestic violence are ‘mixed’. While there has been a reduction in total violence experienced by women, evidence indicates that violence in intimate partner relationships has not decreased since 2005, and sexual violence against women has not decreased since 1996.
But it did not seek submission as to the why this was occurring and it did not talk to any experts to examine what could be done better and where holes could be plugged.
At paragraph 1.31 the committee states:
… NCAS has also revealed that attitudes are ‘going backwards’ in some areas:
There is a continuous decline in the number of Australians who understand that men are more likely than women to perpetrate domestic violence (down from 86 per cent in 1995 to 64 per cent in 2017).
Two in five Australians believe that gender inequality is exaggerated or no longer a problem.
One in five Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to.
Two in five Australians believe that women make up false reports of sexual assault in order to punish men.
One of the big focusses of the National Plan is culture and attitude. In the face of these facts, where a continued decay in attitudes could easily unravel the plan in the long term, did the committee seek advice as to a suitable remedy? No, it did not.
The committee identified measures, such as 1800RESPECT, Mensline, and the ‘Keeping Women Safe at Home’ program that have been provided with additional funding in response to COVID-19, and gives praise for such action.
But it did not seek to investigate whether those measures are being implemented properly and effectively or whether they missed their mark. Sadly, no outside perspective is sought.
At paragraph 6.25 the committee recognises a number of questions that need answering:
Has the National Plan achieved what it set out to achieve? If not, why not?
What evidence is there that the initiatives undertaken to date will lead to generational change? When will we reap the rewards of current investment?
Are the theory and approaches that underpin Australia’s National Plan still in-line with international evidence and best-practice?
Is Australia doing enough, under the Plan, to support women and children from Indigenous and non-English speaking communities who are experiencing gender based and family violence?
Is there enough support for women with disabilities?
How will governments ensure the next iteration of the National Plan incorporates the learnings from the implementation of each Action Plan?
How comprehensive and reliable is Australia’s data, and is enough being invested in data and research?
Have departments and delivery partners taken on board criticisms around the mechanisms in place for evaluating initiatives? What are the new evaluation mechanisms, and are they sufficient?
How effective and efficient is the governance model in place for implementing the Plan? Are all states and territories ‘pulling their weight’, or are some not investing enough? Are there any areas where more Commonwealth control or coordination may be warranted?
What lessons can be learned from past experiences in relation to the procurement processes and service delivery model for 1800RESPECT?
How can the government ensure the 1800RESPECT service is fulfilling its vital role?
How have COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and job losses contributed to domestic and family violence? Has the government response been fast enough, and has it been effective?
Are there any lasting impacts of COVID-19 to be considered in drafting the new National Plan?
And yet, in clear dereliction of duty, it did not seek answers to them.
The committee failed itself, the Australian public, Hannah Clarke and her three beautiful children, Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey, and all victims of domestic violence, past, present and future.
The committee should take a long hard look at itself and then resolve to bring a motion to the Senate that would direct it to revisit the issue and do the job properly on the second pass.
Senator for South Australia