Establishment of the inquiry
On 26 February 2020, the Senate referred an inquiry into 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 motion establishing the inquiry set out the terms of reference, which are:
That the Senate notes the inquiries relating to domestic violence in Australia undertaken by the Finance and Public Administration References Committee in 2014-2015 and 2015-2017, and the 2019 Auditor General’s report on implementation of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022.
That the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, informed by the reports named at (1), inquire into and report, by not later than 13 August 2020, on domestic violence with particular regard to violence against women and their children, including:
the status of, and any barriers in implementing, the recommendations of the reports;
the adequacy, effectiveness and resourcing of policies, programs, services and responses to domestic violence across the Australian Government, state and territory governments, local governments, nongovernment and community organisations, business and the media;
immediate and long-term measures that need to be taken to prevent violence against women and their children;
the effects of policy decisions regarding housing, legal services, and women’s economic independence limiting the ability of women and children to escape domestic violence;
how the Australian Government and state and territory governments can best support, contribute to and drive the social, cultural and behavioural shifts required to eliminate violence against women and their children; and
any other related matters.
While the establishment of the inquiry was supported by the Senate, Opposition and Greens senators expressed some reservations about the referral.
The Opposition was concerned that the inquiry was not being referred to the most appropriate committee, and would have been better directed to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee. Senator Gallagher also said:
…there are a number of recommendations before government, which can act on those recommendations now. Ample evidence has been taken in a number of committees and inquiries that have been held by the Senate. If this can assist in any way in focusing minds, then so be it, but we certainly would urge the government to take action, rather than wait for yet another inquiry…
Senator Waters said that, while the Greens would not ‘stand in the way of yet another inquiry’ into domestic and family violence,
…we note that the inquiries that this chamber got up—thanks to the Greens moving them—in 2015 and 2017 have still largely remained not acted upon by this government. So we’re not confident that this inquiry would be any different… The government knows what needs to be done.
Conduct of the inquiry
In deciding how to approach the inquiry, the committee was determined to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. The committee formed the view that conducting another lengthy, broad-ranging public inquiry into domestic and family violence in Australia at this time would be of limited value.
The committee noted in particular the Finance and Public Administration References Committee’s substantial inquiry in 2014-2015, and the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) ‘National Summit on Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children’, held on 2 and 3 October 2018 in Adelaide. These initiatives both provided substantial opportunities for stakeholders, elected representatives, policy-makers and those affected by domestic and family violence to contribute their experience and expertise.
The committee has reviewed the reports referred to in the terms of reference, looking specifically at the recommendations made in those reports, the relevant government responses, and what action governments have taken in relation to those recommendations. The results of the committee’s review are presented in this report.
Structure of the report
This report contains six chapters. This first chapter provides an introduction, information about the inquiry, and background on the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan).
Chapter 2 looks at the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee’s substantial 2015 report into domestic and family violence, including an analysis of the government’s response and actions taken in relation to the recommendations.
Chapter 3 looks at the Finance and Public Administration Committee’s subsequent 2016 report into domestic violence and gender inequality. The 2016 report did not contain formal recommendations, but made suggestions to ensure Australia’s response to domestic and family violence continued to include initiatives designed to challenge gender roles and stereotypes.
Chapter 4 reviews the Finance and Public Administration Committee report into the national domestic violence and sexual assault service, 1800RESPECT; particularly in relation to procurement processes and the contracting model.
Chapter 5 considers the findings of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in relation to the administration of the National Plan by the Department of Social Services. This chapter looks at how the ANAO’s recommendations are being implemented as part of the Fourth (and final) Action Plan.
Chapter 6 presents the committee’s view on Australia’s efforts to reduce domestic and family violence under the National Plan, and proposes some questions for consideration in drafting the next iteration of the National Plan.
The National Plan
The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan) is a 12 year strategy designed to coordinate the efforts of governments at all levels, and the non-government sector, to ‘make a significant and sustained reduction in violence against women and their children’. The National Plan was developed in partnership with all states and territories and released by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in February 2011. The Plan seeks to improve the effectiveness of government action by providing a national ‘overarching mechanism’ for coordination of programs, campaigns and service provision in the areas of family violence and sexual violence.
Domestic and family violence is a ‘wicked problem’ made more complex because services and initiatives designed to respond to the problem are largely coordinated by state and territory governments, and there has traditionally been no consistent approach across the jurisdictions. Responsibility for matters to do with domestic and family violence are summarised in Table 1.1.
The National Plan was designed to facilitate greater coordination across jurisdictions, and to promote a national approach, based on evidence and best-practice. The development of the National Plan was informed by a strong focus on prevention, ‘changing negative community attitudes, including among young people’, and building awareness in the community around the causes of violence against women. The Plan included four three-year Action Plans, with more than $200 million of funding implemented for initiatives under the First and Second Action Plans. This funding:
built national infrastructure including 1800 RESPECT and DV-alert;
funded research, including the Personal Safety Survey, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS), and funded Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS);
funded communication strategies, including ‘Our Watch’;
developed primary prevention initiatives; and
identified ‘better ways to respond to perpetrators’.
Table 1.1: Responsibility for domestic and family violence services and initiatives
Family law support services
legal aid commissions
Crisis services (shelters, etc)
recent Commonwealth investments, including for men’s support workers
Crisis payments and social security
Justice and policing
Primary prevention programs
most have local programs
Training and upskilling frontline workers
primary responsibility and investment
National support services
(eg: 1800 RESPECT)
local collection and initiatives
Research and data
local collection and initiatives
primary responsibility for national collection
Source: Auditor-General, Performance Audit Report No.45 2018–19: Coordination and Targeting of Domestic Violence Funding and Actions, June 2019, pp. 18-19.
In the 2016-17 Budget, the Australian government invested an additional $100 million, on top of the existing funding of around $25 million per year, to implement the Third National Action Plan.
As at June 2019, total expenditure by the Commonwealth on components of the National Plan was at a record high of around $723 million. This includes $328 million announced in March 2019 for the Fourth Action Plan. $101.2 million was also announced in 2015 for the Women’s Safety Package, administered through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Fourth Action Plan
Published in October 2019, the Fourth Action Plan lays out ‘an ambitious but practical agenda to achieve change’. The Fourth (and final) Action Plan seeks to improve existing initiatives, address gaps in previous action plans, and provide ‘a platform for future policy to reduce domestic, family and sexual violence’.
The Fourth Action Plan includes 20 practical actions across five priority areas. According to the Plan, the next step is for Commonwealth, state and territory governments to develop a national implementation plan to ‘outline how governments will deliver actions and measure their impact to address the national priority areas’.
The National Implementation Plan for the Fourth Action Plan was developed in late 2019. It outlines the initiatives that Commonwealth, state and territory governments will deliver, and provides information on funding, milestones, and intended outcomes.
COAG Women’s Safety Council
On 13 March 2020, COAG established the Women’s Safety Council, ‘elevating the status of the existing Women’s Safety Ministers forum’. Secretariat support for the Council is provided by the Office for Women in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Council is co-chaired by Senator the Hon Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, and Senator the Hon Anne Ruston, Minister for Families and Social Services.
The Council will include other COAG councils in policy discussions ‘where appropriate’, and aims to provide a forum for member states to coordinate the following:
Implementation of actions under the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan) to prevent violence before it starts and provide support to women and their children.
Development and implementation of the next National Plan, following the expiry of the current National Plan in 2022.
Consideration of other actions to reduce violence against women and their children.
Is the National Plan working?
The 2017–18 Annual Progress Report of the Third Action Plan, published in 2019, looks at the impacts of the National Plan on reducing violence against women and their children. The report includes analysis of the nature and extent of violence against women between 2005 and 2016, based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey and the NCAS.
The results 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 (see Figure 1.1).
The report reveals that the ‘[p]revalence of intimate partner violence against women since the age of 15 years is unacceptably high, with one in four women having experienced it since the age of 15 years’.
It is important to note, however, that while the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence does not appear to have decreased, reporting and help-seeking have significantly increased, suggesting:
The quality and availability of support services is increasing, as is women’s trust in them.
Community awareness of violence against women and their children is growing.
The stigma associated with being a victim and seeking help is decreasing.
Figure 1.1: Proportion of women who experienced physical, sexual, and partner violence, during the last 12 months, changes over time, Australia
Source: 2017–18 Annual Progress Report of the Third Action Plan 2016–2019 of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022, 2019, p. 12. Data from the 2016 Personal Safety Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The 2017 NCAS identified progress in some areas:
Most Australians do not endorse violence against women.
Most Australians support gender equality and are more likely to support gender equality in 2017 than they were in 2013 and 2009.
Australians are more likely to understand that violence against women involves more than just physical violence in 2017 than they were in 2013 and 2009.
Australians are less likely to hold attitudes that support violence against women in 2017 than they were in 2013 and 2009.
Young people aged 16–24 years have a good understanding of the issues.
If confronted by a male friend verbally abusing his female partner, most Australians say they would:
be bothered (98 per cent)
feel they would have the support of all or most of their friends if they did act (69 per cent).
However, the 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.
COVID-19 and domestic and family violence
The social isolation measures and job losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have led to serious concerns about a likely increase in domestic and family violence.
The COAG Women’s Safety Council discussed the issue at its meeting on 30 March and 2 April 2020. In the resulting Communique, the Council explained:
While the COVID-19 outbreak is having a major impact on all Australians, measures in place to restrict the spread of COVID-19 are expected to increase the risk of violence against women and their children. In particular, quarantine and self-isolation measures may further exacerbate the risk for women and children in their homes with a perpetrator of violence. The Council also recognised that women may face increasing risks of abuse when they are online and that other external stressors are likely to act as a compounding factor, including health and economic concerns.
The Council acknowledged that the impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affect many women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, women on temporary or other visas, women with disability and women living in regional and remote areas. The violence and barriers to accessing support experienced by these women may be exacerbated by COVID-19 responses, including travel restrictions, social-isolation, and limits to family and cultural connectedness. The Council also recognised children will be impacted by COVID-19 and face increased risks of violence, neglect, online abuse and social-isolation. This will require responses that are age-appropriate, child-centred and tailored to their specific needs and stages of development.
The Council also discussed the ‘growing demand for services and increased complexity in cases’ in response to COVID-19, and the need for service providers to transition to online or telephone based services, saying: ‘This poses further challenges to managing the safety and privacy of people seeking support.’
In response, the Commonwealth government has pledged an emergency investment of $150 million ‘to bolster family and domestic violence supports given the expected increase in violence against women as a result of living changes forced by COVID-19’. The funding is designed to ‘help ensure services can continue to support those who need it most over the next six months’.
In the short term, the government is providing $32.5 million to states and territories ‘to help meet urgent needs’. Each state and territory will direct this funding as it sees fit, investing in areas such as:
safer housing and emergency accommodation, counselling and outreach, crisis support and helplines;
men’s behaviour change programs and other perpetrator interventions;
assisting frontline services to manage the demand and explore new technology-based service delivery methods; and
responding to the unique challenges in regional, rural and remote locations.
As at 30 April 2020, $27.8 million of this funding was ‘in the process of being distributed to the states and territories to meet immediate demand’. This funding will be used to address immediate needs, such as accommodation, counselling and essential household items.
In addition, the Council committed to working through the Commonwealth government to deliver a national information campaign which will provide information on support services, and encourage Australians experiencing violence to ‘reach out for help’.
Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on 30 April 2020, Ms Liz Hefren-Webb from the Department of Social Services, explained that the campaign will ‘roll out’ from 4 May 2020, and is budgeted to cost $15 million. The campaign will incorporate television advertisements, advertisements in shopping centres, online and social media content.
An additional $20 million has also been provided to boost existing programs under the National Plan, including 1800RESPECT, Mensline, and the ‘Keeping Women Safe at Home’ program.
While it is too early to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the prevalence and severity of domestic and family violence, the department reported that:
some jurisdictions had reported an increase in demand for services;
some jurisdictions had reported a decrease; and
there had been a ‘small but significant’ increase in phone calls to 1800RESPECT, and a larger increase in online contacts.
Ms Hefren-Webb added:
We think that potentially some people who are experiencing domestic violence aren’t feeling free to make a phone call in the way that they might be in normal times, so they’re finding other means to reach out. I think this is something that, over the longer term, the patterns will become more clear.
The COAG Women’s Safety Council is meeting at regular intervals throughout the pandemic, and will monitor the impact of COVID-19 on domestic and family violence, allocating a further $97.5 million over the next six months ‘to where it is most needed’.
COVID-19 and parenting disputes
Restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have also impacted upon parenting arrangements, with the closure of borders causing particular problems. Media reports indicate there has been ‘a 39 per cent increase in urgent applications filed in the Family Court, and a 23 per cent increase in the Federal Circuit Court over the past month’. Courts have recognised a need to ‘fast-track’ matters where social restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 may increase the risk of family violence.
The Chief Justice of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court released a new practice direction on 28 April 2020 which creates an ‘urgent list’ dedicated to parenting matters impacted by COVID-19. Matters eligible for inclusion on the list can be heard within three days of filing an application if all criteria are met.