Violence against women in Australia remains a significant problem. Evidence suggests physical violence against women has reduced since the 1990s. However, figures around intimate partner violence have remained largely steady and the ‘trend in sexual assault against women is on a slight upward trajectory’. The prevalence of intimate partner violence against women since the age of 15 years remains unacceptably high, with one in four women having experienced it since the age of 15 years.
The number of women in Australia who have died at the hands of a current or former partner has not reduced significantly since 2010, with between 72 and 105 women killed this way in each year since, and numbers fluctuating rather than reducing.
The committee is concerned about these statistics – as all Australians should be. We are encouraged to see that significant long term investments by governments at the state and territory and national levels have led to greater reporting and help-seeking among women affected by violence. However, with the incidence of sexual violence and intimate partner violence not yet decreasing, it is clear that governments must continue to enhance the response.
The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan) was put in place to try and bring about a lasting reduction in violence against women and their children by better coordinating the efforts of jurisdictions across Australia.
The committee notes that governments have achieved some significant steps, including:
creating a national evidence base for monitoring the prevalence of violence and the beliefs and attitudes of Australians;
embedding and scaling up online and telephone crisis and counselling services (1800RESPECT);
implementing the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme, so that violence prevention orders are recognised across borders;
adding ‘Respectful Relationships’ education to the National Curriculum;
enacting the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2018, which improved the capacity for children’s courts to make relevant orders in child protection matters; and
implementing the National ‘Stop it at the Start’ Campaign, a primary prevention campaign targeting aggressive behaviour and promoting respect for women.
There is early evidence that the primary prevention programs may be having a positive impact on attitudes towards gender equality, with Australians ‘less likely to hold attitudes supportive of violence in 2017 than they were in 2009 and 2013’. However, it remains to be seen if these campaigns will lead to a significant and lasting reduction in violence.
The committee is encouraged to see that a number of the recommendations made by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee in its broad and far reaching 2015 report into responses to domestic and gender-based violence in Australia have since been implemented. However, we note that many recommendations were supported ‘in principle’ only, because responsibility for relevant services sits with the states and territories.
The National Plan was designed to ensure that ‘the buck is not passed’ between states and territories and the Commonwealth when responding to gender-based and domestic and family violence. The committee believes the Plan has improved the coordination of services and policy responses across jurisdictions, and boosted accountability and transparency.
However, analysis of the National Plan has been mixed. The committee notes the criticisms in the Australian National Audit Office’s (ANAO) 2019 report. The committee shares the ANAO’s concerns that existing mechanisms for measuring outcomes were (at least at that point) inadequate, and that an implementation plan should have been developed for the Third Action Plan.
It is critical that the shortcomings identified in the ANAO’s 2019 report are rectified if the National Plan is to be an effective mechanism for reducing violence against women and their children going forward.
Governments have made progress under the Plan, but that progress has been slow. The committee believes that achieving a significant and lasting reduction in the prevalence of violence will require governments to maintain, and even increase, their commitment to the National Plan.
The committee recognises that governments have responded to the ANAO’s recommendations by taking action. The Fourth Action Plan has been accompanied by significant new investment; the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has elevated the Women’s Safety Ministers Forum to become the Women’s Safety Council, on par with other COAG councils; and a detailed Implementation Plan has been created for the Fourth Action Plan.
The committee is satisfied that the Implementation Plan specifies responsibility, and provides accountability, for spending and implementation of initiatives under the Fourth Action Plan. It will be necessary, however, to thoroughly review the implementation of the Fourth Action Plan to ascertain whether the Implementation Plan leads to better outcomes.
Moving forward, governments must focus on building the evidence base and lifting capability in monitoring and evaluation of specific National Plan initiatives, and of the National Plan as a whole.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and associated social isolation measures and economic impacts, have complicated the situation for women and children experiencing or at risk of violence in the home, and created new challenges for service provision.
The committee is encouraged to see that governments have responded quickly. Without waiting for evidence of an increase in violence, governments have responded to the pandemic by investing emergency funding to assist states and territories to respond to the immediate needs of those experiencing or at risk of violence. The Commonwealth government has also quickly rolled out a national campaign to raise awareness of domestic and family violence, and advertise the availability of services and support.
As more data becomes available, and the impacts of the pandemic become clearer, governments will need to ensure the extra funding provided is sufficient. Governments must be willing to increase funding if the data indicate a significant spike in the incidence of violence. Governments will also need to ensure funding is directed to where it is most needed during, and in the aftermath of, the pandemic.
Despite the positive work done by the Commonwealth and state and territory governments under the National Plan, violence against women remains unacceptably high.
The committee believes it is time for governments to reflect on what has been achieved, and the lessons learned, and determine how to build upon the first National Plan with a new, even better plan. We believe this work can and should be done by those with responsibility for developing the new National Plan, in consultation with stakeholders and delivery partners, and in reference to the best international and local evidence.
The committee notes that COAG held the ‘National Summit on Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children’ in 2018, and encourages those developing the new National Plan to make full use of the insights from the Summit.
The committee is confident that governments are taking the issue of domestic and family violence seriously, as evidenced by the creation of the new COAG Women’s Safety Council, and the comprehensive Implementation Plan developed for the Fourth Action Plan.
The committee does not believe another lengthy public inquiry into responses to domestic and family violence is required at this time. Such an inquiry would likely divert attention and resources that are currently focussed on front-line services and primary prevention, and may be of limited benefit.
However, the committee believes there could be merit in a more focussed Senate inquiry into the procurement processes and contracting arrangements associated with 1800RESPECT. If such an inquiry were to be considered, it would be appropriate for it to be referred to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee, which looked into the matter in 2017.
As the Fourth Action Plan rolls out and the National Plan draws closer to its 2022 conclusion, a number of issues remain, or are becoming, pertinent. In looking to the future, the committee suggests the Commonwealth, in partnership with state and territory governments, closely examine whether it is simply a matter of waiting for current efforts to ‘bear fruit’, or if a new approach is needed.
The committee suggests the following questions be considered in the development of the next iteration of the National Plan:
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?
Finally, it is the committee’s view that governments must invest now – before making a new National Plan – in the work required to determine if it is simply a matter of waiting for current efforts to come to fruition, or if a new approach is needed.
Senator the Hon Kim Carr