Victoria Is Taking The Lead On Family Violence. It’s Time For Turnbull To Follow


ANALYSIS: After a harrowing Royal Commission, the Andrews government is doing something unusual – listening to the experts, and fronting the money needed to confront a long ignored social disaster. This is what good government looks like, writes Ben Eltham.

It’s not often in this job that you get an opportunity to write a good news story. But every so often, the chance comes along.

That’s how I felt when perusing the Victorian government’s announcement of a massive new funding injection to address family violence.

Yesterday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that $572 million will be devoted to family violence initiatives across the state of Victoria. The Victorian Labor government is calling it an “urgent” response to the damning findings of the recent Royal Commission into Family Violence, which highlighted glaring deficiencies in the state’s crisis and violence services.

“The Royal Commission told us there were some things that can’t wait, so we are taking urgent action to help save lives,” Andrews said yesterday. “This is just the beginning, we have lots more work to do to build a new system that prevents family violence, protects the vulnerable, and punishes the guilty.”

The quantum of funding announced is unprecedented, and dwarfs any recent commitment by other states or the Commonwealth.

$122 million will go towards protecting children at risk from harm, including family services, counselling, and reforming the child protection system, which the Royal Commission found was overwhelmed by the day-to-day crises of at risk children.

There is also an extra $104 million for special family violence services, “such as crisis support and counselling to cope with unprecedented demand.” $61 million will be spent on attempting to change sexist and misogynistic attitudes in the community, particularly among young people. This will include Victoria’s first gender equality strategy, surely a much-needed initiative. There will be $25 million devoted specifically to family violence in Indigenous communities, where rates of family violence are shockingly high.

Perhaps most importantly, $152 million will be budgeted for what the Andrews government is calling a “housing blitz”, to address the endemic crisis of housing and homelessness among victims of family violence. The government will develop what it is calling “family violence refuges,” fund 130 new social housing homes, and also support victims to find accommodation in the private rental market. This will attempt to address one of the most pernicious aspects of family violence in a society gripped by a housing affordability crisis.

“The lack of safe and affordable housing has rightly been identified as a key challenge of our broken system,” Family Violence Minister Fiona Richardson said.

Family violence campaigners understandably welcomed the announcement, while pointing to the long years of government neglect – both State and Federal – that had allowed the situation to deteriorate.

new matilda, fiona mccormack
Fiona McCormack on Lateline.

“We as a community tend to fund what we prioritise, and historically we haven’t valued this,” Domestic Violence Victoria chief executive Fiona McCormack told The Age. “Our state government have really set the bar for the whole country with their actions. What we’re seeing is not just tokenistic.”

Of course, there wouldn’t need to be this level of response if the problem wasn’t so severe. Now that it has become an endemic crisis, the cost of addressing the vexed issues will be great.

The massive report of the Family Violence Royal Commission makes for sobering reading. An enormous eight volumes in length, it is too long to detail here. Briefly, it describes a broken system in which victims are all too often left to fend for themselves, and in which court orders are no protection against the threats and violent deeds of dangerous partners.

Importantly, the Royal Commission found that the problem is systemic. It is the dismal result of a contemporary society in which the power relationships of men and women are profoundly unequal. As the report states on page two, “there is no doubt that violence against women and children is deeply rooted in power imbalances that are reinforced by gender norms and stereotypes.”

Addressing complex social injustice is not going to be easy – certainly, $572 million will not be enough. Money alone cannot be the answer. Social attitudes must change. Power imbalances and the structural misogyny built into so many aspects of our society must slowly and doggedly be wound back.

But the response of the Andrews’ government to the Family Violence Royal Commission is a rare glimmer of hope in an often depressing area of public policy.

The Andrews government has not played politics with the Royal Commission. Opponents have not been demonised and political grandstanding has been blessedly absent. The government has listened to the experts, and promised to implement the findings of the Royal Commission in full. In the messy world of politics, this is about as good as public policy gets.

The contrast with the federal government of Malcolm Turnbull is stark. While the Prime Minister promised an extra $100 million in September, everyone recognised this as too little and very late. The reality is that funding for social services has been savagely slashed by this Coalition government. Community legal centres, which remain at the front line of family violence, continue to struggle from year to year on tenuous funding. There have been huge cuts to Indigenous services, and cuts to ancillary health programs and to the social safety net. All of these measures make our society more unequal, and disproportionately affect women and children.

Turnbull is currently struggling to find a plan – any plan – with which to stamp his authority on the prime ministership. He could do a lot worse than follow Victoria’s lead and invest heavily in measures to combat family violence.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.