The Coalition Lacks Respect For The Real Struggle Against Domestic Violence

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OPINION: Despite grand statements, Turnbull’s government has a poor record on supporting the community organisations – and the women – at the frontline of a national crisis, writes Xiaoran Shi.

Earlier this week it was revealed that changes to the operation of 1800 RESPECT, the 24-hour national domestic violence and sexual assault hotline, will jeopardise callers having direct access to experienced trauma counsellors — the core purpose of the service. This restructure follows a broad overhaul of mental health counselling services such as The Butterfly Foundation, and is funded by the $5 million allocated to “expand” the hotline as part of the “Women’s Safety Package” announced by Malcolm Turnbull last year.

Unfortunately, this multi-million dollar injection is not the laudable parliamentary commitment to combatting violence against women it appears to be at first glance. Rather, it is the latest in an exhausting list of decisions handed down by the Liberal government that pays lip service to the campaign against family and sexual violence, while devastating the organisations working to address those very problems in the community.

The Coalition wants to have its cake and eat it too. With the federal election just around the corner, the Turnbull government wants to maintain a memorable rhetorical stance on the “national disgrace” that is the gendered violence “epidemic,” while continuing to marginalise through funding cuts and policy neglect the thousands of women and children living at risk everyday. Despite assuming power just shy of nine months ago, Turnbull has wasted no time in imperilling the future of vital social services and the people who desperately need them.

The recent changes to how 1800 RESPECT will be run exemplify this perfectly. Ignoring repeated calls from leading family violence bodies that funding must go towards hiring more counsellors to mitigate the hotline’s strain in handling 50,000+ calls a year, the government has foregone the expertise of those working in the field and instead instituted reforms that make it more difficult for callers to access trauma specialists directly. With one in five calls already going unanswered, there is no doubt the new barrier will discourage even more women from acquiring the help they need to remove themselves from violent and potentially life-threatening situations.

According to a Fair Agenda petition against the restructure, the assistance women receive upon first disclosure is a primary factor in the success of their recovery. Roughly 10 per cent of calls made to the hotline are for general information, meaning that the vast majority of people are dialling 1800 RESPECT to seek counselling for gendered violence experienced by themselves or someone they know. Thus, a streamlined triage model, as will be implemented from August, where people will have the urgency of their calls assessed and redirected, greatly impacts whether callers choose to pursue help or whether they remain in unsafe circumstances.

Undoubtedly, the government’s justification for introducing the triage function will be to reduce the thousands of calls that currently go unanswered, but this crisis will not be solved by throwing $5 million at reconfiguring the business model of a well-functioning albeit severely underfunded service. What is needed is consultation with service providers and implementation of community-led recommendations. What is needed is increased long-term funding that provides more women with direct access to experienced trauma counsellors. What is needed is a robust and well-connected network of services that can support survivors through every stage of the transition process, from disclosure to recovery.

However, nothing could prove more of a pipedream in this current political landscape. At every opportunity, the Liberal government has failed to present a political platform on domestic and sexual violence that takes into consideration the demands of the women’s services sector or that reflects an understanding of how to effectively deliver support for those at risk.

Reforms to the 1800 RESPECT hotline are merely the tip of the iceberg. Just last week, Minister for Women Michaelia Cash rejected a plea from the Human Rights Commission to moderate the Coalition’s hard-line stance against granting public servants domestic violence leave. Cash attempted to vindicate the move by stating that public service employees can take advantage of already existing benefits such as sick leave if they experience intimate violence.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Cash, experiencing domestic and sexual violence are beyond the realm of experiencing symptoms for your average cold or bout of food poisoning. Being the victim of gendered violence can take not only an extreme physical and psychological toll, but a financial and temporal one too if lengthy legal battles ensue. Therefore, paid leave provisions that specifically address the needs of survivors are crucial for workplaces, and most importantly, for a government committed to ending violence against women.

Nevertheless, that was not the only failure made by the Turnbull government in tackling gendered violence last month. The Federal Budget, released on May 3, drew heavy criticism for its meagre allocation of $100 million over three years to domestic and family violence. This represents the crux of the Liberal government strategy — namely, to announce paltry fiscal solutions that function as little more than empty gestures, especially when compared to the $572 million pledged by the Victorian government to the same cause.

After unceremoniously ousting Abbott, the Turnbull government sought to define its political agenda by centring the fight against gendered violence as a “national priority”. Yet, at every turn, the Coalition has contradicted its own rhetoric by threatening the livelihood of Australia’s social services, particularly those operating at an intersection of domestic and sexual violence.

In fact, of the $100 million family violence package announced as part of this year’s Budget, $30 million was allotted to select legal aid commissions, community legal centres (CLCs) and family relationship centres. Again, this appears to be an act of generosity from the Liberal treasury. That is, if one does not account for the $35 million cuts to CLCs slated to begin next year. The numbers simply do not add up, and lo and behold, the underfunding of free legal services stacks up to be another loss for survivors of gendered violence.

Furthermore, in 2013, the Turnbull government’s NSW counterparts proposed its Going Home Staying Home reforms, which have since resulted in the closure of more than 80 specialist women’s refuges. The state government consolidated numerous women’s only shelters with general homelessness services, and introduced a competitive tendering process that led to 50+ women’s refuges falling into the control of faith-based charities like St Vincent de Paul.

Just as this push to commercialise and generalise the operation of women’s only shelters has had disastrous consequences for women and children, especially of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, seeking refuge from turbulent homes, so too will the restructure of 1800 RESPECT. Not only does such a policy trend aggressively reframe social services as cost-efficient commercial entities, it also deletes the ugly realities of gendered violence from public dialogue, hiding them under the sanitised tabs of “homeless shelter,” “mental health services” and “sick leave”.

Counselling services, refuges, legal aid – there is no stone left unturned when it comes to the Liberals’ comprehensive attack on women’s services. The Coalition has consistently ushered in the promise of sweeping change with one hand while tightening the chokehold on already vulnerable systems with the other.

Violence against women has been co-opted as a political talking point, an electioneering hot topic, a guaranteed vote-scorer, but beneath the surface, it remains a bleeding, untreated wound. One in six women in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a current or former partner. This should be the only figure politicians need to move forward in the fight to end gendered violence.

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Xiaoran Shi

Xiaoran Shi is a reticent law student and a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @XiaoranShi

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