Listening to and showing respect to the experts – in particular the people who work on the frontline – is crucial in the fight against domestic violence, writes Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW.

In a remarkable backflip, the Law Council of Australia came out in The Guardian this week calling for the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System to be discontinued on the basis that it “is being used for political purposes to undermine domestic violence claims made by women”.

They have referred to comments made by Senator Pauline Hanson at the Inquiry which paints women as “liars”, in addition to commentary by her supporters on her Facebook page where domestic violence workers and survivors have been labelled derogatory terms such “bitch”, “man-hater” and “dirty snake”.

The Law Council notes that the Inquiry is “putting vulnerable families at further risk by inciting hatred and excusing domestic violence”.

Indeed. Wind back six months and weren’t these the exact same concerns being raised by Australia’s national advisory body on women’s safety, the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), with the backing of over 100 domestic and family violence organisations across the Country?

In fact, not only had we tried to prevent the Inquiry from being established, but after obtaining the support of the Greens and Labor, we nearly had crossbench support for a Senate Motion to have it abandoned until the Law Council of Australia came out with a public position against ours, and in support of the Inquiry.

At the time we had said in no uncertain terms that the Inquiry was both “unnecessary” and “dangerous”. We said that we knew what was needed to improve the family law system – we had already had a thorough review into it by the Australian Law Reform Commission, and that the decision to further delay implementing the reforms when we knew so many women and children were being placed in harm’s way was “unconscionable.”

We noted that the manner in which the Inquiry had been set up, and the composition and expressed positions of those leading it meant that “many victims-survivors [did]not feel safe to participate.”

We said that we were “extremely concerned” that any victim-survivors who did wish to ensure their experiences were considered by the process would be unable to do so safely.

One Nation senator Pauline Hanson.

Finally, we noted that the Inquiry itself would place additional resource demands on already overstretched women and children’s safety organisations responding to “unprecedented levels of demand for safety support” and that for those who chose to participate it would mean a worrying diversion of precious resources from the frontline.

It was in the face of these concerns then, that the Law Council of Australia came out in support of the Inquiry, and women and children’s safety experts and domestic violence advocacy bodies were left ignored by the Government. Completely dismissed. And now we have the Inquiry.

This total disregard for the advice of women and children’s safety experts is an increasingly serious problem, and the very reason for my figuratively penning this piece.

We have a very real social problem of men’s violence against women and children in this Country. You might be sick of the statistics – one in four women experiencing violence, one in six girls and one in nine boys being sexually abused, but these are real people. They’re the people we’re supporting every day, assisting them in increasing their safety and picking up their shattered lives to rebuild again.

In NSW alone last year, our member services supported over 51,000 women with 45,000 children last year – and they’re only the ones who called the police.

Who then is best placed to advise governments on tackling this scourge? Is it policymakers and agency heads in ivory towers, or the representatives of the frontline workers who are working with diverse families dealing with domestic and family violence on the ground, in support services, legal services, court advocacy, police, health, and behaviour change services right across the Country? At the moment, these representatives who hold expert knowledge, experience and expertise on how to best prevent and respond to this social problem are being ignored.

This brings me to the Law Council of Australia and their newfound position in calling for the Family Law Inquiry to be discontinued.

We support these calls. They are consistent with our own. However, what would be really welcome is if the Law Council came out and acknowledged that what is happening right now through the Inquiry is precisely what AWAVA and every women and children’s safety agency in the Country had warned would happen.

We said the Inquiry was politically motivated. We said it would be used as “a platform to dismiss and blame victims and peddle misinformation”. We said that survivors would be “retraumatised” and made “feel unsafe”. Low and behold, all of these concerns are now being borne out.

Why does it matter? Isn’t it just great that the Law Council have now come on board with a position that is in line with that of AWAVA and all the other women and children’s safety agencies? Let’s just get on with it, some might say.

(IMAGE: Max Chalmers, New Matilda).

The issue is, that there is an ongoing pattern by governments of ignoring, dismissing and disregarding the views and expertise of women and children’s safety experts in this Country, most of whom happen to be women.

This ongoing pattern of behaviour reinforces a culture of inequality and disrespect. It also results in less action and less accountability in addressing our nation’s problem of violence against women and children.

Indeed, the Federal Government’s failure to even acknowledge the advice of women’s safety experts, as we saw last week with the much-anticipated Council of Australian Governments meeting, has become an accepted state of affairs and barely raises an eyebrow in some quarters anymore. And they still haven’t come to us to ask our advice on how to respond to the emerging risk and safety needs of women and children trapped at home in violent and abusive situations throughout this Coronavirus crisis.

The actions of the Law Council of Australia in disregarding the concerns of the women and children’s safety sector and then backflipping without any acknowledgment of the harm caused in ignoring us in the first place are of the very kind which reinforce this culture of inequality and disrespect. It is this kind of action which needs to change.

A former Prime Minister of ours once said “disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women”. I would offer that if we genuinely want to tackle our nation’s problem of violence against women and children in this country, then we need to start by addressing the culture of inequality and disrespect in our dealings with women and children’s safety experts. For without this, we haven’t got a hope in hell.

About the organisation

Women’s Safety NSW is a peak body for women’s domestic and family violence specialist services providing the primary response to women and their children impacted by domestic and family violence across NSW. Member services supported 51,383 women across NSW last year across its Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services (WDVCASs), Safer Pathway and Family Advocacy Support Service (FASS) programs in the Family Court. Women’s Safety NSW advocates on the systemic issues impacting upon women and children who have experienced domestic and family violence through legislative, policy and practice reform.

Women’s Safety NSW is on the Policy Advisory Committee to the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.