A number of announcements from Federal Government and Opposition last week to coincide with White Ribbon Day have raised hopes of a sea-change in terms of the social attitudes underpinning family violence in this country. In the wake of government-commissioned research showing that attitudes towards domestic violence need to be improved, the Prime Minister has deemed family violence a ‘cultural problem’ requiring leadership not only from governments but also ‘from mums and dads with their little boys’ as well as the leaders of our major corporations.
Driving change from the top down, the Federal Government has announced it will introduce new laws and launch a $30 million domestic violence campaign beginning early next year. Bills to improve the family law system’s response to family violence are to be introduced which are designed to better protect victims of family violence as they proceed through the Family Court system. Courts will be more easily able to strike out unmeritorious applications, notoriously used by perpetrators to further target their victims through the court process. Courts also to be given greater discretion on how long to issue interim parenting orders or intervention orders, and will be enabled to suspend parenting orders indefinitely. Further, a specific new offence will be created to target parents who abduct their children internationally in contravention of court orders. The new laws also include measures to help separating couples resolve financial matters outside of court and strengthen up financial agreements. And to bring the nation’s laws further into line with modernity, an archaic law which implied conjugal rights or obligations to perform marital services, already scrapped in practice after a High Court ruling in 1991, has also been banished from the law books.
Last week also saw the Opposition announce its intention to take the lead on the issue of enshrining paid domestic violence leave in law. A number of major companies already operate their own domestic violence leave programs, but Labor has gone further to say that, if elected, it will legislate five days paid leave for men and women suffering family violence. The Government has responded by saying the idea is ‘absolutely worth considering’.
Elsewhere on White Ribbon Day, discussion was heard around the issue of the possibility of establishing a law similar to Clare’s Law in the UK. Clare’s Law was created as a screening tool after the murder of British woman Clare Wood, who had had no knowledge of her partner’s criminal past. Clare’s Law in the UK allows people to investigate new partners for their criminal history. Australian of the Year and family violence campaigner Rosie Batty says the tool would equally empower vulnerable Australia women to make decisions about their futures. It would allow Australians the right to ask authorities about their partner’s history if they were concerned about their own welfare by making an application to the police to see the criminal record of a potential partner. Rosie Batty herself knows only too well how important such information can potentially be, saying at a White Ribbon day fundraiser:
“I certainly was a victim too of privacy and not being told that Luke’s father was facing charges of child pornography. I mean these are incredibility important pieces of information that help you to understand perhaps the severity of the situation you are in. There were other things I didn’t know Greg [Luke’s father] had done or was doing, involving violence with other people, that would have given me a lot more clarity on perhaps the extreme danger I was in.”
Other measures aimed at fighting the scourge of family violence in Australia were announced last week, including a $200,000 upgrade for the Women’s Legal Service Queensland’s legal helpline. WLSQ provides free legal help to Queensland women and their children who are experiencing domestic violence and need help with complex family law matters. The service has seen a 40 per cent rise in demand in recent times, necessitating extra staff and expanded operating hours, which the increased funding will facilitate. In evaluations, the service had discovered that an astonishing 95 per cent of calls made to its helpline had been forced to go unanswered in the past, and the increased funding is expected to help thousands of women from January next year.
And in terms of helping get to the bottom of the cultural problems identified by the Government’s research as being behind domestic violence, the Greens have initiated a Senate inquiry into the role children’s toys and entertainment play in creating and maintaining gender stereotypes and potentially contributing towards domestic violence. The inquiry will examine the gender messages sent to children through both education and entertainment, and will look at gender inequality more broadly as it relates to domestic and family violence.
The practical measures and planned new laws are hoped to make an impact in the fight against family violence, which saw 78 women murdered across Australia in 2015.