Address to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Conference - 6 MAR 2022

10.09am | March 07, 2022




Good morning.

I join you from Wangal land, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person today. But I am delighted to join you via video message and contribute to this important discussion.

Doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals have a powerful role to play in responding to family violence.

Women experiencing violence frequently interact with the health system. And when practitioners are enlivened to the possibility of violence, they have a significant opportunity to help.

I’m so pleased to know so many of you are meeting together for this very purpose.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some excellent examples where the health system actively turns its gaze towards violence. In hospitals, GP networks, aboriginal community controlled services and paediatric services -  a systemic approach to identifying and responding to risks of violence can make an enormous impact.

The challenge – as always – is scaling and extending these responses.

So, I’m very pleased this conversation is taking place, and I look forward to hearing more about the outcomes of this event.

One of the great privileges of my role is that victim-survivors often share their stories with me.

One survivor, Jane Matts, who some of you might know, told me of her experience of violence and the impact of trauma on her and her children.

She has given me permission to share some of her reflections. These are her words:

For years I experienced physical and emotional violence. I was controlled, minimised and demonised by my ex-partner. One night, he held a knife to my throat. In the end, I forgot that I was of any value.

When I left, I found myself begging help. Begging for legal assistance, begging for counselling, facing homelessness. There were little bits of services here and there but never anything that was all together. It was all very piecemeal.

I had to deal with doctors, schools, courts, housing, finances, get a job, pay the bills, support traumatised children and deal with my own trauma. It was almost impossible.   

For me, the impact of trauma was that it was hard for me to keep going at times. It was just difficult to think. I would be triggered by sounds, smells, and voice tone. My children were traumatised, distressed and in pain. I was unable to remember, I would forget what I was doing. I was unable to write sentences and I was tired all of the time.

I felt that my abuse was perpetuated by a system that failed us.

As a legislator, that’s hard to listen to. I imagine as health professionals its hard for you too.

Our public conversation about violence - perhaps understandably - tends to focus on crisis and crisis response.

This has been important, but it’s time to do more.

We need to build on what we have learnt about the nature of violence and extend the focus to prevention, early intervention, and recovery.

This is the only way to disrupt the cycle of violence.

Labor is not a recent convert to the need to address the reality of domestic and family violence.

In 2007, when Labor last came into government, we were determined to tackle the epidemic of violence against women and children.

We created the first Nation Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

We established a national hotline – 1800RESPECT, a violence prevention body, Our Watch, and the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS).

These years represented one of the most productive and progressive periods for women’s safety policy.

It is deeply unfortunate that this enthusiasm and progress did not survive the 2013 change of government.

As many of you will know, the current National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children is up for renewal.

The National Plan is a framework with immense potential. It can shape changes to the complex web of laws, policing, social services, health services, education and prevention that underwrite our ability to prevent domestic violence and support victims. It runs for ten years.  It binds all the states, territories and the commonwealth, so there is a lot at stake.

Much has changed since the first National Plan.

We’ve never been in a better position to demand a more ambitious response.

We know much more about the actions and mentality of perpetrators, about how abuse manifests, about the psycho-social consequences on victims and children and about the short- and long-term physical harm.

A network of survivors and advocates have worked incredibly hard to educate Australians. And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made it abundantly clear that services will be most successful when they are designed and delivered by First Nations people.

However, I think one critical element is missing.

A national plan, without national leadership, will struggle to achieve national progress.

A critical question is this: Does the current Government possess the ambition, creativity and urgency required to deliver a sustained effort required to tackle this problem?

Regrettably – the last nine years suggest they do not.

I’ll finish by returning to the significance of health -  as a system of knowledge and as a service system.

For women like Jane, the impact of domestic violence continues long after the violence has ended.

There is a critical need for women to have the support they require to rebuild their lives.

This means not just support in the short-term aftermath of a violent incident, but the long-term support that is necessary if they are to regain a sense of self-worth, independence, and financial security.

Every day it is clearer and clearer that too many women are left to deal with this trauma alone. This cannot continue.

My hope is that over the coming years, Australian women and children are provided with much broader access to trauma support.

I hope to be a member of an Albanese Labor Government, ready to work with you to ensure we do everything possible to prevent violence and ensure that women and children experiencing it have the ongoing care they need to have safe, happy, and fulfilling lives.