12.26pm | November 29, 2021


 SUBJECTS: Women’s safety; Labor’s announcement for a Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner; Labor’s announcement for 500 new community sector workers; culture in Parliament House.  
VOICEOVER: From the conversation this is politics with Michelle Grattan, a podcast where we hear from politicians and experts on the issues of the day.
MICHELLE GRATTAN, HOST: Jenny McAllister is Labor's spokeswoman for Communities and the Prevention of Family Violence. The Opposition has today announced that a Labor government would appoint a Family Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner and would also fund 500 new community sector workers to help women at risk or in crisis.  In Australia, one woman is murdered on average a week by their current or former partner and domestic violence is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in this country. Yet, the issue seems one that has been so difficult for governments to get on top of. Jenny McAllister joins us today to talk about Labor's policy and the question more generally. Jenny McAllister, can you explain firstly, what the new Commissioner that you're proposing, would do? Where would the position be located in the bureaucracy?
SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNITIES AND THE PREVENTION OF FAMILY VIOLENCE:  One of the really noticeable things over the last few years while I've had this portfolio responsibility is how difficult it is to get any accurate information about how implementation of the national plan to reduce violence against women and children is going. There isn't any single source of truth. What's needed is some measure of accountability. A Commissioner would be responsible, first and foremost, for tracking progress against the plan and providing a report annually to the public and to the Parliament. I think the Commissioner also could have a role in working with the states and territories to make sure that we're collecting the data that we need to make the investments that will make the most difference. That really does require a national approach and it's intimately connected to tailoring and refining the plan activities so that we are starting to make a difference on the scourge of domestic violence.
GRATTAN: And where would that person be located in the bureaucracy?
MCALLISTER: We see it as sitting within the Government. So, within the core parts of government not for example, in the Human Rights Commission or something like that. I think the most important thing is that wherever it sits within Government, it's able to reach into the various parts of the Commonwealth Public Service that have the potential to help victims of domestic violence. The Commonwealth actually controls a lot of big levers, and to date, I haven't seen much energy or interest in using those levers to help.  But Medicare, Department of Social Services, Department of Immigration, Home Affairs, as it's now called – all of these tools, potentially could help victim survivors. My actual concern is that a lot of the time, a lack of attention means they are sometimes actually further harming victim survivors instead of helping. So the Commissioner could also play a role in making sure that all of the Commonwealth agencies that offer a frontline service are actually helping rather than hurting.
GRATTAN: Now by chance or design, the Government has simultaneously announced that it'll spend some 22 million to set up a Domestic Family and Sexual Violence Commission to address violence against women. Is this too much overlap? Or would your Commissioner be part of this? How would all that work?
MCALLISTER: Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. This announcement from the Government was made public some hours after Labor provided details of our announcement to media outlets here in the building.
GRATTAN: Yes quite late at night, I might add.
MCALLISTER: Quite late at night from the Government's perspective, certainly. Both of the proposals respond to a recommendation that was made back in March by the House Inquiry into Family Domestic and Sexual Violence. The Government has had eight months to do this, had they wanted to. It's quite perplexing that they would wait till late at night after a Labor announcement to make the announcement themselves. And it really is indicative, I think, of a Government that is always playing catch up on this when the public really expects them to lead.
GRATTAN: So if Labor was elected next year, and this Government initiative was in place, how would that affect your proposal?
MCALLISTER: They look very similar. We'll take a look at the detail of the Government's proposal. We've seen the press release, but they are essentially responding to the same recommendation based on the same body of evidence that was put towards to the House Committee and reported on earlier this year.
GRATTAN: So also, the announcement that Labor has made includes funding for 500 community workers in this area, can you tell us what they would be doing? What gaps they would fill?
MCALLISTER: I visited a service last week in Western Sydney that said that over the last year, they'd helped around 1,200 women who were seeking their assistance to escape violence. But they turned away 1,100 because they didn't have the workers to support them. Every service that you speak to tells us a roughly similar story, around 50% of women being turned away. And all of them say that they could do so much more with an extra pair of hands. It's on that basis that we are seeking to put money into frontline services to create positions for workers who could do case work to stand beside a woman when she's leaving violence. These workers don't necessarily need to be in specialist domestic violence services. There are lots of other community organisations that offer general services that interface with victims of domestic, sexual and family violence. These workers could provide a link. So you might, for example, have a children's worker, a dedicated children's worker, who has the time to sit down with a child who's been exposed to domestic violence, and help them work through the trauma that they've experienced. It also tackles a training and workforce problem. Lots of services also report that there's a lack of skilled workers to fill positions, even when they're available. Half of these positions would be funded to allow training to also occur. It would provide an opportunity for a person who wants to enter the community services workforce to have a secure job while they're undertaking study and training to qualify.
GRATTAN: One of the hardest things to understand, I think, in this whole area, is that despite the increased attention on it in the last few years, despite Governments putting in a lot of money to the area, we don't really seem to be getting on top of the problem. Why do you think that is? Do you think that there are more pressures in society that are contributing to this sort of violence or that it's not being tackled at the root causes? What's the story here?
MCALLISTER: I don't underestimate how complex and challenging it will be to produce sustained reduction in rates of violence. Certainly, when the plan was first put in place, we expected that an increased public conversation about violence would also produce an increased level of reporting and an increased number of victims reaching out for assistance and support. I will say, though, that there has been a puzzling lack of interest or energy around this policy area at a federal level in the time that I've been in the Parliament. When Labor put the first National Plan in place, it was done because we knew that there needed to be Commonwealth leadership to make a difference. We needed to use the Commonwealth resources and combine that with the resources of the states and territories to really have a sustained push over time. That energy really didn't survive the change of Government, and your listeners will remember that Tony Abbott appointed himself as the Minister for Women. And really, I think that was the beginning of the end in terms of a creative and thoughtful approach to women's safety policy. I believe that we really actually need a change of Government to restore that momentum and energy that was there at the beginning of this plan process, if we really want to see a sustained change.
GRATTAN: But is it also saying something about the society because this problem is not just something that can be addressed by Governments? Is it something that really goes to deeper society questions and other institutions are stakeholders as well?
MCALLISTER: That is absolutely correct. Part of the first plan process was to set up the institutions that would engage civil society. I'm thinking particularly about Our Watch, which is the primary prevention agency. Its job was to set out a framework that we could use to actually stop violence before it begins, and to work with other institutions like sporting clubs or businesses or schools to deliver those prevention programs. Again, that was the Labor vision. I don't think it's been fully realised under this Government. It's going to take a lot of energy and effort if we are fortunate enough to form a Government next year to reinvigorate the momentum and the vision of that first plan.
GRATTAN: Do you think we get an adequate response from law enforcement agencies? Do you think that they are quick enough on the job when the reports arrive?
MCALLISTER: Police say they receive a call to a domestic violence incident every two minutes. It is a huge part of the police workload. I think that police services have invested quite a lot of time and thinking about how to better respond, and we've got some really good examples around the country of police collaborating with women's safety services. There is always more that we can do. But my actual instinct is that we probably need to be thinking about some of the institutions other than the police that can intervene earlier. Hospitals, schools, all of the institutions that work with families have opportunities to see and respond to some of the early signs of violence. If they know what they're looking for, they know where they can refer people to, and if the places that are there to support people experiencing violence are properly resourced. My instinct is that real change will come when we're working much earlier in the system on prevention and early intervention.
GRATTAN: Let's turn to behaviour and culture in this building of Parliament House where we are today. This culture was especially in the spotlight earlier this year, as it affected women in particular after the allegations by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins of rape. Are you satisfied with the changes that have been made in Parliament House to address women's safety?
MCALLISTER: Labor's call at the time was for an independent inquiry into the culture of Parliament House. We wanted an inquiry that was truly independent and where all of the staff here could get involved and be confident that they would be heard in a respectful way. We were pleased when the Government responded to that. They appointed Commissioner Jenkins to undertake the review and that work is still ongoing. I should say that the people who've spoken to me who participated in that review have reported that they felt respected – that they were listened to, and that the people undertaking those interviews were thoughtful, and they were confident that their confidentiality would be respected. There are outstanding issues though about the way that the Prime Minister's Office has sought to deflect questions about their involvement in responding to these allegations and in responding to the media reports about these allegations. There were a number of areas where instead of providing a response, the Prime Minister instead referred these matters off to Mr. Gaetjens. As we now know, we've never seen any of the results from those investigations undertaken by Mr. Gaetjens.
GRATTAN: Mr. Gaetjens being the head of his department.
MCALLISTER: Yes, being the head of his department. These were things that really could have been sorted out by the Prime Minister himself, he didn't need to refer them off, in my opinion. And my concern is that these have just been delaying tactics in an attempt to avoid confronting the actual cultural problems that may exist in that office.
GRATTAN: When we talk about respect in Parliament House, and I'm not talking about any reference to violence here. But the politicians don't set a very good example, frankly, in terms of respect. Even this week, we've heard all sorts of outpourings that haven't sounded very respectful against each other.
MCALLISTER: I suppose I can only speak for myself, I see and experience a personally respectful environment. But I do think the Australian public is looking for exemplary standards of behaviour here. This has to be a workplace where young women can imagine themselves and my real fear about the last year is that that's not the case. I've had a number of young women say to me “I wouldn't consider a career in politics. I don't think there's a place there for someone like me.” And that's terrible, that can't persist. We have to make this a place where people feel that they can work and that it will be a safe and respectful place where they can make a contribution to Australian public life.
GRATTAN: But there doesn't seem really any way that anyone can improve the behaviour of the politicians to each other and it seems endemically bad.
MCALLISTER: I guess it's up to all of us, isn't it Michelle, to set our own standards.
GRATTAN: Well, certainly the House of Representatives is not good. Now, the Higgins allegations and also the allegations of historical rape against Christian Porter, which he strongly denies, prompted this outpouring of activism by women all over the country earlier this year. Do you think that that feeling has now receded? Or is it still there, even if it's not being talked about so much? And will it have any direct effect at the election?
MCALLISTER: I think there is still an enormous trust deficit between the Prime Minister and Australian women. I think by the time we got to the March 4 Justice, Australian women had had enough. They saw a PM that was unwilling or unable to address very serious allegations about things which had happened in this building. They heard him say that Australian women were lucky not to be shot at when they sought to protest about his Government's shortcomings. I think that has left a very big trust deficit and I don't think that it's receded. In terms of the election, I guess I'm a participant, not a pundit. But my job brings me into contact with a lot of people who are working with vulnerable marginalised women, and they are tearing their hair out. They are really looking for much greater leadership, much greater focus around domestic and family violence. And they don't see that they're going to get it from the current Government.
GRATTAN: Do you think though, in some of the remarks, like the remark about demonstrations, that the Prime Minister is just bad with words?
MCALLISTER: Well, words matter, don't they? And the Prime Minister ...
GRATTAN: Yes, but they can be over interpreted.
MCALLISTER: I think, my sense is that the Prime Minister has struggled to understand the cries – and the increasingly loud cries for Australian women… from Australian women for their issues to be recognised. My sense is that the Prime Minister has failed to understand the cries from Australian women to recognise their circumstances. And I think that's been really obvious in his responses, time and time again. Yes, the comment about women being shot could be interpreted generously. But unfortunately, it forms a pattern. It's part of a pattern of behaviour in the way that he's responded.
GRATTAN: So if you had to sum up just briefly, the issues that concern women generally, what, what would you say?
MCALLISTER: I think women are concerned about pay equity and respect in their workplaces, and dismayed that the Government refused to fully implement the Respect@Work recommendations. I think that Australian women are concerned about the levels of violence and sexual assault, and they don't see a Government that is responding to this with any urgency. And I think more generally, they are looking for a greater level of attention, and acknowledgement of women's interests in public life and public discourse. And they don't see that from a Prime Minister who too frequently dismisses these issues as something that he doesn't need to be concerned about, or which are someone else's responsibility.
GRATTAN: Just to turn to the election, and the general issues to finish up, what sort of messages are you hearing from the electorate? You are a New South Wales Senator, so you obviously move around the state fairly broadly, although maybe you've been restricted during the last few months, have you? But what are people telling you feeding back to you about things in general?
MCALLISTER: So I have been locked down quite a bit for this year. Although with lockdowns lifting in Sydney, I've had the opportunity to move around a little more. I've been to Western Sydney, the Blue Mountains, down to the South Coast, and I'm looking forward to doing a bit more travel too.  One of the main issues that comes up in those regional communities that I'm visiting is the cost of housing. One of the consequences of COVID has been that many people from metropolitan Sydney have relocated to the coastal areas and rural areas of New South Wales. It's seen very substantial rises in both the cost of housing to buy and the cost of housing to rent. And that's having flow on effects for lots of people on quite modest incomes, who live in those communities. It's really acute in the family and domestic violence sector. Because when women leave violence, there really is often nowhere to go. With rental vacancies below 1%, it's very, very difficult to find private rental accommodation for many of these women, even if they would ordinarily have had the income to support it. So housing is a very, very significant issue in the communities that I'm visiting and it flows through to other questions around cost of living.
GRATTAN: And of course, owning your own home is really very important for women, isn't it? Because they can find themselves but when they're older, somewhat adrift or at the beck and call of landlords who might want their property back or who charge a lot or whatever?
MCALLISTER: Yes, you probably know that Australian women are the fastest growing cohort amongst homeless Australians, and it is a consequence of rising costs of housing. Labor has a policy to build 4,000 new affordable homes.
GRATTAN: That's not many.
MCALLISTER: Well, in fact, the policy is to build 30,000, but we would allocate 4,000 of those specifically to women and children leaving violence and older women at risk of homelessness. This is a very significant emerging problem. It's been neglected for a long time, and we intend to tackle it.
GRATTAN: Now, apart from the specific policies that Labor has announced or more likely will announce in the run up to the election, what do you think Labor's strongest broad pitch will be to try and persuade voters to change in the new year?
MCALLISTER: We need to help families get on and that means investing in childcare, stronger Medicare, making sure that the community services that families rely on are there for when they need it. Work needs to be more secure. The cancer of casualisation and insecure work is eating away at the ability of households to plan for the future.
GRATTAN: Although, the Government does point out that the numbers haven’t, or the proportion hasn't actually increased.
MCALLISTER: The experience on the ground is that people can't get mortgages. They can't plan for holidays. They are increasingly constrained by work arrangements that do not give them the financial certainty that they require. For women in particular, who are often juggling caring responsibilities as well. This flexibility, which is too often flexibility for the employer, but not for the staff member is making it very, very difficult. And I guess the third area I'd point to Michelle is a much more robust and resilient economy as we build back from the pandemic. The pandemic exposed a range of challenges for us around supply chain, around sovereign capability. I think the community is looking for a really clear vision about the kind of economy we are going to build for Australia, as we move into the coming decade.
GRATTAN: Some people predict this is going to be a pretty nasty election campaign. Are you worried that we are becoming a more divided society, that we are not able to disagree with respect all round?
MCALLISTER: I think we all have an obligation to protect the best aspects of democratic discourse. And that does mean a capacity to disagree in a civil way. It's why in part Labor has been so clear in condemning those protesters who sought to advocate violence over recent days and weeks. We cannot tolerate the introduction of violence into a democratic society. It is absolutely corrosive, and we've called upon the Prime Minister to unequivocally condemn people who advocate violence or associate themselves with it.
GRATTAN: Jenny McAllister, thank you very much for talking with us today. And that's all from our politics podcast for now. Thank you to my producer Ellen Duffy. We'll be back with another interview soon, but goodbye for now.

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