Speech in Parliament on violence against women

2.12pm | September 16, 2015

Domestic violence is once again on the public agenda. I am glad that we are talking about it, but I am saddened that we have to talk about it. I am saddened and horrified by the tragedies that occurred late last week that wrenched our attention, once again, to a problem that is ordinarily in society's peripheral vision. It is something we are aware of but do not look at.

The Counting Dead Women researchers from Destroy the Joint have counted the cost of the epidemic of violence against women. Last week's deaths were the 61st and the 62nd this year. I read through those 62 women's names and their stories. They started on 1 January and they continued like a steady drip—a drip of deaths—over the year. So many of those lives have sunk like stones in the national consciousness, and many of these women earned no more than a few lines on a police blotter. I did consider reading their names in this place to commemorate them but I realised I could not. I could not because I do not think I could make it through the list of names and I could not because, in any event, I do not have enough time on the floor to properly tell each woman's story. That is the very definition of a national emergency, when the list of the dead is too long to commemorate.

 As I was reading through the stories I became increasingly upset about, not only the way that these women were killed, but also the way in which we talk about these deaths. Clementine Ford has recently written about this. She notes how we often talk about violence against women in passive ways. We say: 'Women have lost their lives to domestic violence,' or in a case where the perpetrator takes his own life as well, we hear: 'A man and a woman were shot.' When we do this it makes it sound as though domestic violence is a natural disaster, some immovable force that is beyond our control. It de-emphasises the role that someone has played in the tragedy. These women did not lose their lives, their lives were taken from them and they were killed.

I was delighted to see the coverage that was provided for the Our Watch Awards, which seek to recognise and reward exemplary reporting of violence against women, particularly in reporting that highlights the causes of violence and what we, as a society, can do to stop it before it starts. This initiative forms part of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. I congratulate the winning journalists and researchers in all categories.

The media has so much to contribute both in changing the way we talk about this as well as keeping focus on the issue. The fact that we talk about domestic violence in this way is not the media's fault, it is part of a broader culture which sees male dominance over women as an immutable constant. It can be seen in a whole spectrum of ways in which gender inequality is reinforced. In domestic violence the onus in our conversation so often is on women to avoid men's actions and on women to protect themselves against domestic violence as if it were some sort of natural force like a king tide or gale force winds.

Online, we know that harassment and serious harassment is a real problem for women. Women who are active on Twitter or Facebook often receive horrific threats. We know from many studies that a female username will receive many, many more of these threats than a man or a male-sounding username expressing exactly the same views.

At the other end of the spectrum in the workplace women are told that the reason for the gender pay gap is that they need to be more assertive. Women are told that they need to ask for raises and negotiate harder. Rarely do we ask if it is right or fair that pay increases only go to those who ask for them. Only sometimes do we ask ourselves if it is okay that we have a system that seems to disproportionately reward men over women.

There are important caveats here. There is a huge difference between sexism in the workplace and violence in the home. You cannot equate a woman's death with her being underpaid. Someone who fails to address inequality in our workplace, of course, should not be assumed to be violent. However, there is a common thread. In the home, in the workplace, all across the country, women are hurt in different ways by men who fail to acknowledge that inequality persists and that it is not right. Not all men, not even most men, but by some men, by enough men who count. We urgently need a systematic response which recognises the relationship between gender inequality and domestic and family violence.

In this place, the Committee on Finance and Public Administration has recently taken steps to understand and respond to domestic violence. My friend and colleague, Senator Gallagher, tabled the report from that committee process last week. In Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has worked with former Governor General Dame Quentin Bryce to develop a thorough policy response. Premier Palaszczuk has now asked Dame Quentin Bryce to lead the implementation of those recommendations. In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews has established a royal commission to examine family violence. But, of course, this a not a problem that can be solved by any single state, any single business, any single media organisation or any single individual. We need national leadership, leadership at the Commonwealth level, to bring together a comprehensive response. We need to build on the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

There has been much talk in recent days of bipartisanship and the promise that it offers our country. In March, Bill Shorten offered exactly that on this issue, suggesting a national summit on domestic violence which would bring together all of the stakeholders and all of the people who might play a part in solving this crisis. Labor is ready and willing to work with the government in a bipartisan way to make progress on practical proposals to eliminate family violence. I know that in this place, on all sides of the chamber, there are senators who are passionate advocates of eliminating violence against women. I could not think of a better issue on which the new Prime Minister might offer bipartisan support.