Speech to the National Council of Women Australia Triennial Conference
8.20am | October 22, 2018
SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER
SENATOR FOR NSW
NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR AUSTRALIAN WOMEN – TRIENNIAL CONFERENCE
Friday, 19 October 2018
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I’d like to start by acknowledging we meet on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Thanks for inviting me to speak to you all today. I acknowledge the significant contribution of the National Council of Women, Australia in promoting issues important to the lives of Australian women, since its establishment in 1931.
I suspect May Moss, your first President, would be delighted to know that Labor’s parliamentary team will shortly reach fifty per cent. She may be less pleased to know that some concerns for personal safety and economic security of women and children remain an issue.
Almost 90 years later, there is still significant work to be done to achieve equality.
But I feel very optimistic about our opportunity. I think the times suit us.
I am born in 1973.
And at no point in my lifetime have I seen an equivalent “Feminist Moment” as we are experiencing right now.
The scale and prominence of the poor treatment of women has suddenly become visible. The stories of abuse, domestic violence, and discrimination towards women at an economic and individual level are frightening and upsetting.
Women are calling out for change. Wanting acknowledgment of their individual rights. And dignity at home and work.
I’d observe that in politics – moments come and go. And the challenge for leaders, in the community and the parliament, is to seize these moments when change is possible, and make sure meaningful policy responses are developed and legislated before this moment passes.
Because when it comes to social change, government isn’t everything, but it is very important.
I think about the reforming energy of the Whitlam Government -equal pay, the removal of restriction on oral contraceptives, no fault divorce, and the single mothers benefit.
I think about the methodical, comprehensive women’s reform agenda of the Hawke/Keating Government – with formidable women like Susan Ryan putting these issues on the national agenda. They implementied the Sex Discrimination Act, established the first Sex Discrimination Commissioner and changes to child care.
And in my adult life, the Rudd/Gillard Government delivered on Paid Parental Leave, oversaw landmark equal pay changes for social and community service workers and further strengthened childcare.
I hope we will be able to form a government after the next election.
And if we do, my generation of Labor women will have an extraordinary opportunity to respond to the community’s desire for change.
First among our priorities will be developing a serious response to the crisis of domestic and family violence.
We need a comprehensive strategy that reaches into every corner of our community to prevent violence, and to support those escaping violence.
In 2010, Labor initiated the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2010-22). This report has been central to addressing domestic violence.
From Opposition, we’ve been committed to making this plan work. If we form Government, we’ll be committed to driving it forward.
My instinct is that our response to violence needs to be comprehensive. It needs to use all the levers at Government’s disposal, and pull them all at the same time.
When we think in the broadest sense about the policy levers available to a government – different people use different analyses - but essentially there are five:
- Government’s convening power
- Data, research and information, and Public education
- Economic levers that shape the market
- Social policy levers
- Legal and regulatory levers
So lets start with the convening power.
This is critical. This problem cannot be solved without a serious, sustained co-ordinated response, across state, federal and local government, and businesses, across the community.
The National Plan provides a framework for this co-ordination – bringing Government’s together and funding and creating new institutions like Our Watch which bring civil society partners together also.
Decision makers must be armed with data and information
The decision to establish the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety has been so important. ANROWS is producing critical data about the prevalence of domestic violence, and the effectiveness of interventions.
They are doing a fantastic job. And they complement a fantastic group of researchers working within our research institutions.
Their work informs our approach to education and changing community attitudes
The culture that allows for violence to persist must be changed.
The strongest predictors of violence supportive attitudes come from those opposed to gender equality - and supportive of traditional gender stereotypes.
Addressing this by offering education programs that support healthy relationships, will teach our children to call out violence, in particular violence against women.
We should set new community expectations about our shared responsibility to respond to violence when we see it.
And we need to see that education linked to practical and meaningful options to support victims.
The Andrews Government in Victoria has combined a service focussed strategy with large scale advertising - targeting the behaviour that leads to violence and supporting those affected by it.
Tackling culture alone is not enough.
The economic system in place needs to support women as well.
We can’t create a neat separation between economic inequality and violence.
Economic independence is key to giving women genuine choices, including choices about the relationships they form, and the relationships they leave.
This is the issue I’ve spent most time on since entering the parliament.
The first thing I did upon entering the Senate was initiate an inquiry into the Economic Security of Women in Retirement.
I followed up with further committee work looking for the big levers to close the gender pay gap.
I’m very proud that Bill and Tanya have announced concrete responses to this work, and the work of so many other Labor women within our caucus on these same issues:
- paying superannuation on Paid Parental Leave so that women are not disadvantaged when taking time out of the workforce.
- scrapping the $450 minimum monthly income threshold for eligibility for the superannuation guarantee as it disadvantages those working part-time, casually and across multiple, low-paying jobs – the majority of who are women.
- Taking measureable action on the pay gap and updating Parliament each year on Australia’s progress. Its not enough to measure the pay gap – we need to close it.
I know my friend Sharon Claydon will talk more about these measures later today.
But I do want to touch upon an important commitment for workplaces. Labor has announced its support for legislating 10 days domestic violence leave in the National Employment Scheme.
This will provide practical financial assistance and job security to women in their most vulnerable moments.
These economic interventions alone won’t be enough in isolation.
Women will continue to face violence for the foreseeable future, and our social policy responses will need to scale up to respond.
Housing is a key area of need. And increasingly it’s an issue for women, particularly older women.
When I was undertaking the Senate inquiry into Economic Security of Women in Retirement, I heard from many women who had experienced financial hardship. Their stories were heartbreaking.
One story we heard was of an older woman who would sacrifice food in order to maintain access to power, although, that strategy would rarely be sufficient.
Older single women have emerged as the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness.
Often these are women who have never experienced homelessness.
And many women are retiring single and in poverty, driven by the unpaid nature of caring for children and others throughout their lives.
Housing is fundamentally an older women’s most basic need.
Precarious housing can lead to exacerbated health concerns - especially for aging women who experience increased health issues.
We’ve taken bold steps to announce tax policies to increase housing supply, and reduce the investor pressure which has added so much cost to the market.
But for some women, home ownership is a distant dream. For these women providing options for housing must be a priority.
Labor has announced $88 million for a new Safe Housing Fund to increase transitional housing options for women and children who escape domestic violence and older women on low incomes in risk of homelessness.
This initiative will provide a supportive environment to reduce the risk of homelessness for women in retirement.
Legal and social framework
To finish, I briefly want to touch on the importance of having a supportive legal framework for those affected by violence.
Recently, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) released its interim report on the family law system.
Its an impressive body of work, built on significant consultation with many stakeholders. They are now seeking feedback on draft recommendations.
They make a range of recommendations that go to the responsiveness of the family court to domestic violence and family violence.
For example, they argue that family courts should establish a specialist list for hearing of high risk family violence matters. This would include a lead judge with specialist family violence knowledge and experience.
The report also made proposals to strengthen the rights of children by suggesting that children be given the opportunity to express their view about family arrangements.
It suggest that improvements can be made around the suitability and safety of courts for family law matters by requiring specialist training to staff, compulsory professional development requirements for legal practitioners in family violence training and adding private interview facilities to family court premises.
These ideas have merit and should be considered seriously.
Earlier this year the Government announced its plan to combine the Family and Federal court circuits.
The Family Court has always stood as a unique and important component of the legal framework that surrounds family and domestic violence matters.
Labor considers any decision about the court ought not be rushed, and that the ALRC process ought to be allowed to run its course.
Why wouldn’t we wait to address these issues once we have considered the report in full?
The task ahead is no easy one. But we are living in a “moment” where we can make a real change that will support those affected by violence and end its prevalence throughout our community.