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New Labor minister Amanda Rishworth is under pressure to fix a flawed draft plan to end gendered violence, with the existing framework to expire this week. Experts say real progress is possible but could take years and cost billions. By Kristine Ziwica.

Labor’s urgent work to tackle domestic violence

Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth meets with service providers in Brisbane this month.
Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth meets with service providers in Brisbane this month.
Credit: Facebook

On Monday morning, Amanda Rishworth, the new minister for Social Services, convened an emergency meeting of the 19 members of the National Plan to End Violence Against Women advisory group. Rishworth had good reason for bringing the group together with such urgency – she has an acute challenge in her portfolio, and she needs their help to tackle it.

The previous National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, which was created by Tanya Plibersek when she was the minister for the Status of Women in the Rudd government, comes to an end this coming Thursday, June 30.

This week Rishworth must either finalise a new national plan or find an alternative way forward. Her key challenge is this: she inherited a draft developed by her predecessor, Anne Ruston, that was widely criticised when the Morrison government released it for consultation in January of this year. There’s not much time to set things right.

The context is equally challenging. The previous plan has failed to achieve the single target it set for itself: to see “a significant and sustained reduction in violence against women and children during the next 12 years, from 2010 to 2022”. In that time, rates of domestic violence have been stable and rates of sexual violence have increased.

What’s more, a 2019 auditor-general report into the Department of Social Services’ implementation of the first national plan was scathing of its lack of targets and evaluation, stating, among other things, “The Department of Social Services’ effectiveness in implementing the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 is reduced by a lack of attention to implementation, planning and performance measurement.”

As a result, few people have confidence that the newer plan, as set out in the January draft, will be any more effective in driving down rates of violence against women.

One of the criticisms is that it only indirectly acknowledged the fact the first national plan failed, according to the single measure for success it set itself. The draft was largely a collection of statistics describing the problem with noble sentiments and platitudes, but it was scant on detail. It lacked targets that could be measured and against which the government could be held to account. Finally, it did not stipulate the creation of a dedicated, standalone national plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, for which many have long campaigned.

Following Monday’s emergency meeting, members of the advisory group and other experts in the women’s safety sector told The Saturday Paper they were cautiously optimistic the situation was being rectified and the new minister was committed to seizing an opportunity to further develop the draft national plan, address the criticisms and deliver real change.

At the meeting, they offered Rishworth their frank advice about what needed to happen next to achieve that change. According to multiple sources, Rishworth indicated that while it was her priority to finalise the plan – and she didn’t want to undo the work that had been done to date, including 18 months of consultation – there was an important opportunity to “get it right”.

In a statement provided to The Saturday Paper, Rishworth said, “We now have an opportunity to strengthen aspects of the draft national plan to more acutely address the feedback received. I want to build on the consultation that has taken place, but I also want to make sure the national plan is up to the job of driving actions in all the areas we need to see change and across all the jurisdictions. We need to take the time to get the plan right.”

Renee Hamilton, chief executive of the National Women’s Safety Alliance, was at the emergency meeting. “It’s a critical opportunity and we should seize it with both hands,” she says. “This plan will be in place for 10 years and we need to get it right.”

Hayley Foster, chief executive of Full Stop Australia, was also there: “It would be really foolish to just put in place the national plan now without some further consideration.”

Everyone The Saturday Paper spoke to agreed that the issues highlighted in the draft plan could not be addressed in a matter of weeks and that the Albanese government should put in place interim arrangements and roll over funding agreements to ensure service providers that rely on funding via the current national plan don’t face a “cliff edge” when it expires on June 30. By doing so, they say, the Albanese government can buy a bit more time ahead of the budget in October.

There have been some early signs of goodwill that suggest the Albanese government’s further development of the national plan will proceed very differently from the plan under Scott Morrison.

Several sources tell The Saturday Paper that the April appointment of Catherine Fitzpatrick as the inaugural Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commissioner will be rescinded and a proper appointment process will take place, with Fitzpatrick invited to apply. The Department of Social Services declined to comment on these claims.

Fitzpatrick’s appointment raised eyebrows at the time it was made, due to the lack of an open, transparent, merit-based recruitment process.

“The announcement [in April] that there would be a new Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commissioner was a significant one,” says Annabelle Daniel, the chief executive of Women’s Community Shelters and chair of Domestic Violence NSW.

“Going forward in the spirit of working collaboratively with the women’s sector, government, philanthropy and business, it is important that we can have confidence, not just in the appointee but in the process by which that person is appointed to the role.”

The Saturday Paper has also been told that Rishworth is “considering” a release of the stakeholder consultation report drafted by Monash University, which draws together insights from the more than 500 individuals who contributed over 18 months to the consultations. The previous minister was heavily criticised for refusing to release the consultation report.

Finally, The Saturday Paper has also been told that Rishworth has indicated the advisory group will continue its work beyond the end of June, when it was due to wrap up, and that she is open to the idea of expanding the membership to include some who were sidelined from the process by the Morrison government.

When the group was announced in 2021, there was criticism that the leading body supporting Indigenous women who have experienced family, domestic and sexual violence, the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, was excluded.

“We would welcome and encourage the new minister to look at expanding the membership of the group to make sure our voices are at the table,” says Antoinette Braybrook, the chief executive of Djirra and the former chair of the National FVPLS Forum.

There are a number of other things at the top of women’s safety experts’ wish list for the updated national plan that the new minister will need to contend with in this post-election context, now the women’s safety sector is emboldened to believe more can be done.

When in opposition, the Labor Party made a commitment to support a standalone First Nations national safety plan to eliminate violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, something Braybrook, who is also co-chair of the Change the Record Coalition, would like to see honoured.

“We have seen a plan with a mainstream focus fail our women, so much so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have become invisible,” she says. “The mainstream system has a focus on blaming our women for the violence they experience and punishing them by taking away their kids.”

Hayley Foster says there needs to be a commitment to address the structural drivers of gendered violence, in particular gender inequality, and that this needs to sit alongside the Labor government’s promised new gender equality strategy. What’s more, says Foster, there need to be meaningful targets for reductions in violence.

“We should be very clear about what we are trying to achieve,” she says, “and it should be both ambitious and achievable … We will continue to advocate to have strong and meaningful targets in the plan.”

Both Foster and Hamilton are clear that this will come down to money, and there can be no improvement in women’s safety, whatever the new plan’s final form, unless it is backed by significant investment.

For Foster, that means a minimum yearly federal investment of $1 billion.

“We aren’t going to achieve substantial change unless there are dollars attached,” says Foster. “We can have really high expectations, we can be aspirational, we can say all the right things, but if we do not invest in the implementation of the plan, we will not get results.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Emergency meeting to redraft violence plan".

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Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based journalist.

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