Kristine Ziwica
Playing games with women's safety

In early September last year, in an audacious, tone-deaf act that would come to symbolise the political opportunism and bad faith with which the Morrison government has approached the development of the new National Plan to End Violence Against Women, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the keynote address at the National Summit on Women’s Safety would be reserved for himself.

Never mind that just days before his government had failed to implement the central, most important recommendation from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ landmark inquiry into sexual harassment, Respect @ Work: a so-called “positive duty” placing a legal responsibility on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and assault at work from happening in the first place. The government accepted some recommendations but not this one.

And never mind that the Morrison government had spent the weekend before the summit deflecting claims the summit was “poorly organised, incredibly secretive and very exclusionary”, as the then Australian of the Year Grace Tame described it. It had also just emerged that Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal Party staffer whose allegation of rape prompted a national reckoning on sexual violence, had not been invited to take part in the summit, and that it was left to the ACT Victims of Crime Commission to correct this egregious oversight and invite her.

As the summit approached, the prime minister was knee-deep in a “woman problem” almost entirely of his own making. Damage control was the order of the day and so it followed that the coveted keynote spot would be reserved for the prime minister to have another ham-fisted go – the latest in a series of many – to prove to the women of Australia he “was listening”.

What was the point of the Women’s Safety Summit, many experts and survivor advocates wondered, if they were just going to be talked at, rather than truly listened to? And was the whole National Plan to End Violence Against Women consultation process, like the summit itself, purely performative? Most importantly, would the Morrison government’s emphasis on optics over substance be reflected in the new national plan, a vital, once-in-a-generation guiding document that would determine national policy and funding for what is, sadly, still a life and death issue for far too many women in Australia?

Time was of the essence. The sense of urgency was clear. More than 10 years on from the first national plan, which runs out in the middle of this year, it was clear that the first co-ordinated, national effort to tackle the scourge of violence against women and their children had failed according to the single measure for success the original national plan set for itself: to see “a significant and sustained reduction in violence against women and their children during the next 12 years, from 2010 to 2022”. In that period, as we now know, rates of domestic violence did not fall and rates of sexual violence increased.

By mid-January this year, there were some answers. They were, as expected, profoundly disappointing.

The draft of the new National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children was dropped by the Morrison government in the middle of January with, initially, a pitiful two-week consultation period. Two weeks to respond to a document that would chart a course over the next decade on a vital issue, in the middle of the school holidays, in the middle of a deadly Omicron wave of Covid-19.

In response, I immediately worked with a group of others to co-ordinate a petition demanding the consultation period be extended until the end of February and, crucially, that the Morrison government release the two consultation reports produced by Monash University that had informed the draft plan. The reports were based on consultation sessions with more than 450 specialist practitioners, academics and policymakers and 81 victim–survivors.

Within days, the petition garnered 10,000 signatures and Senator Anne Ruston, the minister for Women’s Safety, agreed to extend the consultation period. However, she remained defiant about the release of the consultation reports.

Then I and that same group set ourselves the task of drafting a collective response to the draft plan. That collective response was released in the form of an open letter the morning of Grace Tame’s and Brittany Higgins’ now historic speeches at the National Press Club on February 10. Both were signatories alongside a list of more than 45 other prominent supporters, including Anne Summers, Lucy Turnbull, Wendy McCarthy, Antoinette Braybrook, Khadija Gbla and Nicole Lee.

Disturbingly, we noted the draft plan only indirectly acknowledged the fact that the first national plan failed according to the single measure for success it set itself. In response, the draft plan lamented that “more needs to be done”. Without a more robust analysis of how and why the first national plan failed to meet its aspiration to see a sustained reduction in rates of violence, however, how could the next plan claim to have “learnt” the lessons of the previous decade?

We noted also that the draft plan was largely a collection of statistics describing the issues, with noble sentiments and platitudes promising a future free from violence against women and children, but scant detail on how this was to be achieved.  Where were the targets and clear steps for achieving them? A 2019 auditor-general report into the Department of Social Services’ implementation of the first national plan was scathing in regard to the plan’s lack of targets and evaluation, stating, among other things, that, “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.” Now, three years on, the Morrison government had spent 18 months consulting and, presumably, seeking to address these shortcomings and there were still no targets.

We acknowledged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women had consistently advocated a dedicated national plan to eliminate family violence in their communities, most notably via a Change the Record open letter last October. The proposed dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s “action plan” was a subset of the national plan, and, therefore, fell well short of what was needed.

Finally, we highlighted, once again, the lack of transparency surrounding the process and the fact the Morrison government still hadn’t released the Monash consultation reports. Yet stakeholders were being asked to provide feedback on the extent to which the draft plan reflected consultations. Absurd is a word that comes to mind, yet it seems somehow insufficient.

Championing the open letter’s calls to action for the draft plan to be withdrawn and amended, Higgins was absolutely uncompromising when she delivered this withering assessment at the National Press Club: “If it is more of the same, compounded by a refusal to examine the past failures, let alone acknowledge them, then this plan won’t be worth the glossy paper it will eventually be printed on. And Australian women and children will suffer through another decade of violence and abuse while politicians and policymakers wring their hands about the fact that we need to turn things around in 2040.”

Higgins delivered those words with Anne Ruston, the minister responsible, in her direct line of sight. Watching from afar, I felt as if I saw steam coming out of Ruston’s ears. It would later emerge why she might be so angry about this broadside.

Later the same week, Karen Middleton reported in The Saturday Paper that the morning after his own fraught appearance at the National Press Club, the week before Tame and Higgins, Morrison addressed the party room and delivered a rapid-fire list of 40 things his government had achieved under his leadership. Among them was the government’s new plan to tackle violence against women.

Perhaps Ruston and the prime minister had hoped they could avoid public, potentially critical debate of the draft plan by sneaking it out in the middle of the summer holidays with just two weeks for stakeholders to respond and without any detail from the consultation reports.

Lisa Wheildon, a doctoral researcher on gender-based violence, observed that this revelation helped explain the “hastily” drafted plan and “the whiff of desperation from some quarters, both of which underscored the need to demand better”.

The consultation period for the draft plan has now closed and we are still no closer to seeing the consultation reports. At senate estimates, Ruston was grilled about the lack of transparency and her officials offered a misleading response that the reports had not yet been released because they had not yet been finalised. Lead researcher Kate Fitz-Gibbon, of the Monash University Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, was quick to correct the record. The reports, she said, had been “finalised in January following two rounds of review”.

Many among the 81 survivors who took part in the consultation process now feel betrayed. “It’s gaslighting,” Nicole Lee, a survivor and disability activist who took part in the consultation, told me. “This just replicates the power imbalances and the behaviours we live with in violent relationships.”

Lee says that in the same way as victims are gaslit by abusers so they second-guess their perception of reality, survivors who have taken issue with the lack of transparency are now being told by the Morrison government that they’re wrong.

Lee also highlights what’s been lost in this whole sorry episode. “Why would they keep those consultation reports on a shelf? Why can’t they be used by expert organisations and policy makers in all the states and territories to help drive change now?” It was in those Monash consultations, Lee says, that they really nutted out the nuance and complexity of the issues, something she and others feel isn’t reflected in the draft plan and should be.

It has been reported that the consultation reports were indeed critical of the failure during the past 12 years to see a reduction in rates of violence against women and that they offered more than 200 key findings, only some of which have found their way into the draft plan. “They’re turning people’s trauma into a political game,” Lee says. “What is the priority? Our safety or making themselves look good?”

Again, as is so often the case with the Morrison government, we’re back to playing games when leadership is what’s needed. That they would toy with women’s safety is, it goes without saying, especially disappointing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Very rough drafts".

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