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The federal budget promised $3.2 billion dollars to be spent on policies that improve the lives of Australian women. But, despite that pledge, a critical front line service that supports women at work now faces closure. Today, Royce Kurmelovs on the future of the Working Women’s Centres.

The frontline women’s services at risk of collapse

Read Transcript

The federal budget promised $3.2 billion dollars to be spent on policies that improve the lives of Australian women. 

But, despite that pledge, a critical front line service that supports women being discriminated against at work has lost much of its funding, and now faces closure. 

Today, Royce Kurmelovs on the future of the Working Women’s Centres. 

 

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Royce Kurmelovs.

Read Transcript

[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones this is 7am

 

The federal budget promised $3.2 billion dollars to be spent on policies that improve the lives of Australian women. 

 

But, despite that pledge, a critical front line service that supports women being discriminated against at work has lost much of its funding, and now faces closure. 

 

Today, Royce Kurmelovs on the future of the Working Women’s Centres.  

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

RUBY:
Royce, Can you tell me about where this story starts for you? 

 

ROYCE:
So the story really begins with the Northern Territory, South Australian and Queensland Working Women Centres who in the months leading up to the 2021 federal budget had been lobbying hard in order to try and get the money they needed to not only keep their centers alive, but also rebuild the network of centres that once operated across the country.  

 

RUBY:

Royce Kurmelovs wrote about Working Women’s Centres in the latest issue of *The Saturday Paper*.

 

ROYCE:
Those centres essentially provide a key frontline service, helping navigate issues in the workplace from underpayment to sexual harassment for women. 

 

Archival Tape
So we were trying to obviously gain some traction regarding our concerns for funding.

 

ROYCE:
Nikki Petrou, she's the director of the Northern Territory Working Women's Centre. And on the Monday night before the budget, Nikki, along with her counterpart from Queensland, Fiona, flew to Canberra to basically lobby the nation's political leadership. And they met with people across the political spectrum 

 

Archival Tape
So we were trying to speak to various, um, members of parliament on, on all sides, because it's about getting, you know, support, uh, to ensure that women in the work, who work have got services, specialist services to support them when something goes wrong. 

 

ROYCE:
They met with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, Labour Senator Jenny McAllister and Penny Wong, Basically, they met with any federal figure they could convince to give them time. 

 

RUBY:
And what happened in those meetings? 

 

ROYCE:
There they talked about the funding structures for the centres that they run. They told the politicians at the centres needed seven hundred thousand dollars a year just to keep their doors open. 

 

Archival Tape
We wanted to make sure that working women's centres weren’t forgotten and that we were there. And we were at, at some point it's a full front of someone's mind that we needed to exist and why we needed to exist,  so we went there on the basis that we were hoping we could at least secure something in the current budget. 

 

ROYCE:

They said that if the government seriously wanted to rebuild the network of centres that once spanned the country and had been whittled down to just two, the cost would be 20 million dollars. So for Nick and Fiona, it was for them. This was an obvious decision to provide funding. 

 

Archival Tape
Particularly what's been happening at the federal level and around women's workplace safety. It just reminds us about that. We're not there yet in providing fairer and safer workplaces for women. 

 

ROYCE:
This budget in particular, as we all well know, it was being sold as a shift away from austerity politics and was supposed to include this big spending women's budget.

 

Archival Tape
Josh Frydenberg joining wife amy for a canberra fun run, accompanied by an unmistakable political message, this budget is ditching tradie yellow for fluro pink!

 

ROYCE:

For the government to reset itself in the wake of the Britney Higgins revelations and the allegations against Christian Porter. So it just seemed like a really easy political win win that would help, you know, rebuild this essential service while also allowing the federal government to reorganise.

 

Archival Tape
There is a standalone substantial womens budget statement, and it not only details the economic impact of covid on women but also the details....

 

ROYCE:
But when the budget was released, when they were flicking through the pages, the first thing they went to is the section that included them looking to see if their efforts had paid off and essentially it hadn't. 

 

RUBY:
So tell me about that. When they started looking through the budget to see if they had managed to secure any funding, what did they find? 

 

ROYCE:
Very little is what they found. It was basically bad news. So 31 pages into the Women's Specific Economic Budget, they discovered that was just 200,000 dollars had been allocated to keep the Queensland and Northern Territory centres open. 

 

This was money that they later found out was intended to be shared between the centres. So which compounded the problem further. And essentially it was going to buy them a couple more months of operation.

 

RUBY:
And can you tell me a bit more about the working women’s centres? What would it mean for them to close and for the women who use them to lose access to the services that they provide? 

 

ROYCE:
Yeah. So for a lot of people, they would never have heard the working women of the working women centres. And this is for two reasons. The first is if you have never had to rely upon the services, you don't know they exist. And the second is that they have never been given enough money to be able to have a marketing budget to let people know that they exist.
 

So the first working women's centres were founded in 1979 and there were, you know, designed to provide industrial and workplace relations support for women who couldn't otherwise get access to a union, a lawyer or any other advocate. 

 

The issues that they covered range from wage theft through to maternity leave and sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. So they had a pretty broad remit. And over time, that network grew to in the early 90s, when nearly every state and territory had its own centre. But then, through a combination of bad planning, bad funding and a lack of interest, what you've seen is them slowly shut down since.

 

The New South Wales centre was the first to shut. That was 2005. Then Tasmania followed a year later. Now, Queensland Centre lost its funding back in 2016. 

 

Archival Tape

If you really want to make a change, and which is what this government is saying, with their current budget, then you have to seriously invest in these issues. And in the services already existing on the ground, who've got the histories, who've got the experience and who have got the expertise to respond.

 

ROYCE:
For Nicki, who is running the centre for her, the consequences were immediately obvious. Essentially, what they knew in that moment was that they were facing closure.

 

Archival Tape
It will be a crying shame. It certainly will be in the Northern territory because, um, it would leave women without any specialist support. And it just, it just makes me really sad to think that we’d  get to that. 

 

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RUBY:
Royce, without working women’s centres, what options will women - and I think specifically women who have less resources available to them - have in terms of finding somewhere that will be able to help them when they are discriminated against? 

 

ROYCE:
For people who rely on the service, there is very little else out there.  If you're not a member of a union immediately for any number of reasons, if you're you know, if you don't have access to a commercial lawyer, especially one who has experience and knowledge of a particular area, if you don't have access to an advocate, it's very hard to know where to go to get advice, support and representation in these matters. 

 

And the power dynamic here is, I guess, vast. If you're a person working at an organisation or a company, those companies have access to vast resources whereas if you're just an employee, you're basically on your own. 

 

And that was ostensibly why these centres were set up to begin with. And while they were in operation and steadily building, Australia had a very good reputation on these issues for being ahead of the curve. 

 

Since we've lost that, what you've seen, as you know, more and more people are getting frustrated, more people not knowing where to go and people winding up in trouble. 

 

Archival Tape
When I found out that the NT Working Womens’ Centre was under threat I did have a bit of disbelief, actually. I didn't think it was as serious a problem as it was. And I kind of thought, well, that's ridiculous given the climate.

 

ROYCE:
In doing the story, when I spoke to Emma Sharp, who was a former client of the Working Women's Centre, she was just a combination of, you know, shocked and furious that these centres were potentially going to close because they helped her at a very critical moment. 

 

Archival Tape
The Working Woman Centre just supported me with my own personal issue around my entitlements, and the case actually lasted for about eleven months. it was good to have you have a voice, someone that I could go and speak to..

 

ROYCE:
She's a 35 year old from Lloyd Creek in the Northern Territory. And her problem, which she sought help for in 2017, involved a really complicated legal issue around maternity leave for mothers of premature babies. 

 

Archival Tape
It was very confusing, not just for employees, but also for employers. And that left them families obviously at a disadvantage in cases like mine. It turned out that there were a lot of women and families who were having either identical or very similar issues.

 

ROYCE:
And as an illustration about how important these services are, when she originally called for, you know, advice into a helpline that was provided, her advice was, well, you know, your issue involves the Fair Work Act. You will never change it. It's just that's just the way it is. 

 

But thanks to the role of the Working Women Centres and their organisation, they were then able to put together a campaign, get other women in the same situation together to lobby various state and federal politicians and a change to that law was eventually passed that resolve the problem so that no one else would have to go through it. 

 

Archival Tape
This is not just about me, it's about every other woman that needs to, you say centres and have access to the support, it's just going to be such a loss if we lose them. 

 

RUBY:
And Royce, is there any sense that the government might still step in and save these centres? You said the budget decision means that the entire centre is likely to close this year, but will perhaps the anti-government or someone else step in and fund what they do? 

 

ROYCE:
Whether or not the federal government will step in to support these centres is a very good question. On the one hand, there is no reason why they shouldn't. The amount of money being asked for is tiny compared to other sums, and it's and it would essentially fits in with the coalition's policy agenda.

 

Since the story was published, I've also learnt that the Labour and Greens have contacted the centres and offered their unconditional support to secure funding. It's just a question of whether politics gets in the way and how this plays out. 

 

However, the problem ultimately is much bigger is one about consistent recurring funding that allows these services to plan to coordinate and to continue to exist without the kind of stop start approach that they're currently having to survive, which inevitably entails the loss of staff, the loss of expertise, the loss of insight and a smaller client base. 

 

It's you know, if this model is allowed to continue as it is, it will essentially be kind of, you know, death by a thousand cuts. 

 

RUBY:
And Royce, just finally, do you have any thoughts on how this looks for the federal government? You've mentioned a few times the Britney Higgins allegations and the fallout in the headlines. We've seen from that the emphasis on this budget being a budget for women. So do you think this looks bad? Does it look like the commitment is there in words, but not in action? 

 

ROYCE:
I think this absolutely looks bad for the government, especially given their focus to reset,  to attempt to market themselves, as well as listening to the concerns of women, especially in the wake of the women's march and the Brittany Higgins allegations. 

 

And I think for the Coalition, the risk is that if they fail to act on this meaningfully, it will just be read as another situation where the Coalition is all talk, 

 

where it is more about the spin or the perception that it is being on. It is taking women's women seriously when it is actually not going through with what's required to to actually meet that commitment. 

 

RUBY:
Royce, thank you so much for your time today. 

 

ROYCE:
Thank you for having me. 

 

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[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today,

 

Victoria’s latest outbreak of Covid-19 is at a critical juncture, with health officials closely watching case numbers before making further decisions on additional restrictions.

 

On Wednesday total case numbers linked to the current outbreak reached 15, with dozens of new exposure sites listed across the city.

 

The Victorian government has said it is boosting testing capacity to help stay on top of the spread of the virus.

 

Meanwhile the AFL has begun ordering Victorian clubs into a seven-day lockdown, to minimise the risk of exposure amongst players and staff.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Royce Kurmelovs is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.