Standing up for Canberra

Fair Work Amendment: Family and Domestic Violence Leave Bill

Violence and abuse against women exists in many forms. It can be physical. It can be emotional. It can be financial.

Now, in the information age, it can also come in new forms like the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. We've heard these statistics endlessly. On average, one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. One in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by someone known to them. One in five women over the age of 18 have been stalked in their lifetime. And domestic violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and their children.

This compares to one in 16 men.

Violence against women is a national tragedy. It's a national disgrace. It is a tragedy, but it's also a disgrace. It is a national crisis and it is a national shame. Do you want to know what else is a national shame? The dismissive response that women who are victims of violence or harassment receive from those who are in a position to help.

Last week I stood here in this very spot, and I was sharing experiences of Canberrans in relation to housing stress and homelessness. Straight after my speech, a woman from Victoria called my office to thank me for speaking out and explained why she identified so closely with that speech. The woman receives the disability support pension and she lives in a rental property. The property has no heating.

Fancy being able to rent a property with no heating!

I remember that one of the first places I rented in Canberra in the early 1990s had no heating, but I would have thought that 30 years later things would be a bit better. So this property has no heating, and that was the first point my caller identified with.

The second was the dismissive attitude of real estate agents. My caller shared her story. She had been the victim of an attempted rape in the previous fortnight and, since then, had been trying to break her lease so she could move somewhere where she could feel safe. The response from her property managers—this is real cute!—was, 'It will cost her $2,000 because of the length of time it will take to find someone to take on the lease.'

So, here she is, this woman in the Latrobe Valley in an unheated home, in 2018—I won't say anything to identify her. As someone who spent their very early years in the Latrobe Valley, where I went to kindergarten and to primary school, and where my little sister was born in the hospital at Yallourn, I know that it can get pretty cool and pretty bleak in winter.

The fact that this woman is living in an unheated home is a disgrace to the landlord. The property managers then asked her to pay $2,000 to break the lease, which she wanted to do because she had been a victim of a rape attempt and she was trying to find somewhere safe.

That is a disgrace.

The figures we have on this scourge of domestic and family violence in this nation are an absolute shame and disgrace. It is something we should all hang our heads in shame over. But here we have this woman who is going through really tough times, and the property manager is saying, 'That'll be $2,000.' She explained the situation to the property manager—she shared the intimate details of something so very personal and traumatising that happened to her—and there was no empathy, no understanding and no appreciation of what she was going through. This is a woman who is on the DSP and who has been the victim of a crime, and who is trying to do what she can to feel safe. Where is she going to find $2,000?

That's one story. Over the course of this debate, we have heard countless stories of women fleeing violent situations; in many ways, they are degraded and made to feel lesser in the process of escaping violence, or made to feel even more vulnerable than they were when they were experiencing violent situations. This is just one of the stories outlining the experience of Australian women today going through violence in their homes.

The reason I share it with you is to show just how hard it is for women to escape, or to do something to deal with the impact of violence, especially if they are already at a financial disadvantage. So many women are at a structural financial disadvantage as a result of pay inequity. Pay inequity drives the huge gap in women's super and it is one of the reasons that older single women are one of the fastest-growing groups of people falling into homelessness. I have spoken extensively about that and I will continue to speak about this issue until I finish in this place.

The inherent structural financial disadvantage that most women face is the reason that I'm adding my voice to the discussion on this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Family and Domestic Violence Leave) Bill 2018. It's a bill that is meant to provide a safety net for those in the workforce who experience family violence. The bill implements a decision made by the Fair Work Commission in March to include a clause in all modern awards to provide for five days unpaid family and domestic violence leave. The bill we're talking about today will amend the National Employment Standards to ensure the entitlement will apply in full to all employees—full-time, part-time and casual workers.

According to studies by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, women are at a greater risk of family violence than men. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that around two out of three of all women who experience domestic violence are in the workforce. Given this, it only makes sense that any response to domestic violence includes an appropriate workplace response. Yet Australian women effectively work the first two months of every year for free, compared to their male colleagues. And when they face the most traumatic experiences in their lives, under this bill they are expected to undertake life-changing decisions and make arrangements for their safety, all while being unpaid.

The structural economic disadvantage for women continues. It is built in. It continues and continues and continues. I'm having conversations and I'm seeing the reality, as are so many people in this place. We are seeing the reality of this disadvantage—this inequity—continuing through a lifetime. We see it when women come to us who are in the private rental market, trying to make ends meet on the pension. They are facing a very, very bleak retirement future.

While this bill is a nod in the right direction, it simply does not go far enough. What those in our communities disproportionately affected by family violence really need is paid family and domestic violence leave. The Australian Law Reform Commission noted in its 2011 final report:

There are strong arguments in favour of the need for paid family violence leave, or a combination of paid and unpaid leave, to avoid provision of a 'hollow' entitlement, risk further disadvantaging victims of family violence, or to fail to achieve the objects underlying its introduction.

The ACTU argued:

"Until 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave is a universal … employment standard, vulnerable employees will still be forced to make an unacceptable choice between their safety and their pay check."

How invidious is that? Here we are putting these women in the position where they actually have to make a decision between their safety—not only their personal safety but the safety of their children—and their pay cheque.

Paid domestic violence leave provisions are not new. The Philippines introduced legislation providing up to 10 days paid domestic violence leave in 2004. These arrangements are appearing in Australian workplace agreements in both the private and the public sectors. My colleague the member for Kingsford Smith outlined in his speech not just a range of states and territories across Australia that have introduced similar legislation but also organisations in the private sector and the public sector, including some of our very large companies. He also outlined the range of countries that have introduced this kind of legislation.

The ACT might be small, but it's leading the way when it comes to raising awareness of domestic and family violence and engaging the community in a response. The most recent ACT Policing crime statistics showed that there were 2,150 incidents of family violence reported from January to October 2018, and in the same period there were 603 family violence assaults. These statistics were somewhat reduced from the same period the year before, which had 2,414 family violence incidents and 773 family violence assaults.

The ACT has had 20 days paid family and domestic violence leave in workplace arrangements for the public sector since 2013, and it has pushed hard at COAG for paid leave to be included as a national employment standard. The ACT government has implemented a $30 annual levy, paid by each ACT ratepayer, which is used to help fund future prevention and early intervention programs and to assist with demand for crisis housing, health and legal support. The reduction in ACT Policing crime statistics shows that these strategies are having some effect.

In the ACT, there are avenues of support for low-income victims of domestic violence. There are fewer options available for women in the middle-income bracket. These domestic violence survivors make up a missing middle here in Canberra. In the ACT, we have the Assistance Beyond Crisis loans scheme, which was established in 2017 with the help of the Snow Foundation, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Since then, 27 women and 80 children have received financial help under the scheme. Women have been able to secure new homes and furnish them, afford medical bills, pay legal fees and keep their kids in the schools they've been in since kindergarten, which is really important. These are things we might take for granted, but they're things which help maintain a sense of normalcy and stability. These interest-free loans have helped survivors build new lives.

There's a misconception about domestic violence survivors that, if you're earning a certain amount of money, you've got your life together. But just because some women are on generally high incomes doesn't mean they can afford the same things that they did when they were with a partner. Nine times out of 10, their financial circumstances are far more complex than this, and this complexity is yet another reason why women need paid family and domestic violence leave.

A number of submissions from private sector organisations to the Senate committee's inquiry into this bill noted that the time needed by affected employees to sufficiently organise alternative arrangements—living arrangements, financial arrangements and legal arrangements—was between five and 11 days. So 10 days of leave absolutely makes sense.

We know that this government has moved way too slowly. The minister first committed to unpaid leave at the end of March, yet it has taken until September for the government to introduce the bill. Since coming into government, the coalition have tried five times to slash paid parental leave.

They've opposed increases to the minimum wage that disproportionately benefit women. They've supported cuts to penalty rates. They've introduced changes to child care, leaving one in four families worse off and meaning that some women working four days a week will actually lose money if they increase their workforce participation. They cut $35 million from community legal centres that provide crucial legal services to family violence victims. They abolished the annual women's budget statement to hide the harmful impacts their policies have on women.

Contrast that with Labor. We've already committed to a $400 million boost to women's superannuation balances for a more secure financial future, which includes paying superannuation on Commonwealth paid parental leave.

We have committed to taking action to close the gender pay gap, including greater transparency and accountability for business and government.

We have committed to investing $88 million over two years in emergency housing and, most recently, to investing $18 million over three years to ensure that the Keeping Women Safe in Their Home program is able to continue after the government cut funding for this program.

This is an amazing program.

It provides expert safety advice and upgrades to women to keep them in their home. Why should women and children have to leave the family home as a result of a violent partner forcing them out? Why should they leave the comfort and safety of their own home, the whole school environment and the whole community environment because someone is instilling fear of violence in them? Why should they be the ones who leave? That's why this program is so fantastic in trying to keep those women and their children in their own homes.

We're coming up to Christmas, and this is a particularly bad time for family and domestic violence. So I encourage all Australians, all Canberrans, to please reach out to your support services and ask them what they need. I know that, here in Canberra, women are often having to flee family violence around the Christmas period and particularly on Christmas Day.

They need bags full of goodies—phone cards, toys and games. They're going to be in a bleak hotel room, on their own, with their children on Christmas Day. Please Australia, please Canberra, reach out and provide every support you can to make Christmas Day for these women and their children that much better.