Declaring “we must elevate this issue to our national consciousness”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and new Minister for Women Michaelia Cash have unveiled a new package of domestic violence initiatives in the first policy announcement of the Turnbull government.

The $100 million package, announced with Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and former Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay, is in addition to existing commitments by the Abbott government — unveiled by the former prime minister last year — to the National Action Plan on domestic violence. The core of the package is:

  • $12 million, with matching state and territory funding, to trial the use of GPS trackers to keep women safe from offenders;$5 million to provide mobile phones to women at risk (given existing phones are often compromised or tracked by abusive ex-partners); and $17 million targeted at women in high-risk situations to install CCTV and other safety equipment, and a Salvation Army program to provide home security assessments and change locks;
  • $5 million to expand existing telephone and online counselling services; and $2 million aimed at the MensLine service;
  • additional funding (up to $15 million) for police in Queensland to better respond to domestic violence in remote communities; $3.6 million for an information unit to exchange data on domestic violence victims and perpetrators who move around the cross border region of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory; $1.4 million for “community engagement police officers” in remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and another million dollars for assistance in remote Indigenous communities
  • an expansion of the DV-alert training program to frontline and first responder personnel like police, social workers and emergency department staff, as well as the development of specialised training for GPs ($14 million);
  • $15 million for units providing coordinated services for women in a single location, and linking legal services in local hospitals, and $5 million for case workers coordinating support services such as housing and safety; and
  • $5 million for educational resources aimed at supporting a planned national campaign to change young people’s attitudes to violence.

In introducing the package, outlined in detail by Cash, the Prime Minister made a significant effort to elevate the language around domestic violence, calling it “one of the great shames of Australia, a national disgrace” and noting that three women have already died at the hands of partners or ex-partners this week in New South Wales, bringing the nationwide death toll from domestic violence to over 60 this year. There are about 250 homicides in Australia a year.

Turnbull linked violence to a lack of respect for women, saying he wanted to lead a cultural shift that would make Australia known internationally as a country that respected women, with sons taught to respect their mothers and sisters. Cash urged that the tradition of women leaving homes where abuse has occurred be reversed, to avoid disruption to children. She also flagged that American criminal Chris Brown, who beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, would struggle to get an Australian visa for a concert tour in December.

In addition to domestic homicides, reported rates of domestic violence have been soaring in NSW and Victoria in recent years. NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data shows reports of domestic violence assaults rose more than 10% between 2009 and 2014, although there was a very small drop in 2014-15. In Victoria, “family incidents” rose 8.2% in the year to March 2015; the number of “family event”-related homicides has doubled, as have assaults, sexual assaults and abductions since 2010. Breaches of family violence orders have also surged in recent years.

While these statistical changes may reflect greater reporting rates by victims, changes to police categorisations and/or the greater use of restraining orders rather than an increase in the actual incidence of domestic violence, the number of domestic homicides this year is consistent with the high level of domestic homicides in Australia in recent years, where between 70 and 100 women and children can be expected to be murdered by a partner, ex-partner or parent each year. At the very least, domestic violence is not improving in Australia, and in the absence of contrary evidence it appears to be worsening.

Turnbull and Cash’s strong language on the need for a cultural shift about respect for women is welcome, although whether the government is prepared to go further and recognise the economic drivers of that culture, such as the lack of economic independence among women and traditions and assumptions around parenting, has yet to be seen — merely calling for more respect and insisting “real men don’t hit women” is unlikely to address deeply embedded patriarchal ways of thinking. For the moment, the fact that the government is signalling it is taking domestic violence more seriously than governments of any persuasion have in the past is a welcome first step.

Peter Fray

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