The announcement of a $100 million package of federal funding to help combat violence against women seemed a lot more palatable for being delivered by Malcolm Turnbull rather than by Tony Abbott, under whose watch it was originally conceived. Turnbull, after all, was able to announce the package alongside a beaming Michaelia Cash — the new Minister for Women, who is actually a woman. And the platitudes about the reasons for the package sounded far more plausible when detached from Abbott’s rugger-bugger persona. Turnbull’s announcement has been praised not only for its substance but also for his smoothly delivered assertion that “violence against women begins with disrespecting women. And so this is a big cultural shift.”

News Corp columnist Miranda Devine only added to Turnbull’s credibility with her op-ed proclaiming that his call for Australians to respect for women showed that he had “drunk the feminist Kool-Aid”. Those described by Devine as “feckless women” — i.e., women who found themselves trapped in relationships with violent men —  have taken to social media to counteract her description of them as irresponsible welfare bludgers producing a string of offspring at taxpayer expense. As a “feckless woman” myself, I share their outrage with Devine’s op-ed — but I also suggest that we should not let it distract us from the more substantial failings of Turnbull’s announcement.

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The focus on Turnbull’s call for a cultural shift has left unexamined the ways in which government policy is complicit in violence against women and children. This complicity is most starkly evident in the violence suffered by women and girls subjected to offshore processing on Manus Island and Nauru. Monday night’s story on 7.30 about a Somali refugee who alleges that she was raped by two men while living in the community on Nauru was only the most recent evidence of sexual violence committed against women under a regime that Turnbull has stated causes him “concern” — but not so much concern that he will ever agree to allow its victims to be resettled in Australia. As comedian Nazeem Hussain tweeted, “Chris Brown has been refused a visa. Violence against women — Australia says not unless you’re a guard at a detention centre.”

But even women living in the relative safety of the Australian suburbs have been made far more vulnerable by gaping holes in the social safety net on which they rely in the wake of a relationship breakdown. Women’s ability to leave abusive relationships has been significantly impaired by the policy initiated under John Howard’s prime ministership that shifts single parents from the parenting payment to Newstart once their youngest child turns eight. This not only reduces their payment by nearly $100 a week, but also heavily penalises them for part-time work, with any income above a threshold of $102 a fortnight reducing their payment for 40 cents on the dollar.

While many children thrive in after-school care, others struggle — and those whose lives have been disrupted by family violence are particularly likely to need extra parental attention well beyond the age of eight. And women’s ability to relocate in search of employment and housing that suits their needs is often hampered by shared custody arrangements that require them to facilitate their children’s relationship with their former partner — even when, as this week’s coroner’s report into the death of Luke Batty at the hands of his father has highlighted, that partner has a documented history of abuse.

Welfare-to-work policies are routinely justified by the paternalist claim that children benefit by having a wage-earning role-model in their household while the women themselves will enjoy a boost in both their income and their self-esteem for having been badgered into the workforce. But this claim assumes that the only barrier to employment is the lack of motivation from the women themselves, rather than a lack of suitable jobs and/or the pressure of competing responsibilities.

Malcolm Turnbull says that he wants Australia to become known as a country that respects women. How exactly can that come about in a nation whose government routinely punishes the most vulnerable women for the crime of their vulnerability?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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