Advocating for better deals for women

When it comes to advocating for better deals for women who are either homeless or escaping family violence, McAuley Community Services for Women leaves few stones unturned.

In the past month, the organisation has made three major submissions to important inquiries underway. These include the Residential Tenancies Act Review, Migration Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2016 and the Human Services: Identifying sectors for reform - Productivity Commission Issues Paper 2016.

Residential Tenancies Act Review

The review is looking at a range of issues and we have concentrated on the impact that the act has on women who have escaped family violence or who are living in a violent relationship.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence found that the impact of family violence on residential tenancies was significant, favouring the perpetrator rather than the victim. We agree.

Our main recommendation to the Review is that a definition of family violence be inserted into the Residential Tenancies Act to enable a tenant who has been affected by family violence, but has not obtained an intervention order, to make property modifications and to be better protected in all aspects of the Act.

We have also recommended that the Act is changed to ensure that a perpetrator does not receive keys at all regardless of the status of any intervention order or safety notice.

Our dealing with landlords over the years has revealed that many do not understand the relevance of an intervention order or family safety notice. We believe it is vital that private landlords receive professional education about family violence. Similarly, we have called for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) staff to be trained on their own policies regarding tenant damage and family violence.

Migration Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2016  

We commend the Federal Government on its efforts to address family violence but we have concerns.

Our chief concern focuses on the memorandum, which states that all sponsors in the Partner visa program have to undertake a police check. Family violence is under-reported in Australia despite initiatives to increase awareness of the crime and improve pathways for women to report violence and access support.

Currently, many incidents of family violence are not recorded by police and nor do records result in criminal charges. We question the effectiveness of the proposed amendments to assist potential victims of family violence, given the difficulties with relying on police checks for evidence of previous behaviour in these circumstances.

Our view, also, is that adding a sponsorship framework to the family visa program may result in additional barriers for visa applicants who are already experiencing family violence, and thus leave them in a position where they are more vulnerable.

This was recently acknowledged in the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence findings, which emphasised that the immigration status of women who experience family violence has a significant impact on their experience of that violence and their ability to leave a violent relationship.

We have congratulated the Federal Government on the new Family Safety Pack, which is included in information by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for men and women coming to Australia on a partner visa, student visas and temporary work (subclass 457) visas.

McAuley Community Services for Women sees this as an important initiative, aimed at addressing violence against migrant women by providing information about a woman’s right to be safe and Australia’s law. We particularly commended the Government on making the pack available in 46 languages. 

Human Services: Identifying sectors for reform

The Productivity Commission is seeking advice on how to make the human services sector more efficient. Our view is that the quest for efficiency should not be code for cost cutting. Whilst the drive for better outcomes and value for money is understood, the introduction of competition into human services is not the best way to achieve this result.

Our concerns begin with prospect of eliminating specialist services. This was noticeable when New South Wales recommissioned family violence services in a move towards more generic service provision.

Homelessness services took over family violence refuges and sought to apply their usual method of operation of evicting tenants who did not pay rent. This generic service did not have specialist knowledge, including knowledge of the risk factors associated with leaving a violent relationship and the fact that women were also often the victims of financial abuse. Eviction at that point was counterproductive and costly to the individual and taxpayers.

We believe thatthe provision of Human Services can not be left to the private market – the greatest demonstration of this is the spectacular failure of the housing market to provide enough housing to Australians. The Federal Governments own Economics Reference Committee Report, ‘Out of reach? The Australian housing affordability challenge’ “underscores the importance of affordable, secure and suitable housing as a vital determinant of wellbeing” and found “that currently Australia’s housing market is not meeting the needs of all Australians” (Executive Summary).

Human Services are being unjustly blamed for failure which is due to structural issues outside of their control.The Compass Report ‘Toward a National Housing Strategy’ outlines the structural factors contributing to homelessness and which impact on the choices individuals are able to make.

Solving family violence requires the collaboration of many different parts of the system: support for victims; housing; police; the legal system; courts and the medical system. Competition usually encourages protecting industry ‘secrets’ to retain a competitive edge. Competition is also often equated to large scale delivering lowest cost. Neither of these attributes encourages collaboration, which is what is going to achieve the long-term aims of solving family violence, (and with it, 25% of homelessness) and saving billions of dollars annually.

And finally, we see women pushed into homelessness as a result of cumulative financial pressures – resulting in more costs at the tertiary end of service provision and a vicious circle of push back by government into further privatisation.

As more services face privatisation and elements of ‘user pays’ are introduced, the cumulative impact effects individuals’ capacity to choose service provision, or to maintain their own standard of living without reliance on the welfare sector.

All submissions are available to read on:

19 October 2016