Is the government of Malcolm Turnbull just totally inept or is it actually cruel?
You have to wonder given its fiscal attacks on some of the most vulnerable and needy members of our society.
It’s not just that the government proposed cutting the dole to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or that it expects women to surrender paid parental leave entitlements and family benefits to pay for better childcare, but now it is proposing to abolish federal funding of women’s refuges. Seriously.
A week ago a story was leaked that the government would axe the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) in the May budget. The story was apparently a kite-flying exercise designed to pressure the states to deliver better results in delivering public housing stock.
What was not mentioned in the story is that all federal funding for women’s refuges is included in this program. It’s a paltry amount – only $110 million – which falls far short of what is needed, but it’s the totality of federal funding for this essential service.
Homelessness Australia, the national peak body for homelessness advocacy, has estimated that 2800 women are turned away from over-full refuges each year and contends that an extra $33.8 million of federal funding is needed just to provide the most basic frontline services for women and children escaping domestic violence.
(The states match the federal funds, bringing total annual spending on women’s refuges to $220 million, which is less than the government is proposing to spend on the new Canberra headquarters for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.)
But rather than increase funding to try to meet demand – and save lives – the government seems set on abolishing funding altogether.
Homelessness advocates tell me they are being assured – off the record of course – by ministers’ offices that, despite the leaked story, the government is not intending to cut housing affordability funds.
But no one is giving any assurances – or saying anything at all – about the funding of women’s refuges.
It’s because they are invisible within the affordable housing program.
On Thursday morning when Turnbull spoke at the Parliamentary International Women’s Day breakfast, he boasted that he had “led the national conversation” about preventing violence by respecting women. He also said: “Our $100 million Women’s Safety package and additional $100 million investment to back in the Third Action Plan is protecting women and children through expanded front-line services and other support measures.”
But none of the money he mentioned goes to refuges.
The $200 million is being spent, over three years, on advertising, research, information sharing, help lines, counselling services, trials of technology to improve victim safely, training of frontline staff, efforts to stop “revenge porn” and other commendable measures.
It is all welcome but it is not money that will keep open the crisis services for women escaping violence that are provided by women’s refuges.
And all this is happening under the radar because women’s refuges have been subsumed into homelessness programs and, to quote the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), “have not been recognised or adequately supported for the complex homicide prevention work they are required to provide”.
The misguided decision in 2008 to include women’s refuge funding in general homelessness programs has led to refuges becoming invisible and thus politically vulnerable.
The decision was, no doubt, made in good faith, based on the fact that domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women and children. But it does not follow that the needs of this group are the same, or even similar, to those of people who are homeless for other reasons.
It is now obvious that women’s refuges need to have their own separate funding, as used to be the case, so that their situation is transparent and accountable.
WEL has proposed a separate funding program for women’s refuges, the Women and Children’s Safety Program, which would be a joint Commonwealth-State initiative costing $1.982 billion over five years. (That budget is arrived at by including the current annual funding under the housing agreement plus $68 million a year to cover current unmet needs.)
WEL has calculated that this funding would cost Australians a measly 2¢ a day. Who among us would not be willing to have the government spend that amount for this sadly essential service?
Yet the political reaction to WEL’s proposal has been lukewarm because federal and state political leaders are so focused on housing and homelessness they don’t seem to be able to get their heads around the need for specialist refuges for women and children.
This is despite one woman a week on average being killed and dozens of women being hospitalised every day for serious injuries inflicted by her domestic partner.
Women’s refuges are proven to save lives and prevent further injuries.
What on earth does it take to get Canberra to understand – and pay for – this?
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 February