Speech by The Hon Sussan Ley MP

National Symposium on ‘Safe Transitions’: Managing Conflict and Responding to Violence in Post Seperation Families

Location: Hilton, Sydney


Thank you Anne (Hollonds, CEO of RA NSW – or may be Clive Price, Executive Director of Unifam) for your introduction

I would first like thank Fay (Carrol) for her welcome on behalf of the traditional owners of this land – the Cadigal people of the Eora nation

It is a great pleasure to be here today on behalf of the Australian Government to open the National Symposium on “Safe Transitions”

I would like to thank Anne Hollonds and Clive Price for inviting me, as well as acknowledge them for their work in organising this symposium

The Howard Government was pleased to provide $30,000 for this symposium

Theme of the conference

As you are all aware we are living in exciting and challenging times; being on the cusp of introducing the most significant reforms of the family law system in 30 years coupled with the biggest ever expansion of the Family Relationships Service Program

Today I will touch on a few of the many transitions that have taken place in Australian society – changing family dynamics, changes in the family law system and changes in the operations of government and organisations

In this period of transition it is very timely that practitioners, researchers and professionals in the field come together to discuss good practice approaches when managing conflict and responding to violence in Australian families

However, let me commence by emphasising that family violence is a fundamental violation of human rights as is the threat of violence

Family violence has traumatic personal consequences for families and the social cost is felt throughout society

Managing Conflict

The Australian Government recognises the need to protect families

We are aware of the harm that can be done to individuals and separating families when there is ongoing conflict

The Government is trying to address this issue through its family law reforms

The reforms involve legislative changes to encourage separating parents to attempt to settle any disputes regarding the future parenting of their children between themselves without recourse to the Family Court

We want to encourage agreement, rather than litigation, because adversarial court action causes conflict and, often, those who are most affected by continuing conflict are the children

Family transitions

In attempting to reduce conflict in families, it is important to recognise the many changes that families have undergone since previous reforms to the family law system in 1975

Since then, for couple families with a child under 18, we have seen a doubling in blended families to 5 per cent (from 1986 to 2003)

Of families with dependent children, the ratio of lone parent families has doubled (from 1988 to 2004)

As well, a third of all marriages are now made up of at least one partner who has previously been married

These families face added complexities and may require assistance to cope with any change and disruption

Childhood transitions

Also since the reforms in 1975, we have seen an increase in divorce, which has resulted in changes in the living arrangements of children

We know that 82 per cent of children born during 1963-1975 spent all of their first 15 years living with both natural parents

In 2001, this rate had declined to just under 77 per cent

We firmly believe that to assist children with the transition in living arrangements, it is best that both parents remain involved in their child’s life

The family law system reforms seek to make it easier for both parents to remain involved in their child’s life

Our challenge is to make sure the focus of the parents is at all times on what is beneficial for their children, and, where appropriate, to include children in the process

Family Violence

In some cases, this may mean that the involvement of both parents is not always appropriate

It has been recognised that the risk of spousal violence can sometimes be precipitated by the process of separation, as identified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Women’s Safety Survey

This 1996 Survey identified that single previously partnered women experienced the highest incidence of violence

Although this information is now 10 years old, we know that violence in relationships is still one of the key public health issues facing Australian women today

The Government recognises the need to support families, particularly high conflict families

It is doing this through a range of initiatives such as the $75.7 million Women’s Safety Agenda announced in the May Budget

This agenda is designed to build on the Government’s past achievements in the prevention of violence, early intervention, and support for people affected by violence

The Howard Government has also allocated around $47 million each year towards crisis accommodation and support services through the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program

Around 33 per cent of people who use these services are women escaping domestic violence

The large scale expansion of existing services and introduction of Family Relationship Centres will provide organisations offering services to families in conflict an opportunity to adopt a whole-of community sector approach

This approach may involve service providers working across organisational boundaries and working with other Australian Government programs such as those I have just mentioned

Whole of Government Approach

The Howard Government endeavours to operate in a whole-of-Government approach – a practical example being the attendance of my Parliamentary colleague, the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, at this Symposium as well as myself

The Family Relationships Services Program also demonstrates this

The program is administered through a collaborative working relationship between the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Family and Community Services

It is an arrangement which is an example of how Australian Government departments are working successfully together to deliver quality outcomes within a Whole of Government approach

Whole of Government entails working across organisational boundaries to deliver government objectives including policy development, programme management and service delivery

I am pleased to see two organisations such as Relationships Australia NSW and Unifam working in partnership to develop the sector through this symposium

Transitions in the Family Law System

As you have heard, the Government’s family law reform agenda is primarily aimed at enhancing family relationships and assisting separating families

With the introduction of the changes, we hope to see a cultural shift in the way separation is managed

The reforms will be supported with funding of more than $397 million over four years

The Family Relationships Centres announced in the package of reforms will be central to achieving this cultural change

The nationwide network of 65 Centres will be established over three years with the first 15 Centres opening their doors in mid-2006

I want to emphasise that the Government realises the need to ensure that the reforms do not increase the risk of violence or child abuse

These concerns have been taken into account in the drafting of the legislation

Moreover, the Centres will include processes such as screening for violence and child abuse, and will also ensure controls are put in place to address safety risks

The Centres will also:

  • provide information and advice to individuals and families experiencing violence about their options and support services available, and
  • assist people to access those services

Family Relationships Services Program

The reform package includes funding for a threefold increase in the Family Relationships Services Program, including the new Centres

The Centres will act as a gateway; with many visiting families being referred to FRSP providers for more specialised services

For this reason, thought must be given to:

  • how organisations will make the transition to the new family law system, and
  • how they can best help families who will be increasingly accessing their services

This symposium offers an opportunity to discuss these important issues

Early intervention and prevention services

As well as a shift in the way separation is managed, we are aiming to achieve a shift in the help-seeking behaviours of those who desire to build healthy relationships

A major feature of the expansion of the FRSP will be significantly more prevention and early intervention services

The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, will be addressing you tomorrow and will outline the additional funding under his portfolio

On the prevention and early intervention side, $74 million in additional funding will be provided for:

  • up to 40 new pre-marriage and family relationships education services,
  • 45 new men and family relationships services,
  • 35 new family relationships counselling and skills services, and
  • more than $7 million over three years has been allocated to enhance family violence responses

Prevention and early intervention services aim to strengthen families and prevent separation

These services recognise that skills such as problem solving, negotiating and coping skills are not intuitive and need to be developed in most individuals

These skills can be instrumental in helping couples stay connected when experiencing conflict and change

Open, honest and good communication skills are always important in a relationship, both before, during and after separation

By providing these services in addition to post-separation services, organisations are assisting clients to cope with transitions in relationships from:

  • relationship formation, to
  • parenting, and, in some cases,
  • separation

It is especially important that clients are given the opportunity to learn these skills given the transitions in family dynamics I mentioned earlier

Family violence and the FRSP

The expansion of the FRSP will increase the capacity of the sector to prevent and tackle family violence in the community

As I said earlier, more than $7 million has been provided for enhanced family violence responses

This $7 million is in addition to $3.4 million that will continue to be expended in the program over the same period

Specialised family violence services seek to provide a whole of family intervention to families affected by family violence, using approaches that ensure the safety of women and children.

The service is currently provided through eight organisations, located in each capital city of Australia

The new funding will be used to ensure these services are no longer confined to the capital cities and a family violence focus has been included in each of the 33 new early intervention sites

With early intervention services in the new package being bundled together in the sites, organisations will have the opportunity to provide a more holistic response to families in need of assistance

The FRSP Client Input Consultancy spoke to users of specialised family violence service and found that many users were positive about the service and the program was seen to be offering “a range of services and support to help families with domestic violence”

Violence is never a legitimate way of resolving conflict and, with the new family violence funding, we are able to provide even more crucial interventions to families in conflict

Invitation to tender

All interested organisations are encouraged to take part in the competitive selection process currently being undertaken by the Department of Family and Community Services

If you are interested in getting more information about the selection process to establish the Family Relationship Centres, early intervention services and post-separation services, further information is available on the Department’s website, as well as the Attorney-General’s Department’s website


It was very astute of the organisers to time this Symposium with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Your focus on “Managing Conflict and Responding to Violence in Post-Separation Families” should ensure two days of interesting debate and discussions

By its conclusion I am sure all delegates will have gained improved knowledge and ideas about how best to help families going through separation and how to produce improved outcomes for children and parents

It has been a privilege to be able to speak with you all this morning

I wish you all the best with your deliberations and I officially declare this Symposium open