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Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Ministerial Statement on White Ribbon Day

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

On November 25, 1990 Marc Dutroux walked into a classroom at École Polytechnique, Montreal, Canada. He divided the women and men into two groups and proceeded to shoot dead 6 women. He then stalked the corridors murdering 8 more women before turning his gun on himself.

Shocked by the viciousness of this assault, and the deep and disturbing hatred of women it displayed, a group of Canadian men were moved the following year to speak out and show their opposition to violence against women by wearing a white ribbon.

From that modest beginning in 1991, White Ribbon Day has grown to a world-wide movement of men, how are “not violent; not silent”.

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the White Ribbon has become the symbol of that day.

All Australians have the right to live safe and free from violence, at home and in our community.

It is important to work to reduce all types of violence, no matter whom it affects.

Domestic violence and sexual assault are two of the most prevalent types of violence and need targeted approaches to change not just attitudes, but behaviour.

One in three Australian women will report being a victim of physical violence and almost one in five will report being a victim of sexual violence in their lifetime.

Violence against women comes at an enormous economic cost.

Recent research shows that each year violence against women costs the nation $13.6 billion.

This figure is expected to rise to $15.6 billion by 2021.

That economic cost, in medical and legal services, time off work and lost productivity is enormous. Incalculable is the emotional damage that cascades down the generations.

Domestic violence kills more women under 45 than any other recognised health risk 1 and destroys family and community life.

Last month I received a letter from a woman who told me about the fear that she lives with everyday from a verbally aggressive and controlling husband.

‘I started off by telling you that I am an intelligent woman. I have two university degrees, I’m confident in myself and secure financially on my own, but I cannot leave this marriage because of the fear. I am so afraid that he will do something to my girls to get back at me and so I stay. I am so afraid that he will somehow get equal time with them and put their lives at risk due to the drinking and reckless behaviour and so I stay. He has a firearm and a dagger and I am so afraid that one day he might be so drunk or so angry that he might just use one on me and so I stay. I feel that by staying I can at least fight and protect my children like any mother would.

Today we can see the power of the decision of that first group of Canadian men to take a stand against violence against women.

Many Government and Opposition MPs and Senators will take the opportunity today to stand up and be counted – to Swear: never to commit violence against women, never to excuse violence against women, and never to remain silent about violence against women.

Over the last decade the White Ribbon Foundation in Australia has grown from being a small network of concerned men into a major national organisation with the support of men from sport, politics, business, government and local communities everywhere.

I have met with White Ribbon Ambassadors and supporters from all over the country – outstanding people like Graham Hoad, Kevin Zibell and Chris Carpenter from the Ballarat White Ribbon Day committee that have been working with local sporting groups and at community events in their region to get the word out that violence against women is not acceptable.

Australians – women and men – are clear that they think violence against women is unacceptable.

The latest data shows that 98% of Australians recognise that domestic violence is a crime.

Yet while attitudes have improved, the prevalence of violence continues to be unacceptably high. Even with all our efforts, reports of domestic violence and sexual assault are likely to increase in coming years as women who would once have been part of the silent majority who never report their assault come forward as their confidence in our judicial, policing and support systems improve.

Data from the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey [2006] shows that for those women who experienced physical assault in the previous 12 months:

  • 31 per cent were attacked by a current or former male partner
  • 28 per cent by a male family member or friend, and
  • 15 per cent by a male stranger

And the 2006-07 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report found that of the 81 female victims of homicide in that year, 41 died at the hands of their intimate partner – just over half.

There is a very different pattern for male victims of violence. The Personal Safety Survey tells us that 65 per cent of assaults on men were committed by male strangers. Of the 185 male murder victims in 2006-07 year, 13 per cent died at the hands of their intimate partner.

Violence against women is preventable and while Governments and the community have made gains over time in addressing violence against women, clearly there is more to do.

In April this year, the Australian Government formally accepted Time for Action, the major report of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, a non-government advisory body.

Time for Action contains recommendations designed to tackle the unacceptable levels of sexual assault and domestic and family violence in Australia.

In direct response to Time for Action, the Australian Government immediately invested $42 million to fund a new package of actions to reduce violence against women.

In 2010 I expect to launch a new national domestic violence and sexual assault telephone and online crisis service. While existing telephone services have helped many people, the Commonwealth is working with the states and territories and the non-government sector to improve and expand the reach of telephone counselling and add on-line counselling for those who prefer this type of communication.

We have also announced $17 million for a behaviour-change campaign to reduce violence against women.

We know that most Australians understand that violence against women is a crime. Organisations such as the White Ribbon Foundation have raised awareness in the community and developed a strong consensus in Australians.

The next step is focus on changing behaviours. Actually stopping the violence, or preventing young people from ever using or accepting violence in their intimate relationships.

Our efforts to change violent behaviours have to, in some respects, mirror our efforts in changing attitudes to, and incidence of, drink driving.

Drink driving kills and maims.

As a community we decided to save lives by banning drink driving.

We sent a message as a community that this behaviour is completely unacceptable. It took a few years before this really sank in, but the days of crawling out of the club and into the car are mostly, thankfully, behind us.

This is because people were educated about the harmful effects of drink driving, but also because our policing and our laws sent a strong message that if you do this crime you will be caught and you will be prosecuted.

If someone gets caught, we should throw the book at them.

Using the public health model that has been successful in reducing drink driving, road deaths have fallen by two-thirds since the late seventies, even though the number of cars on the road has doubled. The NSW police minister believes Random Breath Testing has saved about 20,000 lives in NSW since its introduction.

Similarly with domestic violence and sexual assault: we should throw the book at perpetrators of this crime, but just as importantly we should use persuasion, education, legislation and even incarceration to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place or re-occurring.

Over the next 5 years we will invest $9.1 million in respectful relationships education.

Children model their behaviour on their family and their peer group. Most young people are fortunate to come from homes where they see respect and love. Most young people want that in their own lives. Respectful Relationships education in schools and other settings can give young people the communication skills they need to establish good friendships that evolve, as they get older into the skills for loving, caring, equal relationships.

Using peer groups to re-enforce the importance of healthy relationships is particularly powerful with teenagers.

Anyone who has had a teenager – or remembers what it was like to be one – will know how important it is to develop a peer group consensus about what types of behaviours are acceptable.

That means running programs in schools and places such as youth centres that build the skills young people will draw on all their lives.

Promising respectful relationships programs are currently being tested at 56 sites across Australia at a cost of $2.1 million.

The programs currently have participants in most States and Territories, these include NRL youth elite players, university students and school students.

In South Australia, for example, we are funding the evaluation of the Keeping Safe curriculum. This is an excellent curriculum that has strong support but has never been formally evaluated. Anecdotal feedback is that Keeping Safe supports and develops children’s skills to help a friend or tell an adult if they are faced with a problem. Students learn that how to recognise abuse, that abuse is wrong, that victims are not to blame and there is action that can be taken to stop violence.

We will continue to work with the National Rugby League to implement respectful relations programs. These men are role models and need the skills to conduct respectful relationships with women and one another. In Queensland, for example, the Sex and Ethics program with National Rugby League elite youth uses previous National Rugby League players as educators.

In September the Prime Minister announced a further $1.1 million would be spent on the next round of respectful relationship programs starting next year.

This testing phase is designed to give us the information we need to roll out the most successful programs more broadly. We need to build on what works – to change attitudes, but more importantly to change behaviours.

We know that education is important, but legal sanction for wrong behaviour is also critical to success.

We need strong laws and effective policing to prevent and punish violence against women.

The Government has been working with the States and Territories through the Standing committee of Attorneys-General to address legal recommendations in Time for Action, including:

  • working toward a national scheme for the registration of domestic and family violence orders;
  • improving the uptake of coronial recommendations; and
  • identifying the most effective methods to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases.

Developing a national approach to the registration of domestic violence orders will provide greater protection for women. Many women don’t realise they need to register their order when they move inter-state.

Yet is it all too easy for men to follow their ex partners and continue to perpetrate violence.

We have asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to work with State and Territory law reform commissions to examine the inter-relationship of Federal and State and Territory laws that relate to the safety of women and their children.

As well as providing funding for the immediate package of measures, in the last Budget the Government committed an additional $195 million over four years to address violence. Of this investment:

  • $72 million is being provided for continued funding of the Women’s Program in my portfolio.
  • $19.5 million will continue our commitment to training rural and remote practice nurses and Aboriginal Health Workers.
  • An estimated $64 million has been allocated for funding family violence programs in Indigenous communities across the country. Some focus on early intervention and prevention of violence through work with men like the Spirited Men’s Project in Murray Bridge in South Australia. Others target Indigenous men leaving correctional services such as the Cross Border NPY Lands Program. These programs address the underlying causes of violence such as drug and alcohol use and the effects of grief and trauma.
  • $4 million is provided for the Support for Victims of trafficking program.

Because domestic and family violence is the principal causes of homelessness among women and children, the Government’s $7.7 billion investment in long term housing projects and homelessness prevention will help thousands of victims of violence live safely in new emergency accommodation, or long term in social housing.

Obviously many victims of violence prefer to stay safely in the family home if they can, particularly to minimise disruption to children, so State and Territory Governments are also working to implement “Safe At Home” programs like those in Tasmania, the Northern suburbs of Melbourne and Bega .This is being picked up across the nation.

The Safe At Home Measures and emergency accommodation are mostly covered in the detailed implementation plans for the Homelessness National Partnership Agreement.

Under this partnership, the Australian Government will provide $550 million over five years, to be matched by the States and Territories, to deliver a new range of services to meet the white paper goals.

This total of $1.1 billion for homelessness services and specialist accommodation allows us to take a new approach to homelessness focusing on preventing homelessness and reducing the duration and impact of homelessness and will have a significant affect on the 50 000 women and children who seek help from Supported Accommodation Assistance Program services each year 2.

Examples of measures in implementation plans include:

  • In New South Wales, over 200 more women and children experiencing domestic and family violence will get help to stabilise their housing in the Illawarra, Western Sydney and Hunter areas through rental subsidies and access to long term accommodation and support.
  • In Victoria, each year a total of 500 children younger than 12 will get help to maintain contact with school and to overcome the trauma of homelessness.
  • In Western Australia, women and children who are experiencing domestic and family violence will get help to stay in their housing, where it is safe for them to do so.
  • In Tasmania, five new facilities for homeless people will be built over the next two years.
  • In the last 2 years my colleague the Attorney General has provided an additional $ 54 million for Legal Aid, Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal Legal Services. These services provide front-line assistance to separating families to help them resolve their disputes including assistance for women and children.

I am pleased to report to the House that my State and Territory colleagues have embraced the need to act to stop violence.

A number have made significant investments in recent years and developed state based plans to tackle domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Victorian Government has invested over $140 million since 2005 on family violence and sexual assault reform – including:

Systemic review for family violence deaths driven by the State Coroner;

Multidisciplinary Centres pilot in 2 locations are an innovative new way of responding to sexual offences (for adults and children)

In Rockhampton in Queensland – as part of the Government’s recently announced strategy to reduce family violence – they are trialling an enhanced integrated response model for domestic and family violence. This provides case management services for individuals and families, an integrated specialised court program and enhanced legal services

To ensure that our individual efforts are amplified by co-operation, COAG established a Ministerial Council in July 2009, to take Time For Action to its next step: a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their children that all states and territories, as well as the Commonwealth, can sign up to.

Membership of the Council includes Ministers from different portfolios that have an impact on violence including housing, community services, women, policing, health , education and Attorneys-General. I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of my co-chair Attorney General, the Hon Robert McClelland MP. The Attorney-General is a White Ribbon Ambassador who is using his extensive influence and expertise to push legal improvements for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Our efforts to combat violence have borne fruit in many respects. Community attitudes towards violence have improved.

Although too many Australian women experience violence, I have great hope for the future.

I believe change is possible.

We have already put behind us the notion that domestic violence is private; none of our business.

A few months ago I was talking to the school leaders of St Mary’s Cathedral school in my electorate.

Because it was so topical I asked the young men what they thought of the allegations that a group of footballers had raped a woman while on tour in New Zealand. Every single one of those young men were able to see the situation from that girl’s point of view. They made comments like: “she must have been terrified,” “she’s the same age as our friends, and I can imagine how scared she must have been.” Not one of those boys excused the behaviour of the footballers, although some said it was unfair that one had borne the public shame while his team mates got off scot free.

The ability of those young men to imagine sexual assault from the victim’s point of view, and their clear moral code gave me great hope.

I meet men like that – White Ribbon Ambassadors and supporters chief among them – all over the country.

Change is possible, but it will take all of us working together, men and women.

Congratulations to all the men who show that leadership today by wearing the white ribbon and by swearing not to commit, condone or be silent about violence against women.


  1. Victorian Health
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. SAAP. National Data Collection 2007-2008