I just want to say, before I start, that to be in the parliament when Youssef Chaaya’s memories are brought to the table by the member for Greenway is a marvellous moment to be here. It doesn’t happen very often that somebody gives an address to the parliament like the one you’ve just given. Congratulations. I know it must be heartbreaking for your family, but this is just the sort of man who makes this nation what it is.
On the afternoon of Saturday 1 May, I had the privilege of attending the Mayday Women’s Forum held in Toora. I was rather humbled and honoured even to be invited, as a male and a local member. I’d been invited to be a witness and listen to 11 impressive women from in or around Toora share their personal stories, to participate in the subsequent discussions and to take what I heard back to this parliament, which I’m doing today. I acknowledge two of the organisers, Sue Plowright and Rosemary Brooks, who are here in the chamber tonight.
Toora is a small farming village in my electorate whose main industry is dairy farming. It’s located at the top of Corner Inlet, opposite Wilsons Promontory National Park. It’s a stunning part of the world. With Toora having a population of around 680, you might understand that I expected around 20 participants. What a surprise it was when I walked into the hall and there were 70 women and a couple of men there. There had been a shift. This community was galvanised.
Several themes and issues emerged from the forum, but, overwhelmingly, homelessness and family violence were front and centre. The 11 presenters each shared their own powerful and personal stories: for example, an older woman with no superannuation and no home of her own; a young woman, a tradie, who had to fight against entrenched antagonism by many of the men around her but who was fortunately supported by her employer to continue to work as a diesel mechanic; and a dedicated teacher who missed out on a promotion because she sought to work less than full-time hours, to work around the needs of her young family. Each of the presenters shone a light on a myriad of insidious aspects of disrespect towards and discrimination against women.
The last presenter spoke on behalf of women she works with who have shared their experiences of family violence. Her community health centre helps people in the district with the food bank, referrals to services, food vouchers and advocacy for people at risk of homelessness. Homelessness, family violence, mental health crises and food insecurity are all rampant in her community and have been made even worse by the pandemic. In what became a moment of reckoning which stopped us all in our tracks, she asked us, as forum participants, to imagine we were in a relationship with a partner who withholds medications from you; sells your possessions without permission; hurts or kills your pets; monitors all of your everyday activities, including the clothes you wear and who you talk to—if you’re even allowed to go out at all; controls all of your money, from shopping to paying bills; or abuses or hurts you in front of your children.
The presenter then went on to ask the attendees a series of questions, none of which I’d ever considered from a woman’s perspective. I’d never put myself in a woman’s shoes. We were then asked to reflect on matters we’d need to consider if we were a woman at risk of or experiencing family violence: Have you learnt how to delete your search history when looking for help online? Have you considered using a code language that the person using violence against you will not know? Have you used this at the hairdresser or the chemist? Have you needed to take photos of bruises or injuries and given them to a trusted friend before deleting them? Have you needed to ensure you always have petrol in your car and a spare set of keys in case you need to leave quickly? Where is your rental agreement? Where are your property deeds? Where is your birth certificate? Can you grab them in a hurry? Does your doctor have contact numbers for your friends and for the kids’ school in case you get really hurt next time? The last question was: Have you taught your children the warning signs? Do they know a safe place to hide? Do they know how to call the police? Do they know your address, should the worst happen?
I ask this question soberly and with no accusation or judgement: How have we, as a society, come to this? How have we let this happen?
Violence against a partner affects all members of a family. Put simply, it occurs when one person exerts power over another in a relationship or family situation. To any victims listening to me now, family violence is not your fault. You are not responsible for the violent behaviour of others or those around you, not ever. You don’t ask for it. It’s never an appropriate response. Although men may experience family violence, it’s far more likely in Australia that women, non-binary or gender diverse people will be in a relationship of violence or abuse. People with all sorts of backgrounds, cultures and circumstances experience violence and abuse at home.
The focus of the Mayday Women’s Forum was rural women’s safety, justice, opportunity, achievements and their role in rural communities. The forum followed the March4Justice on 15 May, and the organisers asked me to convey this to the parliament: ‘We call on you as democratic lawmakers and policy setters to exercise your representative responsibility to act in particular on the following: provide in place, affordable and safe emergency accommodation, temporary housing and long-term homes with supports for mental health et cetera through extending existing centralised services to include comprehensive, in-person mobile and outreach services and creative and better use of existing buildings as a priority; recognise, prioritise and work through community-led enabling initiatives that draw on local knowledge, networks and know-how; recognise that every small rural town and district is distinct and has different circumstances, cultures, landscapes, assets and needs; promote neighbourliness and community cohesion; address, through formal and informal education, the lack of respect and acknowledgement of women’s skill and productivity that is endemic in Australia.’ But the one message in the rural context of dispersed small towns, locales and farms that is particularly important is summed up by this one plea: ‘Secure long-term funding for community houses in every rural town.’
This Mayday forum and my subsequent engagement with the presenters and organisers has been a turning point, a fork in the road for me. Since engaging on issues directly on the treatment of women in this country, I have been approached by numerous people, both men and women, who are pleading with me to help make a meaningful difference, not just talk and platitudes. Our history of white settlement talks of the awful history of misogyny, from our very beginnings, that has hovered like a bad odour over our national being, an underlying theme that has infected the generations. We, as a people, have lived in a state of denial of society’s generational habits, then allowed them to penetrate every institution of our creation across every state, territory and region. This lack of respect for a partner manifests itself in many ways where power, manipulation and outright intention to control another are enacted. More often than not, this is a learned behaviour, which arises from observed experience in any given setting. It is respect that we have lost—to honour one another as a first response, not one that has to be learned, but one expected as a fundamental part of our cultural norm.
I would like to finish up on a rare uplifting note. One of the families that I heard about as a result of the forum was a mum and her four sons who had escaped family violence. At the time the family was looking at the prospect of being wrenched from their close-knit community networks, including a very supportive school community, which supported the boys, becoming homeless and uprooting to a town 40 kilometres away. Long story short: the community drew on its own networks and social capital, and a home was miraculously found for this family—a small glimmer of hope in what was otherwise a very desperate and dire picture of life for so many people in our society.
Funding won’t fix this. It’s not money that’s going to fix this. Our society has to fix this. We have to own the problems. Once we have owned the problems, we have to work out ways to fix them. Whatever those ways are, what we’re currently doing is not working. But we can work together as a nation for a better outcome.