11 March 2015




PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Now the prevalence and impact of domestic violence has been the focus of a Senate committee hearing in Darwin today. It heard that Indigenous women are most at risk. The committee also heard about widespread cuts to existing programs for victims of abuse even though there is high unmet demand. Labour Senator Penny Wong is on that committee and joins us now from Darwin. Good evening Senator Wong.

PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: G’day, good to be with you Patricia.

KARVELAS: Tell us about some of the most compelling testimony that you heard today.

WONG: Well the consistent message, not just in the hearing today but in the meetings I’ve had since I’ve been in the Northern Territory, has been that this recent round of cuts to Indigenous programs is entirely the wrong way to go. Withdrawing services from remote and vulnerable communities, as this Government has done, really flies in the face of what we should be doing for Indigenous Australians. But most broadly I think the most compelling evidence is some of the evidence from the Aboriginal peak organisations talking about the prevalence of violence in their communities and the extent to which Aboriginal women are at risk. That is one aspect of what is, as you know, a national problem which is the prevalence of family violence in our community and we have to do much better at combating it.

KARVELAS: Indigenous women made up 73 per cent of domestic violence victims of assault but only 15 per cent of the population. It’s almost unbelievable that that figure is right. Really unless we knew that these problems were existing we wouldn’t be able to believe such a figure. It’s such a grim picture, how do you possibly resolve it?

WONG: Well I would make a couple of comments. Don’t you think in this area of domestic violence the figures across the board are almost too awful to believe. I mean how many people in Australia really understood for many years that we see one woman a week die as a result of violence usually at the hands of an intimate partner. That is an extraordinarily sad statistic and really demonstrates why all of us, you in the media, us in politics, community leaders, people like Rosie Batty, why we have to stand up and speak up about this and in the silence around it. When it comes to Indigenous communities, as you would know from the work you have done, you’ve got a challenge that is magnified because you are dealing with dispossession, you are dealing with economic disadvantage and disengagement, dealing with a whole range of potentially health issues, including in some communities drug and alcohol issues. All of which magnify the problem. One of the most I think disappointing aspects of the evidence today was from Amity Community Services which runs the program in Indigenous communities to deal with volatile substances and drug and alcohol abuse. They have had their funding cut and won’t be able to run those programs which really reminds us why these cuts are really going the wrong way.

KARVELAS: On RN Drive it is 7:09 and my guest this evening is Labor Senator Penny Wong who is on this committee looking at domestic violence. Influential Indigenous academic Marcia Langton and Josephine Cashman who is also a member of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council they have come up with quite a few proposals. They have written a letter to the Prime Minister and made public, it’s been broadcast on the ABC their views, they say the Government should be considering imposing financial penalties on offenders. Also beefing up police in communities. They have a number of ideas. Would Labor consider this, financial penalties for offenders?

WONG: I think whatever any government does it has to be done in consultation with and in partnership with the Indigenous communities who are affected. What we know in terms of what works and what doesn’t work is that if we impose solutions that are generated externally, they are not going to be owned by a community ,they are not going to be trusted by a community and they are not going to work. Just one example of that is the level of underreporting that we see in Indigenous communities which is even worse than the level of underreporting in the wider community. So however we approach these challenges, whatever policy solutions we consider I think we do have to work in partnership with Indigenous communities. And that was really made clear today by those representing – one gentleman said, from the Northern Land Council, he said we are willing to work in partnership but we can’t even get to the table. Which I thought was very telling.

KARVELAS: More broadly Australia is already up to its second action plan on domestic violence, it contains five national priorities together with 26 practical actions for all jurisdictions to deliver. What will your committee add to this issue given there is a plan, the Abbott Government has put it on the agenda as well for COAG. There is some action in this area.

WONG: I welcome any action, any effective action to confront domestic violence and family violence in this country. I think all of us would. But I think this committee has a very important role, we’re up to our sixth day of hearings and there is some very good work being done by people on the committee from all sides of politics. And I hope it will make a very strong contribution to the policy response, not just federal but of course working out how federal, state and territory services can better support each other and better interact. I think when it comes to Indigenous policy the evidence today is it really does need some better articulation and clear articulation at a federal level. A lot of it is not just federal policy but also state and territory policy and I think that deserves to be ventilated.

KARVELAS: And on another issue, we have only got a minute left, you are obviously from South Australia. What is your response to the Government’s announcement today to drop its plan to cut subsidies to the car industry?

WONG: I think that decision says something about the chaos in the Government when you have got a whole range of Ministers opposing on background the decision. I think the values of the Government were demonstrated by its decision in opposition which it then delivered in government which was to cut funding and to chase the car industry out of Australia. So while a back down might be welcome at this late stage, it is cold comfort to the many people who have also lost their jobs. I make this point also, I think you had Simon Birmingham on who said that circumstances have changed and this is why they had changed their position. Well the effect on the component sector has been entirely predictable and the Government was warned about this so, you know, frankly it is a political decision about the Prime Minister’s job.

KARVELAS: Interesting to see how it plays out over the next couple of days. Senator Penny Wong thank you so much for joining me on RN Drive.

WONG: Good to speak with you.