Non-Profit Bodies (Freedom to Advocate) Bill 2015
My support of the Opposition’s Bill to remove the gag clauses on the current service agreements of many refuges and non-government services that care for the most vulnerable in our community that stop those agencies advocating for their clients.
A woman—let us call her Amanda—came to my electorate office a couple of months ago. Amanda was articulate, well-groomed, clever and engaging. As many people in our community do, she grew up, married and raised two children. Her marriage broke down and both parties went their separate ways. When Amanda met another man she was more circumspect because she did not want to rush into a second marriage with two small children. However, she became pregnant with her new partner's child and everything started to unravel. Her new partner started to abuse her and at times she was hospitalised. Amanda is a brave and strong woman so she left the relationship. She applied for an apprehended violence order [AVO] and was granted one for two years. Despite having an AVO against her ex-partner, he continued to abuse her, even writing her letters from jail, which was breaching the AVO. Amanda could not have her two eldest children listed on the AVO and as a result her ex-husband fought for sole care on the basis that she could not keep them safe. Amanda has had to apply for three AVOs against her ex-partner because although the courts have the power to grant a 10-year AVO, it will not do so. Her ex-partner has not been through a program for perpetrators or counselling. He has been to jail and continues his violence against her. What does she have to do to prove this in order to protect her children? Eventually Amanda's two eldest children were removed from her care by the Family Court because it found that she could not protect them against the violence of her ex-partner. By not listing her children on the AVO the courts did not adequately enforce the AVO and therefore did not keep her and her children safe. Her ex-partner has never lived with her youngest child yet he is seeking unsupervised access. Having been through so much, Amanda's finances have been drained and she does not have the resources to pay a solicitor, therefore she is representing herself in court. It remains to be seen how effectively she can do this and whether her plight will be heard. Members may be wondering whether I am speaking to the Non-profit Bodies (Freedom to Advocate) Bill 2015 or about domestic violence. I am speaking about the bill. Amanda's story goes to the crux of the bill. If those bodies were free to advocate for their clients, Amanda would not be in that situation. She does not want a political campaign in order to score political points. She wants a solution that grants her unfettered access to her children and protection from her ex-partner. She wants access to justice and fairness. This Government is placing a gag on women such as Amanda, the services that can protect and advocate for her are unable to do so and policymakers are being denied the opportunity to tell her story. Policymakers are usually far removed from domestic violence in our community. We see only the most desperate of cases in our electorates. We do not understand the range of issues that non-government workers, refuges and domestic violence services grapple with every day. We do not see the complexity of the struggle that is their reality. It is a good thing that policymakers are not involved in the minutia. We can be more objective and look at the strategic vision of the Government and therefore make policies that are designed to achieve outcomes for all in our community rather than be caught by sectional interests. However, where the complex area of human services is concerned, we must guarantee that the most vulnerable people in our community are not left behind. Because someone's case is unusual does not mean it is any less desperate or unworthy of our assistance. It is in these complex cases that a solution must be found and not-for-profit bodies must be able to advocate freely on behalf of their clients. I wish to share a definition that was articulated to me by my lecturer when undertaking tertiary studies in psychology and counselling—that is, social workers heal a damaged person then try to heal the society that damaged them in the first instance. Social workers in our non-government sector are taking on more work to heal people in our community and are trying to heal the community. They have caseloads that are increasing each year, often exponentially, due to unfunded changes in government programs. Those workers are at the coalface helping people such as Amanda navigate the maze of legislation that is acting against them as well as trying to keep them safe and alive. When our justice system fails people such as Amanda and they lose their children while facing repeated violence from an ex-partner and become impoverished as a result of fighting a system that is designed to protect them, something is seriously wrong. Being a caseworker on cases such as this is soul destroying. The only light at the end of the tunnel is an opportunity to stop this happening to others. Amanda came to me to seek changes to the treatment of other survivors of domestic violence. There are gag clauses on the current service agreements of many refuges and non-government services that care for the most vulnerable in our community that stop those agencies advocating for their clients. Therefore, we do not always see the issues in legislation and how it impacts detrimentally on our communities that we were elected to govern and protect. The gag clauses mean the Government is not listening to the community sector. It is providing funding begrudgingly but is saying: "Have the cash. Now go away. Do not spend it all at once and do not bother us about this problem anymore." The bill prohibits content in agreements that restricts or prevents a non-profit body, including its staff, from commenting on, advocating support for, or opposing change to any matter established by law, policy or practice of the State. Any member of the community can become an expert on a topic by opening a Facebook or Twitter account. However, we must not ignore the experience, wisdom, clarity and expertise of non-profit bodies that helps to progress public debate. The Government must not ignore the advice of those entrusted with the special task of dealing with these complex issues. This nation is proud of its democracy. When we ignore the compassionate experts who help our most vulnerable, when we punish individuals and organisations for speaking out against bad policy, and when we write clauses into agreements that prevent us from hearing where our policies fail, we chip away at the very foundations of our democracy. The bill will enable us all to act with courage, conviction and integrity to ensure that we listen to those who are charged with looking after the most vulnerable in our community. I urge Government members to open their hearts and ears to the most compassionate workers in our community and to support the bill.