Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence Fiona Richardson at the release of the Royal Commission report at Parliament House. Photo: Eddie Jim
When the Royal Commission into Family Violence released its full report last week, it signalled a fundamental change in how we deal with the tragedy of lives shattered and lost to violence.
Not just because it so clearly documents the breadth of the problem, but because, finally, we have been offered a solution. Daniel Andrews' fervent support for implementing all 227 recommendations has given us hope – something that's been hard to hold onto in the face of murder's heartbreaking regularity.
I love Andrews' dedication and passion, and I believe he will do everything in his power to make good on his promises. But the more I look into it, the less I am able to comprehend how he is going to pull this off. He doesn't lack the will, but where will he get the money? The report doesn't put a cost on implementing the recommendations, but reading through them, it looks like hundreds of millions, probably billions, are needed.
It's impossible to see how Victoria alone could manage to fund this. The commission suggested that Victoria may have to consider a broad based tax to fund the the family violence system and, as Fiona McCormack argued so eloquently yesterday, we can't afford to not make this investment.
But even if we have the extensive community support needed for such a tax (and that's a big 'if'), we will still, almost certainly, need additional resources from Canberra.
The federal government, despite being only too eager to waste billions on incarcerating asylum seekers, has proven decidedly wishy-washy on investment in family violence prevention. And how could federal funding only be given to Victoria? What about all the victims floundering in similarly inadequate systems around the rest of the country?
The full report is far too complex to cover in a single article, but even just taking one aspect, like the court system, it describes systemic failures and decades of neglect that is undoubtedly not unique to our state.
The Melbourne Magistrate's court, for example, where applications for intervention orders in central Melbourne are heard, is already stretched to breaking point. It's held together only by the white-knuckled determination of its staff, who are themselves breaking under the weight of desperate under-resourcing.
The sixth floor, where family violence matters are heard, is a vast lobby, surrounded by doorways to court rooms and offices. Everyone waiting for hearings sits there, sometimes for hours, often under the malevolent glare of their abuser. Signs of underfunding are everywhere: the lift buttons don't work, toilets are out of order, and, as one of the staff told me, they operate on the assumption that only a third of the cases listed each day will turn up. No one knows what happens to the other two thirds. Video links exists, but they are unwieldy and use of them is unnecessarily bureaucratic. Adding to the chaos, Heidelberg Magistrate's Court was flooded over a year ago and all their matters are still being heard at Melbourne.
Fixing this would require new purpose-built family violence courts, not just for Melbourne and Heidelberg, but for all the other metropolitan and regional areas too.
Apart from the basic infrastructure, all these new courts need a huge investment in human resources. A staffing model by Victoria police a few years ago estimated that each magistrate requires eight police prosecutors, which would mean a similar number of clerks and registrars, plus legal aid and support staff for victims.
This is crucial. Every level of the family violence courts are currently understaffed. Confused and frightened victims struggle to find help just in understanding what is happening with their case, let alone how to access all the other services they desperately need.
Ms Sinclair of Victoria Legal Aid told the Commission the duty lawyer system is not broken, but that "we are just buckling under the demand."
Courtlink, the Department of Justice database, is decades old and can't communicate meaningfully with LEAP, the police database, which means admin staff waste far too much time filling in forms and faxing them off to be manually entered elsewhere. Both databases are too old to update; and replacing them with a workable system would be a massive undertaking. But one of the overarching messages in the report is that information sharing and accessibility is an ongoing and immediate problem.
And that's just the logistics side of the courts. The report also makes it clear that the court system itself is intimidating for victims, that education and training is required at every level.
One victim told the Commission: "[A]ll the barristers are friends with each other, and all the magistrates are, and they're all really chummy with each other and it [is] kind of, and I hate to say this, at a higher class than where I am, so their ideals and standards are here, I'm coming from there and so there's a huge class difference and they haven't been in the position that I am at the moment so they have no idea what it's like to have to see your abuser there [at court] three or four times a week."
The courts are only one feature of a systemic failure. The full recommendations cover the provision of proper crisis services, assistance to keep victims in their home and ensure they're safe, fully trained staff to help traumatised people navigate the complexities of all the different departments, training for everyone in the health, justice and education systems, special services for at risk groups like people with disabilities, the elderly, LGTBIQ and Aboriginal communities, 17 safety hubs across the state, as well as a huge investment in education and preventative actions.
If this report proves anything, it's that we need a national response, an Australia-wide commitment to prioritising family violence. It would will save hundreds of lives, and change many thousands more; but it requires, at the federal level, the sort of leadership and dedication we have only seen so far in Daniel Andrews.
Victoria is lucky to have a Premier so committed to making real change in family violence. Andrews is the reason we had the royal commission in the first place, and I don't think we should underestimate his passionate dedication to this issue.
But the truth is that we need national leadership on this, and sadly, at the moment, I can't see where that will come from.