Analysis: Two days for the Australian National Women's Safety Summit was never going to be enough

Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame. Picture: Supplied
Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame. Picture: Supplied

Decades ago, the masterly British TV satire Yes Minister schooled us about political inquiries when permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby tried to stop his minister Jim Hacker from officially looking into arms exports.

"No minister, I beg you, a basic rule of government is never look into anything you don't have to, and never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be," he uttered.

Countless inquiries in Australia later, many of them purely political, the political adage applies neatly to the National Women's Safety Summit - a two-day virtual event guiding the development of the second National Plan to reduce violence against women and children. It will also guide the next tranche of funding for women's safety.

That driver of the next National Plan should make this summit more than just another summit. It should be "ambitious" according to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But Mr Morrison already knows - or should already know - that women are angry and services for women, particularly for abuse survivors and more particularly those from vulnerable groups, desperately need more dedicated federal funding.

The national summit on Tuesday heard family violence prevention legal services were "operating on the smell of an oily rag" and going "cap in hand" begging to provide essential services.

"Year after year, we are begging for money, begging for funding to support our over 60 plus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," said Thelma Schwartz from the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Services.

"You know, how is that acceptable?

"And then the government then has the hide to say to us, 'well, what are you doing?' you know, come on now."

Such is the overflowing of sentiment over the treatment of women in modern Australian society, there's jostling about participation at the women's safety summit.

It is clear, the two days laid out for the event was never going to be enough.

So sensitive is the issue, the one of the lightning rods for 2021's outpouring and indeed one of the reasons the summit was called - former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins - was not invited as participant by the Morrison government. She was later invited by the ACT government to be a delegate.

"Inexcusable" and a missed opportunity, according to 2021 Australian of the Year and abuse survivor advocate Grace Tame.

It is Ms Tame's experience and national award, presented by the Prime Minister, that was inspiration for Ms Higgins coming forward. And now, in a feat of verbal gymnastics, they stand on each other's shoulders.

Ms Tame knows she has limitations and is trying to work with the system, even as she eruditely and powerfully criticises it.

"As far as being someone who has to provide the solutions, I mean, I am just a lived experience survivor," she told the safety summit.

"Unfortunately, my own experience of support systems of the justice system is not a model to refer to. I am sitting here as someone who's somewhat of an anomaly, that I've got to this point being the lived experience survivor to have a platform like I do, that's that's very rare.

"Most survivors don't have this experience and I am acutely aware of that. The onus is not on us to be the victims of the system, the victims of the crime and then also going 'we've got all the answers as well'. This needs to be an approach which is not siloed."

So, what have we heard at the summit? The COVID pandemic is making it harder for victims and easier for abusers.

The ideas for concrete reform are there.

"Transforming" the criminal justice system to make it more victim centric, "investment, long term generational change", a national uniform definition of sexual consent consent which includes an understanding of enthusiastic consent, better education of consent for young people, teaching better respect in schools and specialist sexual violence courts.

Just a few ideas from women and men who know. It is now up to the federal government and whether it is listening. Or will this be just another summit?

And as Grace Tame says, while engaging with the Women's Safety Summit, it is far from the only platform for change.

This story Powerful safety summit voices seeking action first appeared on The Canberra Times.