Victoria promises Australia-first Family Violence Agency

By David Donaldson

March 31, 2016

The Victorian government will create Australia’s first independent family violence agency — combining monitoring, policy advice and research roles — following Wednesday’s release of the report of the state’s historic Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Premier Daniel Andrews (pictured) has agreed to implement all 227 recommendations from the 2000-page report, including the creation of a statutory authority to provide consistent, strategic oversight of the government’s approach to family violence.

If created as suggested by the royal commission, the body would combine policy advice and research functions with monitoring of the implementation of the report’s recommendations and Victoria’s Family Violence Action Plan. This would allow it to consider whether prevention activities or service initiatives have met their objectives or should be modified to make them more effective.

It would not be in charge of service provision, however, as this would remain with government.

Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, says she’s “really happy” with the proposal. Depending on how it’s established, she says, an independent agency will help smooth out some of the vagaries of the political process and provide stability.

Often new governments want to show they are different from their predecessors by changing direction or cutting previous governments’ programs entirely, messing up continuity throughout the sector. Sometimes new ministers just aren’t interested in the topic.

“Part of the frustration with trying to improve responses and prevent family violence is the political process,” she explained to The Mandarin.

“We’ll just get something happening and then there’s a change of government.”

“You might have a new government and new ministers, and sometimes it’s not apparent to new ministers they have a responsibility for family violence. We’ll just get something happening and then there’s a change of government.”

Being a central point of contact in a field that involves multiple ministers may push them to work together more effectively, too.

“An organisation whose job it is not to be a part of the service system, but to ensure the government of the day is accountable to the long-term vision of what’s required, I think would make an extraordinary difference,” she argued.

McCormack says she’s unaware of any agencies around the country with the same combination of responsibilities. “This is something that would be great to see in other parts of Australia as well,” she said.

In addition to monitoring, advice and research, the new statutory body would liaise with the Commonwealth government and national agencies in developing policy and practice to enhance primary prevention efforts and improve responses to family violence, as well as establishing a means by which service providers can share information about programs.

The report also recommended it work together with crime statistics agencies to co-ordinate data collection and sharing to assess the performance of systems that respond to family violence.

The Andrews government agreed to the timeline of establishing the agency by July 1, 2017. The commission also suggested the government should create a family violence unit within the Department of Premier and Cabinet and a cabinet standing sub-committee chaired by the Premier.

Callister: silos stymie response

Many submissions to the commission highlighted that current governance arrangements suffered from a lack of coherence and that there was no “system owner” of family violence policy. McCormack told the commission:

“Say for us as a peak body, if I want to go and talk to government about how the system is going there’s nowhere to go to. I might go and talk to DHHS about what they are doing. I might go to police and talk about what they are doing. But in terms of anything that’s working together or towards common objectives there’s nowhere.”

The problem of different agencies working in silos manifests in the area of family violence as what former secretary of the Department of Human Services Gill Callister described as “a focus on program and problem rather than people”:

“If you appear in the homelessness system as a victim of family violence you are largely seen through the lens of homelessness; if you appear in the mental health system as a victim of family violence you will be seen through a mental health lens …

“So it’s about sort of I think changing the lens from a program-dominated lens to understanding the whole person and what’s going on. One of the consequences of those lenses is people are referred to a service for each component, and each service does a plan.”

Then-acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kym Peake agreed that responding to family violence “requires an approach to service delivery that is flexible and holistic — designed around individual preferences and needs rather than programmatic boundaries”.

Many argued there was a lack of common understanding around family violence policy and service provision.

The report also pointed out the importance of including victims’ voices in policy and service design. In comments echoed more recently on the need for greater use of qualitative assessment in government, DPC secretary Chris Eccles noted that, in evaluating the performance and efficacy of programs, speaking with the program users should be a key source of information:

“Data is not going to be able to capture every element of system performance. I would imagine they would be able to make a qualitative assessment of the system’s performance by talking to victims, families and perpetrators.”

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