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Breaking ‘invisible chains’

Motion and speech

November 17, 2021

Tania MAXWELL MP (Northern Victoria):

That this House —

  1. recognises —
    • the prevalence of coercive control in family violence offending;
    • that perpetrators of family violence may offend against multiple family members and/or intimate partners;
    • that disclosure of relevant information about the criminal history of a perpetrator is a key indicator in family violence risk assessment and management;
  2. calls on the Government to —
    • review legislative and procedural frameworks in relation to family violence to consider how evidence of coercive and controlling behaviour is available to illustrate the experience of family violence; and
    • consider the suite of initiatives and opportunities available to enhance understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour in our community and the justice system.

I rise today to speak on my motion #676 which calls on the government to examine the abhorrent behaviour known as coercive control and the potential for evidence of such behaviour to be used in court cases.

My motion today is to represent victims who have suffered and endured the effects and impacts of coercive control, and to seek much needed changes to how organisations and our justice system respond to the impacts of coercive control and the traumatic implications that are often irreversible.

I am not going to dance lightly around this subject today nor am I going to refrain from highlighting serious concerns about the insidious behaviours that ruin lives and leave lasting scars on victims. Scars that for some will never heal.

Some of this information may be overwhelming, and it should be!

I am not here to sugar coat the reality of the consequences and impacts of this appalling behaviour which is nothing short of inexcusable, controlling and ultimately an expression of inadequacy of those who inflict it on others.

The murder of Hannah Clarke and her children in February 2020 broke the hearts of our nation. It has been a watershed moment in sparking the national conversation around coercive control.  We need to determine how this conversation is going to happen in Victoria and that is why I am putting this motion to the Parliament today.

One woman every week in Australia dies at the hands of her current or former partner. According to the Victorian Homicide Register there were 110 family violence homicides in this state in the past 5 years.

There were more than 174,000 family violence offences reported in Victoria in the year ending 30 June 2021. This was an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year.

The Men’s Referral Service recorded a 90 per cent increase in calls in April 2020 when stage 3 restrictions were introduced.[i] Police were called to 92,251 incidents in 2020.[ii] These are big numbers.

Before I speak more specifically about coercive control, I want to take a moment to pay my respects to the victims, victim survivors, their families and loved ones. I also pay my respects to the staunch advocates for those who don’t have a voice themselves – who advocate for the deceased, for those who are silenced by grief, for those who are living with violence and silenced by fear.

As MPs for Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, Mr Grimley and I have the privilege to advocate for those who are impacted by crime, whether they are survivors or …..in their memories. We speak with people every week whose lives are forever changed by the offences committed against them or their loved one. Some are here today – your courage is truly inspiring and is at the centre of our work.

I also note the efforts of frontline police, family violence specialists and the broader social services network who work at the coalface, who try to help people access safety, pick up the pieces, achieve justice. It is complicated, heartbreaking work.

Coercive and controlling behaviours are a form of violence involving repeat patterns of abusive behaviour. They can cause enormous harm, leaving victims isolated, insecure and fearful.

Coercive controlling behaviours pervasive by nature – it increases the likelihood of escalating violence within a relationship, and it is likely to persist after separation.

Controlling behaviours might including any combination of measures, such as withholding money, tracking a phone, reading emails and texts. It could be regulating what someone wears, who they hang out with, or where they go. Following them. Isolating them.  Making things so difficult that friends and family pull away.

Gaslighting, making threats, manipulation, intimidation. As a victim of coercive control becomes increasingly isolated, the patterns of abuse can escalate. It is no wonder they refer to coercive control as ‘invisible chains’.

Many victims report that the psychological abuse is often worse than all but the most extreme physical abuse, because of its persistent and enduring nature.

Going back to the case of Hannah Clarke, one of her closest friends reported having spoken to her husband on many occasions to effectively ‘pull him up’ on the controlling behaviours that he exercised over his wife. This friend said that he only heard the term coercive control after her death and that if he had known more about coercive control he would have done more.[iii]

Here in Victoria, our courts recently considered the horrifying abuse suffered by Michelle Skewes at the hands of her ex-husband and I met with Ms Skewes in preparing this motion.  Coercive controlling behaviours were pervasive throughout her marriage and she describes trying to make herself a small target and keeping a public mask of normality in order to hide her private life of misery. For more than a decade, Ms Skewes was stripped of her independence, her vibrancy and sense of self-worth, and the manipulation and denigration extended to extreme physical and sexual violence. 

Excerpts noted by the judge from Ms Skewes victim impact statement noted the possibility of vomiting triggers panic, she apologises for everything, and her self-esteem is still broken by humiliation and shame. She is hyper vigilant, naturally distrusting of others, anxious about her physical health, plagued by nightmares and exhaustion. She has suffered the besmirching judgement of others as if her abuse disturbed an idyllic public picture of her marriage.

Ms Skewes courage to share her story in the face of all that she has endured is remarkable. Her offender was sentenced to more than a decade in prison, and the Judge said:  ‘this sentence must send a clear and unequivocal message of deterrence that those who are like-minded to offend in this way, particularly men in the context of coercive control and domestic violence, must understand that their behaviour will be met by condemnation and denunciation as utterly unacceptable conduct and with stern and just punishment.’   Now, with much ahead to rebuild her life with her children, Ms Skewes is in this parliament today hoping that she can help prevent the abuse she endured from happening to others.

These offences are quite hard to imagine, but the work of police, of social workers, of our courts, is littered with cases of intimate partner and family violence.

The New South Wales Joint Select Committee into coercive control has recommended a criminal offence for the patterns of oppressive behaviour that are coercive control.  This committee heard evidence that 111 out of 112 cases of intimate partner homicide – 99 per cent – had been preceded by elements of coercive control[iv]

We are dreaming to think that domestic and family violence offending stops when one relationship ends. You only have to look at data from the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme in South Australia for verification that abusive partners can repeat their offending from one relationship to the next. South Australia launched a Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme in 2018, where people with a concern about their safety could apply to know information of a partner’s history of domestic offending. More than 900 people have applied through the scheme for information since its launch.

In an analysis of just 221 of those applications, more than 100 men had a history of abuse of up to three people, while 15 had harmed between four and 10 others.[v]  That’s nearly half that had repeated their offending across multiple partners. Keep in mind that this history will only include what has been reported, so it’s a bit like an iceberg and there is likely a lot more under the surface.

There are tragic cases in our country of victims who were killed by a current or former partner, where there were red flags and only when it is too late does the criminal history of the offender emerge.

Rekiah O’Donnell is one such case. Rekiah died at age 22 when she was murdered by her abusive partner. Only after her death did the family become aware that he had previously offended and had a former partner and two children who were hiding from him.

The Centre Against Violence in my home town of Wangaratta has done extensive work over decades with victims of violence, including family violence. In their experience, understanding the past behaviour and character of an offender is absolutely an indicator of future offending. But often they can’t share that information, or there are substantial limitations on what they can share.

Issues raised about our justice system are not always about the laws that exist, but often about how they are applied and how they can favour offenders to the detriment of their victim.

One of the principles of our criminal justice system is the concept of ‘de novo’ which effectively means ‘new’. Every incident is considered in its own right and this single-incident approach doesn’t fit with the enduring nature of coercive control and some other family violence offending.  It effectively means that offenders avoid accountability for the complex and enduring behaviour patterns that occur in abusive relationships.

Coercive controlling behaviours in isolation might be viewed as minor, and not criminal. When considered in the total context of control, it’s a completely different picture and this is what we need to capture.

Our existing criminal systems are described as ‘too narrow to capture the patterns of coercion and control’.[vi] Without consequence, or when behaviour is downplayed or dismissed, the behaviour is reinforced in the mind of offenders – and blame is often shifted to the victims.

Kerry Burns is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Centre Against Violence and a highly experienced and respected practitioner.

In one of our first conversations after I was elected, Ms Burns spoke to me at length about the need to make the court system more victim-centred, including our courts taking into account the whole picture of offending when it comes to family violence. As a service, they might have considerable information relating to family violence for their client, including coercive controlling behaviours, that is never considered by our courts.

If an organisation like the Centre Against Violence or a GP or health service has information about that history, it should be required to be put to the courts when offending is against an intimate partner or family member, to provide a consideration of the broader context in which the offending occurred.

With me in Parliament today is Lee Little. Lee’s daughter, Alicia was killed by her partner as she attempted to leave the relationship. Alicia’s body was crushed against a water tank by the car her partner was driving and he left the scene without assisting her. She died.

Alicia’s offender was charged with murder and this was later plea bargained down to a charge of dangerous driving causing death. The OPP indicated to the family that the plea bargain guaranteed them a guilty verdict, it saved them the ‘trauma’ of a trial. For the family, not only did they lose Alicia – they felt they lost their justice.

Alicia had interactions with the Centre Against Violence before her death and had reported to her doctor. The court noted their relationship was volatile and their four year relationship had been marked by episodes of family violence. Yet there was no opportunity for the records of the Centre Against Violence, or the evidence of their case workers, to be presented to the court and so there was little consideration of family violence in the context of this offence.  Not to mention that he was subject to an IVO by a former partner.

The plea bargaining process, by reducing the charge took family violence outside of the scope of the incident. And so the court never obtained  the full picture.

Plea bargaining is seen as a necessary and efficient part of our justice system, most often the horse-trading of a guilty plea in exchange for a reduced charge and lower sentence. Courts often justify this by saying that victims aren’t traumatised through the court process – which might be true, but victims and their families often say they want their day in court, they want their story known.  This is certainly the case for Lee Little and her family.

The Coroner has indicated to the family that they will conduct a review of Alicia Little’s death, and a Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths forms part of coronial proceedings. But Alicia died in 2017 and it could still be years before the inquest takes place.

Another victim survivor of family violence can attest to the adverse impact of plea bargaining on her case and that person is watching today from the Queen’s Hall. They say that coercive control often first presents itself as an expression of love, of interest and protection.  For this survivor, charm turned to coercive control and later sexual and physical violence. The offender was charged with 70 criminal offences, that were reduced once he pleaded guilty. In the end, he was sentenced to just three months’ jail, which was further reduced on appeal to a two-year community correction order.

The long-term impacts are not just for the intimate partner, but extend to the children. Let’s call child one Liam. Liam was 8 when his mother met his stepfather. He was fabulous at first and would play footy with him.  Later he would be mean to Liam, call him names, constantly criticise him, be rough with him. Liam did his best to just stay out of his way. This went on for years.

He would witness his mother being physically and verbally abused. His little sister was assaulted. Ultimately his step-father assaulted his mother so badly, with Liam watching, he thought she died. Liam felt guilty because he couldn’t protect his mum. He was part of their safety plan and knew if things got bad, his job was to take his little sister and get out of the house. He constantly felt the fear in the house.

Liam was not recognised as a victim in his own right despite being subject to the coercive controlling offending of his step-father, like his sister and his mother.

As the Centre Against Violence tells me, unless the whole picture of their offending is presented, the context is not completely understood or considered. The courts will be presented with references from the defence showing the offender to be a great guy, someone who is usually placid, that the offending seems out of character. But there is often not the same scrutiny to the other side, to the pattern of offending, because of the incident based nature of our judicial system.

This is not just about sentencing, or sentence lengths. It’s also about accountability and rehabilitation. If our system doesn’t see the full picture how does our system really work to create change? How is rehabilitation achieved? How does an offender have insight or take true accountability? How do conditions on a CCO properly reflect the big picture if it’s not known? How do perpetrator programs address offending if the big picture is not understood?

So what now?  Jurisdictions across Australia are actively considering how coercive control is addressed within their existing frameworks.[vii]

The UK criminalised coercive control in 2015, making an offence of ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’.[viii] Offences doubled between 2017 and 2018, with just over 9000 offences of coercive control recorded by the police in England and Wales, out of a total of around two million domestic incidents.[ix]

Tasmania has offences for economic abuse and emotional abuse or intimidation, as well as a ‘course of conduct’ offence made up of a number of coercive behaviours. 

In Western Australia, the criminal offence of ‘persistent family violence’ recognises patterns of abuse by criminalising three or more acts of family violence against one victim-survivor within a ten-year period.

In New South Wales, a Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control was established in 2020 and their report recommended the criminalisation of coercive control.

The Northern Territory and Queensland are both reviewing their legislation to determine criminalisation of the offence.

I hope that our state governments work together to develop nationally consistent definitions and set up a national database of domestic violence orders. I hope that the path Victoria takes will give this due consideration so that information sharing is streamlined and consistency is achieved. We don’t want this we need this!

There are suggestions that if coercion and course of conduct offences are criminalised by proxy through the civil protection regime – you take out an intervention order for the behaviour, and if a person breaches they commit a criminal offence.

We know from the death of Celeste Manno that there are significant failings in the reliance on intervention orders and how breaches are sanctioned.

Celeste’s tragic death brought her family to Parliament with me, and led to the government initiating a review of stalking responses through the VLRC. We look forward to the recommendations of that review.

The Scottish approach to coercive control has been a little different, and is currently considered the gold standard. A course of conduct offence includes a pattern of behaviour that is abusive to the victim, and where a reasonable person would consider the course of behaviour is likely to cause the victim physical or psychological harm. Rather than proof resting on the victim that the offence caused harm to them, the proof is on a reasonable understanding for the offender that their behaviour would frighten or otherwise harm the targeted partner. 

In 2020, then Attorney General Jill Hennessy said she had asked the Department of Justice to consider options to strengthen responses to coercive behaviour.[x] This consideration needs to happen now and I am pleased that through the course of conversations with the government about my motion today,that a review of the current frameworks will take place.

I know that the Victorian government is actively looking at a course of conduct offence along the lines of the Scottish model and I have spoken in some detail with the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence in this regard.  I appreciate her willingness to work with me and to ensure that the full experiences of victims of crime are given due consideration in determining the way forward for Victoria.

Whether coercive control or a course of conduct offence is established in Victoria, we still need to fix the ongoing issue where these behaviours are not presented where an offender faces court for violent offences against their intimate partner or family member. This gap needs to close.

As I mentioned earlier, South Australia has had a Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme in place since 2018. It received a strong update during its first twelve months and funding was extended to 2020 and again this year.  In the first two years of the scheme they received 455 applications and 317 were eligible for further consideration – that’s 70%! 18 applicants were at imminent risk. More than half the applicants had not previously received support from a domestic violence service.

South Australia is now looking at a scheme that would require police to contact a person they believed was at risk as a result of domestic violence, instead of waiting to be asked.

New South Wales initiated a very limited pilot, which at first seemed to be quite successful however it was abandoned after mixed findings. This pilot was criticised for its design, which was limited to only four local government areas and it is perhaps the execution and not the scheme that failed here. Nonetheless, In the first two years the scheme received 149 applications and 42% of those resulted in a criminal history disclosure being made – that’s more than 62 people that had a conversation about their safety and were connected with support.

Lee Little has been a staunch advocate for a national disclosure scheme to be implemented in Australia.  The opposition took the commitment of a pilot to the last election. The Report of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence noted that Victoria Police had suggested consideration be given to including a disclosure scheme in Victoria.

In Victoria, there is progress in how information on prior offending is used to try and improve safety for people who are at risk of violence. 

I completely support the use of information in this targeted and strategic way, though hope the meaning doesn’t fall through the gaps. It is my understanding that if a person was to directly ask about offending, then the service provider can’t directly answer.  Police can reach into other systems, but they still have to actively go looking and I hope that between the states we can find a way to make this information more readily available.  There are limitations to what information can be disclosed, even between agencies.

For example, if one agency has an understanding about an offender and are liaising with Child Protection they can’t openly discuss that information. What they can do is suggest they run a history themselves to get broader context.

In educating our community about the violence that is coercive control, there has to be an end-to-end response that includes our justice system. A clear message of what behaviours are not acceptable or tolerated for our citizens, with clear and effective early interventions, but also with clear consequences so that those who perpetrate offences on others are held to account.

This is a greater community conversation, about equipping the community to build capacity for change. It involves what happens at home, what happens at school, in our sporting clubs and community groups. Changing the norms, calling it out. Knowing how to have a conversation with a friend or family member about behaviour that makes you worried for them.

The best result is for coercive control, course of conduct offending, family violence offending, all violent offending to stop. The best way to protect victims is to stop offending from occurring in the first place. That’s a big project. It’s a goal that for every week that someone dies at the hands of their partner – or a stranger – we should remain firmly fixed.  For the memory of every victim, and for the loved ones left behind.

Ms TERPSTRA (Eastern Metropolitan) (14:24): I rise to speak on the motion as proposed in regard to a range of things regarding family violence but also particularly the prevalence of coercive control in family violence offending. It calls on the government to review our legislative and procedural frameworks in relation to family violence to consider how evidence of coercive and controlling behaviour is available to illustrate the experience of family violence and consider a suite of initiatives and opportunities available to enhance the understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour in our community and the justice system.

As many would know in this place, the government accepted all of the recommendations that arose out of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, and it is something that our government were world-first leaders in in announcing the Royal Commission into Family Violence. We have acquitted 204 of the royal commission’s 227 recommendations, and all of the 23 remaining recommendations are well underway.

Before I go any further I would also like to acknowledge any victim-survivors who may be watching the live broadcast at home. Obviously some of you may be here in this chamber unknown to me, so if you are impacted I wish to acknowledge you as well—and also, as I said, acknowledge those people who may be watching on the live broadcast and remember those who have been killed as a result of family violence as well. We also keep at the forefront of our minds all those who are experiencing family violence today and for whom we undertake this very important work.

As I said, we have acquitted 204 of the royal commission’s 227 recommendations, and the remainder are well underway. This government has invested $3.5 billion, more than every other state combined and more than the commonwealth, into addressing this problem. There is more to do. There will always be more to do in this space. It is a very intractable problem, and family violence and the consequences of it have roots in many different geneses. We have talked about gender inequity as one basis for gendered violence but also family violence. There are many, many things that contribute to it. So there are a range of fronts that governments and agencies need to work on, and we are consistently and persistently working our way to wind back these behaviours and to protect family violence survivors.

I just want to focus a little bit on the issue of coercive control. We need to speak carefully about coercive control, particularly in the context of what protections we are offering to family violence survivors, because I think perhaps what is embedded in Ms Maxwell’s motion—again I thank her for bringing this to the house, and it is by no means a criticism at all—but what I think is perhaps not well understood is that there are a range of mechanisms within our family violence responses that do allow for, whether it is the authorities or not, protections to be afforded to people who are experiencing coercive control as part of that spectrum of family violence behaviours. So it is clear; it is identified. I understand the point that different jurisdictions might have other particular and specific, nuanced approaches, but rest assured that here in Victoria our legislative frameworks do address this point.

Coercive and controlling behaviour can already constitute an offence in Victoria, and it is explicitly defined as a form of family violence in section 5 of the Family Violence Protection Act 2008. It also sits alongside economic, psychological, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. As we know, all these forms of abuse or control can interact and all form parts of coercive control or be singular offences in and of themselves. Section 5 does provide that framework for those things to be identified and recognised, and as I said, we need to be really, really clear that coercive and controlling behaviour is family violence. It is not either/or. It is a form of family violence. It is recognised as family violence in the current policy settings in Victoria. As I said, it is recognised by the law, can already constitute a criminal offence and is recognised in our risk assessment frameworks.

It is also really important that we communicate clearly to victim-survivors in Victoria that these behaviours are recognised, because they can be dealt with by the law and there is help and support available. If we somehow want to say—perhaps inadvertently even—that there might be a gap, we risk then people not coming forward and getting the help that they need or the protection that they need and deserve. So as I said, we need to be careful in the way in which we talk about this issue. As I said earlier, when it comes to the public conversation around coercive control it is really important that we treat the issue with a nuance and acknowledge these inherent complexities, some of the matters I spoke to just a moment ago. As the conversation around Australia continues to grow and it gathers traction, the narrative has at times been oversimplified and often frames coercive control, as I said earlier, as a standalone tactic. But it is complex; it is multifaceted. It is important to emphasise, as I said earlier, coercive control can coexist with almost all forms of family violence. It is that complex interaction, but it can coexist and it can stand alone.

We acknowledge that as family violence reform progresses here in Victoria we must also ensure that the totality of victim-survivors’ experiences is captured by the system and that it responds to family violence and continues to do so. Several victim-survivors have identified that for too many the response to their family violence was too incident based, for example, and failed to capture the full picture of the abuse they endured. One victim-survivor in her evidence to the royal commission said:

It is the prevalence and the all-encompassing awareness that you are living with something that is dangerous—life threatening. That fact slowly and methodically eats away at your self-awareness and ability to make decisions. All your decisions are about self-preservation and how safe you are from day to day and hour to hour.

I could not imagine living with that fear and constant level of threat arousal in my day-to-day life. It would be all-encompassing, it would be exhausting and you would constantly be walking on eggshells. This is why we have got to continue in the work that we are doing to increase support and assistance for victim-survivors of family violence. As I said, this can have a significant and detrimental impact on a victim-survivor’s perception of their own experience of family violence relative to others. I know that I have had constituents in my own region talk to me about their family violence experiences, and although having survived perhaps and come out of an abusive relationship, oftentimes there is ongoing PTSD that results from living with those violent and coercive controlling behaviours which people need assistance to manage. So once you have left a coercive controlled relationship or a relationship that is full of family violence, whilst there is some hope, oftentimes the path is not straightforward and easy. There are still ongoing issues to deal with.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence considered but did not recommend implementation of a standalone coercive control offence, and as I said earlier, our legislation already deals with that, because there is a range of provisions that recognise that controlling behaviour can be standalone but it can also interact with other forms. But we will always consider further ways to end family violence. We will continue to consider advice from the experts, the community and victim-survivors of family violence about the necessary reform to keep women and children safe. So it will be an evolving situation, and we recognise that we have to get existing systems working to recognise and respond to coercive control. Any further legislative changes would only be considered after extensive consultation with victim-survivors, professionals and experts in the area. Domestic Violence Victoria CEO Tania Farha stated:

A new law is not where we should be starting in Victoria, where there is already recognition of coercive control in our legislation. The focus needs to be on improving how existing laws are applied.

So again when it comes to coercive control, Domestic Violence Victoria noted:

Safe and just outcomes for victim survivors requires a whole of systems and community response—where everyone has a shared understanding of what coercive control is and looks like, and how to assess and manage associated risks.

So again I just want to recognise and pay respect to those victim-survivors of family violence— (Time expired)

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) (14:34): I am pleased to be able to rise and speak to Ms Maxwell’s motion this afternoon. She spoke with such passion and commitment, and she has been speaking about this for a very long time. I know—I was in the streets marching with Ms Maxwell before she entered this place, in defence and in support of those affected by family violence. So she has always been committed to this cause, and I think she showed that through her commitment in her contribution this afternoon to this very important matter.

She mentioned some of the people that have been affected by this—the women who have been affected, who are in Queen’s Hall. Lee, Michelle and Jana are in watching this debate this afternoon.

I want to congratulate Ms Maxwell for bringing this motion to the house. Can I say that the Liberals and Nationals will be supporting the motion because it is asking for a review into this important area around coercive control. I know that parliaments around the country are looking into this area. In New South Wales, as Ms Maxwell said, the parliamentary inquiry that looked into it made a suite of recommendations. The government is reviewing those recommendations and will bring down their report and speak to that from those findings. There were dozens of findings actually in that very thorough inquiry that was conducted in New South Wales. Likewise in Queensland they are also looking at this issue.

But it brought me back. I know the government is saying that they had the family violence royal commission, which we were all very supportive of, and despite the commentary—the unfortunate, unnecessary commentary—in the lead-up to the 2018 election there was bipartisan support for that important royal commission. The government has not undertaken, has not been able to undertake or has failed to implement all 227 of the recommendations. There are still a couple of dozen that are outstanding, and they are important. I note that Domestic Violence Victoria, in this year’s budget, was calling for an urgent response to a flawed funding system. They are saying things that the government has not promised. I think that is the danger with this.

The government keeps talking about the big picture. They keep making these very big promises and the expectation is there but they just cannot meet it, and as a result people are let down and the system is failing. And it is failing, because if you look at the latest crime statistics, the number of family violence offences leading up to 30 June of this year increased from 88 205 to 93 440, a 5.9 per cent increase. That is on the Crime Statistics Agency website. We know that lockdowns really exacerbated some terrible situations behind closed doors, and that family violence rates increased is no surprise as a result of the stresses and the pressures of extended lockdown. Extraordinary numbers of people spoke to me about their concerns. If you look now at the sad statistics of marriage break-ups, I think that says a lot about what has happened over the last 20 months and the failure of the government to understand not only the health impacts but the social impacts and the mental health impacts of their decisions to lock Victoria down, and they want to do it again.

This motion about coercive control reform reminded me of what I was doing as the shadow minister at the time, and that was the Liberal-Nationals took a policy to the last state election regarding the ‘Right to Ask, Right to Know’, based on Clare’s Law. It reminded me of a remarkable woman that I met, Samantha Handley. Her story is extraordinary. It talks about those elements that Ms Maxwell spoke of: the psychological impacts, the power of coercion, feeling that she could not leave her partner who was abusive. She did not know he was abusive at the time, but she felt that he had such a powerful control over her, and that is part of what this motion is about—that coercive control. Samantha Handley was extraordinary in herself because she was a woman that felt after she left her first marriage with her children that, as she says, she was in a loving relationship before his control over her slowly built up and she realised he had become abusive. That is what Ms Maxwell is speaking about and that is what this coercive control really shows. Samantha said in an article on 14 October 2016 that:

At first I refused to take any notice. I really liked this guy and he had a hold on me.

This built up and her family started to get worried about it and she started to realise that something was not quite right, so she started to do a Google search and found that this man had been charged with some very violent offences in New South Wales.

That was the reason why I presented that policy as part of a suite of measures that could assist women in these violent situations and improve outcomes. Sadly, it was dismissed out of hand, and the then minister, Minister Hutchins, virtually ridiculed what we were presenting. I was really disappointed with the government’s response. It was again this assumption, this arrogance, that they know best, that this is their space. Well, no-one owns any space when it comes to violence or abuse against women or anyone. It is what we need to do to improve the status and situation, and unfortunately the situation is getting worse.

I want to just place on record again the enormous gratitude that I have for Samantha Handley for coming out and telling her story and being part of that voice. Hers is a very powerful story about what Ms Maxwell is talking about today in her motion: the coercive abuse, the coercive powers and how that can really be a very insidious sort of abuse that is silent. It is not there, but it is very powerful. As Samantha said, she felt so isolated because of these coercive powers.

In closing I want to again commend Ms Maxwell for her advocacy in this regard and for outlining the argument that she has. But I do want to say that I think it is disappointing. The crime stats do not lie. They are the numbers, and the numbers are getting worse. Despite all that has been said, the numbers are getting worse, and that is something that I think needs to be noted, and I think that everybody acknowledges and understands that more needs to be done. There are still recommendations from the Royal Commission into Family Violence which were handed down in 2015, so six years ago, that are outstanding. This government might talk the big talk, but it is actually results and outcomes that matter. When the figures and the stats are there from the crime stats agency to say that it is not getting better, it is getting worse, then maybe we need to look at exactly what is going on.

Again I say, on behalf of the Liberals and Nationals, we support Ms Maxwell’s motion to recognise the prevalence of coercive control in family violence offending, that perpetrators of family violence may offend against multiple family members and intimate partners and that disclosure of relevant information about the criminal history of a perpetrator is a key indicator in family violence risk assessment and management—those red flags that she spoke of. The motion calls on the government to review legislative and procedural frameworks in relation to family violence to consider how evidence of coercive and controlling behaviour is available to illustrate the experience of family violence, and finally, to consider the suite of initiatives and opportunities available to enhance the understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour in our community and the justice system.

I hope the government does not disregard Ms Maxwell’s suggestions like they disregarded the policy I took to the 2018 election.

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (14:44): I rise to speak on Ms Maxwell’s motion on coercive control and family violence. I will be supporting this motion today. Coercive control is a pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control a person. It is a non-physical form of violence. This motion seeks not to criminalise coercive control but to consider how evidence of coercive and controlling behaviour illustrates the experience of family violence. This is based upon coercive control being a predictor of severe physical violence and homicide. Coercive control is not a one-off; it is an ongoing, relentless pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviours that renders victims powerless.

I recognise that this concept is difficult to find and identify as it is based on patterns and context, although I think it is addressed appropriately in this motion. Coercive control is absolutely a foundational element of family violence, and it should be recognised as such. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence found that family violence differs from other forms of violence as it is generally underpinned by a pattern of coercion, control and domination by one person over another. This makes clear the role of coercive control in family violence. This motion seeks to understand the relationship between coercive control and family violence. If we ignore the role of controlling behaviour and focus only on physical violence, we do not do justice to the victim of abuse. This can have lethal consequences.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence cited the findings of a UK study that found that the extent of the father’s control over the family rather than the frequency of family violence was an indicator that the father was at risk of killing his own children. This tells us that there is much reason to look at new legislative and procedural frameworks that could analyse how coercive control feeds into family violence as well as how coercive control can illustrate to some the extent of the presence of family violence.

It appears that in other jurisdictions more is being done to address coercive control. New South Wales has a joint committee on coercive control, the Northern Territory is considering options for criminalising coercive control, a private members bill to criminalise coercive control is before the Parliament of South Australia, Queensland has launched an independent task force and the ACT has announced in-principle support for criminalising coercive control.

I thank Ms Maxwell for bringing this important discussion to the Victorian Parliament for us today. These discussions are the first steps to be made in addressing this issue and certainly assisting in education on this issue. I would like to see every professional who comes into contact with victims of family violence, such as health professionals, social workers, lawyers, judges, police and victim-survivor services, to understand the nature of coercive control. They should understand that it controls victims and traps them in a relationship that can be very difficult to get out of. Of course training alone will not shift outcomes. There needs to be organisational change, accountability and transparency. We must do whatever we can to reduce violence against women in this country. That is why I will be supporting this motion today, and I commend this motion to the house.

Mr GEPP (Northern Victoria) (14:48): I too rise to speak on Ms Maxwell’s motion before the house today on family violence. Can I begin by just very quickly saying thank you for all the well wishes that I have received from across the chamber during my absence.

I want to thank Ms Maxwell for her continued strong advocacy in this very, very important area of public policy. I know from speaking to some of the men in the Parliament around the place about this issue—each and every time we have a conversation—that it is so important that we continue to have this conversation, that we never stop having this conversation. It is very confronting. It is very confronting for the men in this chamber and in this Parliament that I have had conversations with to think that there are those among us, there are men in our society, who exhibit and practice these sorts of behaviours in their weak and cowardly attempts to control women and children in our society. It is very important that we continue to have this conversation, that we never stop.

One of the most confronting statistics I think in this debate is to think that since we have been going, and we are now some 47 minutes into this discussion, there have been eight incidents, statistically, of family violence in Victoria—just in the time that we have been having this conversation.

That is about 206 incidents every day here in this state, and we must never stop, we must never rest, until that number hits zero.

Ms Maxwell: That’s the reported ones.

Mr GEPP: That is exactly right, that is just the reported number. Ms Maxwell is quite correct. We do not know about all of those that are unreported. But we must never stop trying and doing everything that we possibly can to bring that number to zero.

I want to acknowledge the courage, the strength and the bravery of the victim-survivors who are with us today in Queen’s Hall but also all of those victim-survivors of family violence and those that are no longer with us. It is just abhorrent to anyone, any decent human being, to think that any person in our society would seek to exercise control over another to the extent of their own gain and benefit and that they would choose to do so with violence in particular.

I do want to congratulate the Victorian government’s Minister for Prevention of Family Violence and Minister for Women, the honourable Gabrielle Williams. She is steadfast in her determination to do as much as she can in this space. I know from talking to the minister that she does not rest on what we have done to date. She is always striving for better outcomes for women, for children, for victim-survivors of family violence and for their families. That is evidenced I think by the fantastic work that she has led in response to the royal commission and the work that she will continue to lead.

The government is also very much focused on improving our system that identifies and responds to things such as coercive control, the matter that Ms Maxwell has brought before us. We do remain open to evidence-based solutions to ensure victim-survivors’ whole experience of violence is seen and acknowledged by the system—not just a little bit, not just some of it, but all of it—and that includes of course their experience through the justice system. That is a big component. As we know from victim-survivors themselves, it is a big component of their experience.

I could be wrong, and I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that in terms of the plea-bargaining that Ms Maxwell referred to earlier there is legislation that has been brought to the other place. Again, my understanding could be wrong, but I think if matters are not to go to trial it requires the agreement of all the parties involved so that there is an agreed plea—that is, if the victim-survivor does not agree then that plea agreement, if you like, would not be advanced, and it would go to trial. That is my understanding of it. I just think it is important to put that on the record. We know that the experiences, as I said, of the justice system are such a crucial part of a victim-survivor’s journey—having that day in court, but feeling that real sense of justice.

We all remember not too long ago when the conversation was about, ‘Oh, what did she do? Why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she’—well, it cannot be about the victim-survivor. It can never be about the victim-survivor. It has got to be about the perpetrator, and it has got to be about the behaviours that that person not only exhibits but practises in the home. I think all of us would know of somebody, either in our immediate circles or maybe in our extended circles that has experienced some sort of domestic violence, and it is absolutely abhorrent.

And to think that it is such a leading contributor to injury and death of women in our community is just extraordinary—particularly those in the age group of 15 to 44. It is just quite staggering.

So we have spent a lot of money and we have done a lot of things, but it is not enough, because in this country one in four women will experience some form of physical or sexual violence by a current or a former partner. We also know, in terms of coercive control, that it is a feature of most of those occurrences of domestic violence. Mr Barton, Ms Maxwell, Ms Crozier and Ms Terpstra talked about the elements of coercive control, and I will not go through all of those again, but it is a clear feature—it is a very clear feature—of the experiences of victim-survivors. Whether it is money, whether it is psychological, whether it is physical abuse—whatever controlling mechanism that these cowards are using—it is all part of them putting themselves in a dominant position to be able to control, particularly, women and children.

We must do everything that we can. We must never rest until we can find better ways to assist women experiencing and children experiencing those environments. We have got to change the behaviours and it has got to come with respect, and every time we see violence that is being used—I do not care, you know, whether it is a set of gallows out the front or any other type of violence—we have got to call it out for what it is. We have got to say ‘That’s unacceptable’. It is unacceptable because each and every time we see those sorts of things in our society it enables those that have those tendencies to run away and indeed play out those very features in their own lives.

It behoves all of us I think to raise the standard, to show a bit more respect, to understand that we are in a pluralist society and to understand that we are all equal. The bigotry, the hatred and the domination only come from when we are actually supposed to be better, when we are growing up, when we are mature adults, and it only seems to get worse when we get to that point. So thank you, Ms Maxwell, for your strong advocacy in this area. May it always continue, as I know it will. I look forward to continuing this very, very important conversation with you and the Parliament.

Dr BACH (Eastern Metropolitan) (14:58): I am also very pleased to join this important debate brought on by Ms Maxwell. As Mr Gepp has said—and numerous other members—Ms Maxwell is a tireless advocate for victims of crime across the board. I know that she has particularly strong views, and they are well founded, when it comes to family violence and the prevention of violence against women and children. I have the pleasure and privilege of sitting on the Legal and Social Issues Committee with Ms Maxwell, and despite the fact that in another life I was a different government’s adviser on the prevention of violence against women and children, this particular element, a really important element and really pervasive element of family violence—which exactly as Mr Gepp said is sadly still such a widespread societal problem—is not one, I do not mind saying, that I had great knowledge about. It has been incredibly useful for me and instructive for me to sit on that committee, to engage with Ms Maxwell and the chair, Ms Patten, and a range of other members of that committee but also to hear from experts, in particular experts who I know Ms Maxwell has a long history with.

I find myself in so many of these matters agreeing wholeheartedly with Mr Gepp. I enjoy following Mr Gepp, because he makes on these matters incredibly strong and heartfelt contributions that we would all do well to heed and to listen to. I am convinced, as he is, that these sorts of behaviours, as abhorrent as they are, are incredibly widespread.

Even though in matters of law, of jurisprudence, I am a traditionalist, I do think we have to acknowledge that our current systems and structures over many years have failed in particular women who have been the victims of family violence and forms of sexual assault. Members of the government—Ms Terpstra—entirely appropriately, notably, have spoken about the government’s undoubted commitment to continue to do better when it comes to family violence. I will not recapitulate some of the points that Ms Crozier made in articulating, rightly so, our shared commitment to continue to do better.

We have come so far. We see unacceptably high rates of family violence in our community. The analysis of that data is difficult because for a time—I daresay things have changed now—many within the family violence sector thought that at least in some respects, and I will seek to choose my words very carefully here, as we saw that data increase, demonstrating the pervasive nature of family violence in our community, that demonstrated at least one thing that was not entirely negative, and that was that some systems were changing to enable more victim-survivors to come forward and to seek help. I daresay we have now reached a point in the community where we no longer hear that sort of messaging from family violence groups. Ultimately of course we want to drive down both the published data and, far more importantly, the real incidence of family violence in the community. I am most certainly not against the notion of looking, as Ms Maxwell said, at the full suite of initiatives and opportunities available to enhance the understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour in our community and the justice system to see how we can do better, because as we have heard on the Legal and Social Issues Committee—this is something I have discussed with Ms Patten as well—it is devilishly difficult for the police and other support services so oftentimes to get to the bottom of what has occurred in interpersonal relationships.

That is one of the reasons why I was very pleased to read in the newspapers over the weekend that the Attorney-General is also looking at innovative reforms in the broader space of sexual assault when thinking about consent and how again we can hopefully change some legal processes to deliver justice for more Victorian women, and more than that of course to seek to put in place programs and, more importantly—I think Mr Gepp was right—to embark upon what will be undoubtedly a longstanding mission of seeking to change attitudes in the community. There has been a longstanding bipartisan agreement in Victoria that central to family violence, to sexual assault, are attitudinal problems that so many men have. There has been a longstanding bipartisan position in this place that violence against women and sexual assault is gendered violence. It is hard, as Mr Gepp said, to kind of rationalise just how prevalent that violence is in our community. I agree therefore that we all have a deep commitment not to laugh along at that joke that probably 15 or 20 years ago was pretty normal and that in sports clubs or when you were out with your mates you laughed along to and to seek to stand up whenever you hear attitudes expressed that are harmful, because I think we are all in agreement that we have such a long way to go.

Our current legal structures do not function well enough to support victim-survivors and also to seek to drive down the incidence of family violence. Furthermore they do not function well enough to support victim-survivors of sexual assault. Just looking at the numbers of women, overwhelmingly, who come forward to report sexual assault and then ultimately prosecution rates, they are unacceptable to me and they are unacceptable to the coalition. I do not want to speak for the Attorney-General, but I know that they are unacceptable to her as well, so I welcomed the announcement she made over the weekend and look forward to working alongside her as we seek to do better, certainly in the broad area of the prevention of violence against women and children and here in this specific area that Ms Maxwell has been talking about for so long.

It is not an area that gets as much attention I think as some other forms of violence against women, and I think that is understandable. I hear from friends and sources in the legal community some of their arguments about why it has been historically so difficult to get at the nub of this issue and to seek to combat it, but that does not mean that we should not seek to do better. In fact it means the opposite—that we should take on that challenge, look at all options, be open to change and be open to legal innovation, where that is appropriate, to do far better than we are doing right now for victim-survivors.

Just as I finish, in talking about legal matters and matters of jurisprudence it would be simply remiss of me not to remark upon the passing of Sir James Gobbo recently, a great Victorian, obviously a justice of the Supreme Court and ultimately a Governor. We will have the opportunity to engage in a condolence debate for Sir James next week. I commend Ms Maxwell for bringing this motion to the house and reiterate that I think it deserves our support.

Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (15:06): I am pleased to rise to make a short contribution to Ms Maxwell’s motion. From the outset I would like to acknowledge Lee, Michelle and Jana, who I have seen wandering around the Parliament today, and I certainly saw them outside this morning. I am pleased that they actually can be here today to hear us speak, probably all so passionately, about this incredibly difficult and important issue.

As we know, coercive and controlling behaviour is sadly a prominent feature in almost all family violence, but it is one of the hardest things to identify. It is one of the hardest things, even for people who are experiencing it, to fully articulate what is happening to them—‘It’s just that he loves me so much, that he cares about me so much’. I am very fortunate to be chairing the inquiry into criminal justice, a referral that came from Ms Maxwell, and I do not think it should come as any surprise that the witnesses that we have heard from, the submissions that we have received, all talk about family violence and coercive behaviour. So I am really pleased that Ms Maxwell has brought this issue to the chamber, and I am happy to lend my encouragement to the government to do something on this.

I think it is interesting to note that in the most recent National Summit on Women’s Safety, which was held just one or two months ago, it was seen as one of the most complex and urgent issues. That was how it was described in the paper that followed that summit. We have seen several Victorian organisations, including Respect Victoria, united—

Ms Maxwell: On a point of order, Acting President, I am sitting very close to Ms Patten and it is difficult to hear her, and I just think particularly given the topic we are discussing, which goes along the lines of respect, could we just have a little bit less noise?

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): Fair point. Could we keep it down so we can hear Ms Patten, please?

Ms PATTEN: Thank you, Ms Maxwell, and thank you, Acting President. As I was saying, there have been a number of organisations who have really come to the fore and are speaking loudly about this—Respect Victoria, Domestic Violence Victoria and Djirra in particular.

I think they have all looked at this. And I know that Ms Maxwell is passionate about prevention and early intervention, and this is another area where this is so crucial, because the criminal justice system, as we know, currently fails so many victims. And it is sometimes a blunt instrument, and what we need to be doing is stopping this from happening, but we know that that is not easy. This involves cultural change. This involves education. This involves change and equality, gender equality, and it goes into so many different areas. So prevention in this context is complicated, but it has to be something that we focus on.

As I say, legislating can have that effect and it can shift norms and it can shift attitudes, but we need to shift those norms and those attitudes and those behaviours before they turn into what they are turning into. It is interesting—and I do not know whether it is because of the work we are doing in the criminal justice system—that I am seeing coercive control being discussed, being dramatised, being seen in mainstream media. You know, Netflix has a really excellent program called Maid. It is a US drama that looks at coercive control, and it goes through the various stages of that control with the main character in it. Over recent weeks I have not been listening to it but, when I was able to walk home from work in the evenings and was comfortable doing it, I would listen to the Trap by Jess Hill, another extraordinary podcast, an extraordinary detailed story. Well, it is not a story, it is a whole podcast focusing on coercive control—how it affects the children, how it affects the families, and also it goes to how we can try and find some solutions. But, as I said, it is addressing those underlying attitudes, which is what we need to do, but again it will be one of the most complicated things that we do.

I was just looking at some of the press releases that came out following that national summit, and certainly what we have been hearing during the criminal justice inquiry is that we need to be looking at broadening the scope of how we address this. And I note—and I use this quote because sadly Djirra, which is an extraordinary Aboriginal women’s advocacy organisation, was not able to appear before the committee at our last public hearing—that Antoinette Braybrook said that the conversation around coercive control had to be broadened:

Instead of putting money into the criminal justice system, invest in Aboriginal Community Controlled, self-determined solutions that we know work for our women, families and communities.

Executive director of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, Dr Adele Murdolo, who did appear before our committee, also went on to say:

Migrant and refugee women and their communities are already leading the way in preventing violence, and it’s time to listen and learn from them. Whole of community and tailored approaches are needed, to ensure that we address the structural inequalities that enable violence against migrant and refugee women.

We know the impact that this has on women. As Ms Maxwell and I am certain Ms Crozier raised, family violence is still the leading contributor to death for women 15 to 44—the leading contributor. It is not breast cancer. It is not smoking. It is not heart disease. It is family violence. It is also the leading contributor to women experiencing homelessness. It is the leading contributor to women being imprisoned. Almost every woman currently in our Victorian prison is a victim—a victim-survivor.

During our inquiry we have heard harrowing stories from women who have been in the prison system. The fact that they had experienced extraordinary coercive control or violence just never kind of made it to the top. It was never really heard when they were being sentenced to prison, and that is what we need to be doing.

Part of Ms Maxwell’s call to the government is looking at building up this evidence base for the types and appearances of this type of behaviour—who perpetrates it and what drives them—and community education initiatives to increase public understanding of these behaviours and their unacceptability. Again I would commend Jess Hill’s podcast as well as the drama that I saw called Maid. Both go to increasing this public understanding. And working with organisations to ensure that they do not tacitly or overtly condone or foster attitudes and social norms that fuel coercive control—we have heard that today and we have heard that during the inquiry. It is not for people wanting to ignore and knowingly ignoring these issues; it is just that they do not understand. On behalf of Victorian women, we deserve better, and we in this chamber should be leading this change, driving this change in community attitudes to women.

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (15:16): I would like to start by thanking Ms Maxwell for bringing this important motion into the Legislative Council on the prevalence of coercive control in family violence and among the perpetrators of family violence and that it may affect multiple members within the household. The motion goes on to speak about other legislative and procedural frameworks that can improve the lives and the outcomes of those that this is severely affecting.

When I think about this topic, coercive control, the words roll out of the dictionary: ‘interrogation’, ‘manipulation’, ‘blackmail’, ‘controlling somebody else’s will’. I guess the crux of it for me is that there is a power imbalance. We go into relationships or there are family relationships where there will by nature sometimes be a different balance. A parent-child imbalance—the parent is supposed to be the carer, the nurturer, the caregiver, the love giver, the security giver. That is in the ideal world, and for many families that is how it is. But we know that for thousands upon thousands of families that is not the way it is and there is a power imbalance, and at the end of it the child is deeply affected by family violence and, in this case, by coercive control.

There is the other side of it when the parent gets older and they become dependent on the adult child and we see elder abuse. There also can be a power imbalance there. For those of us who are, as I consider myself to be, normal, the thought that that could happen is just horrific in the extreme. But it can happen, and it does happen.

The torque between a couple where there is that power imbalance can happen very, very slowly. It can happen like tightening the screw on a nut. And gaslighting comes to my mind—it is a term that I have reflected on in recent years—where your own mentality is twisted because of that power imbalance. You are told things and your vulnerability leads you down paths of emotional abuse, financial abuse, intimidation or sexual abuse. This is not an equal sharing; this is when somebody’s will has been manipulated and controlled, and it can happen. As we have said, it is not just this domestic abuse and this coercion; it can be quite subtle.

It can have a huge effect on the children around couples where that happens, so what should be a warm and nurturing environment can be very cold and almost like living in a parallel world to what you think the rest of the society is operating in. Many reports have talked about children being that collateral damage in these coercive relationships. Reports have said that coercion is the precursor to abusive crimes, to violence in a relationship, and we have seen that.

If I can also start by mentioning that we talk about victim-survivors. In the end, one really hopes that those victim-survivors can become victim-thrivers and that they can move through that terrible, terrible time in their life and go to a better place where they are victims but they are thrivers. They have moved on and created a better life. Now, for that to happen, some of the work in the background needs to be on the perpetrator. Can the perpetrator be repurposed? Can there be prevention at the outset when that power imbalance really starts to flow and go? Can that happen? That is when we need people in society to be aware and awake, whether it be their GP, whether it be a social worker, whether it be friends or family or in an education setting—to be aware of these sorts of things and to have the antenna up to say, ‘Is that person acting reasonably or well, or is that person looking like they are under pressure and trying to keep away or hide what is happening at home?’. As Ms Maxwell and others have said, there are statistics around the evident perpetrators and the evident examples, but I would surmise, just off the top my head, that for any one case there are probably 10 to 20 to 30 cases that we do not see in the courts or in our hospitals or wherever else we see them.

I would just like to thank a young university student called Charles Rankcom, who is studying criminology. It is really great to see that there are young men—in particular this one—studying this topic. He has presented some interesting facts for me as well today. Alarmingly we have seen that there has been a 9 per cent increase in family violence related offences recorded during the 12 months of COVID to the end of June 2021. We have seen during this reporting period 25 additional reported family violence offences occurring each and every day—that is 25 extra. Crime stats agencies also revealed a significant increase in several offences, including family violence related common assault, up 5 per cent, and breaches of family violence related orders, up 15 per cent.

When you think of some of the cases, I know Ms Maxwell has brought in survivors who need to be part of this story, and we have heard of other examples from Ms Crozier. One that stands out in my mind, and we saw it on television a year ago, is that terrible case where Hannah Clarke in New South Wales and her children died at the hands of her estranged husband. This person was not able to be rehabilitated. They went down that path. I just always feel so terribly devastated for the parents of Hannah and for her extended family—her life gone and her children’s lives gone. This must be a continual catapult to us as legislators and as a government to do better in this realm and stop these cases.

The Victorian Family Violence Protection Act 2008 talks about family violence as physical, emotional, economic, threatening or coercive. But coercive control is not viewed as a criminal offence, and there is very much discussion around the importance of or the need for perpetrators to be held accountable and responsible for their harmful behaviour. Indeed Domestic Violence Victoria and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria put out quite an extensive paper that in truth I have not had the chance to really delve into due to other issues happening this week, but there are some really important responses that they have unpacked. They assessed the effectiveness of criminalising coercive control in addressing these gaps from a victim-survivor-centred perspective. The gaps identified in the report centred around the inadequacy of current responses to coercive control, resulting in victim-survivor experiences not being adequately recognised or responded to safely and consistently and perpetrators not being held to account.

Now, given the high levels of coercive control and family violence and homicide, it is so important to get in early and to provide those significant and compelling lessons to be learned for perpetrators.

In concluding I just want to also make some comments around some of the great services that we have in my electorate of Eastern Victoria Region and put a big shout-out and a thank you to the Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault for providing that specialist support. Now, not all coercive behaviour ends with sexual assault, but there is often a direct link—that if those behaviours continue and exacerbate, certainly sexual assault can occur. I know I have spoken with members in that great unit from time to time. They have an outreach service. They have amazing services. They get to the nub and they listen to people who need to be validated, respected and understood.

The other point I make is that we do not need to judge. You do not know when that woman comes into your shop and you serve her shoes what her experience has been like at home. You do not know that. If she is behaving a bit quirky, maybe we need to extend a level of sympathy or care or ask, ‘Are you okay?’ or just give a big smile or some care, because we do not know what people’s lives are like at home. I wish for all the victim-survivors to become victim-thrivers in the future. We need to listen to them. I thank Ms Maxwell for bringing this motion to the house today.

Ms TAYLOR (Southern Metropolitan) (15:27): Acknowledging that we are almost at the closure of this debate and there is so much more to be said on this incredibly important issue—family violence per se, but then those inherent elements of family violence, namely coercive control—I did just really want to acknowledge the courage and conviction of all those victim-survivors who have helped drive these incredibly important reforms and helped to shape a much brighter future for all Victorians. I do also want to acknowledge those victims who have come in today. We really appreciate their courage. I know that it probably just brings up a lot of memories and a lot of the incredibly difficult experiences that they have had to go through and survive, so we are very, very grateful for them coming here today. Thank you also for continuing this conversation, Ms Maxwell. We appreciate that.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (15:28): I want to thank everyone for their contributions on this important issue of coercive control today. There have been some really relevant and poignant words in your contributions. I would like to quickly just go back to what I was saying in my speech previously about the impacts of coercive control that extend to children. The child I mentioned, young Liam, was not recognised as a victim in his own right despite being subject to the coercive controlling offending of his stepfather and witnessing violence against his mother and sister time and time again.

Unless the whole picture of their offending is presented the context is never completely understood, nor considered, particularly within our courts. This is not just about sentencing or sentence length; it is also about accountability and rehabilitation. If our system does not see the full picture, how does our system really work to create change? How is rehabilitation achieved? How does an offender have insight or take true accountability? How do conditions on a community correction order properly reflect the big picture if it is not known? How do perpetrator programs address offending if the big picture is not understood?

So what now? Jurisdictions across Australia are actively considering how coercive control is addressed within their existing frameworks, as others have also mentioned here today. The UK criminalised coercive control, Tasmania has a course of conduct offence and the Northern Territory and Queensland are both reviewing their legislation to determine criminalisation of the offence. The Scottish course of conduct offence is considered the gold standard.

Whether coercive control is criminalised or not, we still need to ensure that the context of behaviour is presented in courts. The gap needs to close. We have to have that evidence being made admissible. We have to have judges trained to understand the impacts of coercive control. In educating our community about the violence that is coercive control there has to be an end-to-end response that includes our justice system.

The best result of coercive control offending, course of conduct offending, family violence offending—all violent offending—is for it to stop. The best way to protect victims is to stop offending from occurring in the first place. That is a big project. That is a big goal—a goal on which for every week that someone dies at the hands of their partner or a stranger we should remain firmly fixed, for the memory of every victim and for the loved ones left behind.

I look forward to the review of government and hope that it is inclusive of the voices of victim-survivors and that the issues they face are carefully considered, be it in dealing with police, child protection, prosecutors or in our courts. Ensuring the legal responses and preventative measures complement each other is so imperative. There are varying views on how we address this, but the goal is the same—to reduce the incidence of violence and improve the safety and lives of others.

I want to thank Minister Williams for her conversations with me. They have been ongoing on this specific topic and other topics around family violence. We have gone back and forwards for probably a good 18 months or more, and I am extremely inspired every time I speak to her about her goals that she wants to achieve and the change that she wants to make—and she has a very specific approach that has to be evidence informed, evidence based. Once again I congratulate her, and I am extremely thankful for the time that she has given me to introduce what I say is an extremely important motion. I hope everybody feels the same about that, and certainly from the contributions that we have had here today I do believe that people feel this as passionately as I do.

I would also like to just say a quick thankyou to Ms Crozier over there for recognising the advocacy that I have been doing on behalf of victims, probably since Daniel Morecombe died, which is many, many, many years ago, but also from events and tragedies that occurred within Wangaratta. I have been lobbying governments for many years now. On that note I thank the house, and I look forward to working with the government to see what we can achieve together.

Motion agreed to.


  • [i] Victorian Government puts $20m towards new way of reducing family violence, ABC News Online 19 August 2020
  • [ii] https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/still-very-much-a-state-emergency-what-family-violence-statistics-tell-us-20210324-p57dks.html
  • [iii] https://www.couriermail.com.au/truecrimeaustralia/police-courts-qld/hannahs-story-to-help-teach-kids-about-coercive-control/news-story/27f9b7e7eef458b53eb2795baabc7660
  • [iv] DV law to make coercion a crime, The Australian 1 July 2021
  • [v] ‘Abusers violent history exposed, The Adelaide Advertiser 12 July 2021
  • [vi] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1077801218816191
  • [vii] https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Social_Policy_and_Legal_Affairs/Familyviolence/Report/section?id=committees%2Freportrep%2F024577%2F75463#footnote23target
  • [viii] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1077801218816191
  • [ix] The Criminalisation of Coercive Control: The Power of Law? Walklate, Fitz-Gibbon, IJCJ&SD 2019 8(4)
  • [x] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-15/coercive-control-debate-under-a-spotlight-in-victoria/100183492

Image: Victim survivors Michelle Skewes and Jay (surname withheld), with Tania Maxwell MP, victim advocate Lee Little, and Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party member for Western Victoria Stuart Grimley MP.

Helping the hidden victims of crime

Adjournment speech

November 16, 2021

Tania MAXWELL MP (Northern Victoria):

My adjournment is to the Minister for Victim Support, and the action I seek is for the minister to review the claims for assistance for the children of Michelle Skewes, which have previously been rejected by the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT). Michelle Skewes endured years of horror at the hands of her abusive husband. He was recently jailed for a minimum of 10½ years on nine counts of rape, two counts of assault and one count of threatening to inflict serious injury. These offences occurred over a five-year period that was plagued with coercive control and degrading, pervasive abuse.

The judge noted Ms Skewes’s victim impact statement as being candid, honest and disarming in its dignity. It includes triggers of panic, moments of fear and terror, broken self-esteem, hypervigilance, distrust of others, anxiety, being plagued by nightmares and exhaustion, suffering the besmirching judgement we so often see in victim blaming and her attempts to shut off the abusing rhetoric that she endured in an attempt to reconstruct her life.

Ms Skewes has four children, three of them living. I will not give too much detail here in terms of what she has conveyed to my office about the impact of family violence on her children, but I think it is enough for us just to imagine their suffering and understand their need and their right to support. Ms Skewes has received some victim support through VOCAT, though it is quite minuscule in comparison to the five years, five months and 55 days that it took for this matter to run from report through to sentencing. She applied through VOCAT for support for her children to receive counselling; however, that was rejected. She did not have the emotional strength to appeal. These children are not considered victims in their own right, and this in itself is something that we will continue to push the government to correct.

Reforms in relation to victims of crime assistance cannot come soon enough for us. We have made some progress in increasing the recognition of children who live and witness family violence, most recently through my colleague Mr (Stuart) Grimley, who is working with Rosie Batty on calls for the standalone offence of family violence in the presence of a child. Children who witness family violence, who live in the context of family violence are victims. There is no doubt about that. This family has suffered enough, and these children deserve access to the psychological supports they need. I look forward to the minister’s urgent action on this abhorrent decision.

Victims support assistance open to question

Question without notice

October 13, 2021

  • Asked by Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party state leader Stuart Grimley MP for Tania Maxwell MP, in her absence:

Mr GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (15:07): My question is to the Minister for Higher Education and Minister for Training and Skills, representing the Minister for Victim Support.

Minister, it is nearly five years since the government asked the Victorian Law Reform Commission to consider changes to the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal and the victims’ assistance program. The VLRC made 100 recommendations, which were accepted by the government and included establishing a new state-funded financial assistance scheme for victims of crime.

Minister, what is the status of this new assistance scheme, and when can victims expect it will be delivered?

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (15:08):

I thank Mr Grimley for his question and his ongoing interest in and support for victims. I will refer it to the Minister for Victim Support, Minister Hutchins, and expect a response as per the standing orders.

Mr GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (15:08):

Thank you, Minister. My colleague, Ms Maxwell, raised in this Parliament the difficulties that victims of crime face in accessing support through the current scheme, particularly as a result of the classification system.

My supplementary question is: will the government initiate any interim changes to the current scheme so that the recommendations of the VLRC are available to victims until the new act is in force?

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (15:09):

Again, thank you for the question, Mr Grimley. I am sure Minister Hutchins will respond as per the standing orders. This is a key area of interest that she has in her portfolio.

Help improve our criminal justice system

July 7, 2021

The criminal justice system inquiry now underway in Victoria is the broadest in 30 years.

The inquiry has come about after horrific murders in Wangaratta in 2015 and 2016. A rapist on parole committed one of these crimes. The other was committed by a previously convicted violent offender who had just been released from prison for breaching parole.

These awful events spurred a community campaign called ENOUGHISENOUGH that led to my election as a parliamentarian. They’re also the reason why the inquiry’s first hearing opened in Wangaratta on June 30, this year.

The Parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee – of which I’m a member with six other MPs – is conducting the inquiry.

The committee is chaired by Fiona Patten who, in this video with me and deputy chair Tien Kieu, talks about the inquiry’s terms of reference. These include:

  • Factors influencing Victoria’s growing remand and prison populations
  • Ways to reduce rates of repeat offending – known as recidivism
  • How to ensure judges and magistrates have appropriate knowledge and expertise when sentencing and dealing with offenders, including an understanding of recidivism and the causes of crime; and
  • Appointment processes for judges in other jurisdictions, especially reviewing skill-sets required for judges and magistrates overseeing specialist courts.

The inquiry provides a clear opportunity for people throughout the state and especially in rural and regional communities to influence change. Voices that have long been lost in what can be daunting, complex system can now be heard. The committee wants to hear them. It also wants to host more hearings in regional communities.

So I really encourage people who’ve had both difficult and positive experiences in the criminal justice system to make a submission. This video sets out how the inquiry works, what it’s examining, and how you can participate.

Find out how to make a submission. Or if you need advice about the process you can call the committee staff on 03 8682 2869. My statement about the inquiry also provides more details.

Please have your say.

Crime victims deserve compassionate, rapid support

BRAVE VOICES: With Ashleigh Cooper (left), Noelle Dickson and Di McDonald who joined me in my call for a serious overhaul of Victoria’s victims of crime assistance.

Parliament House, Melbourne – May 26, 2021

Motion

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) – May 26, 2021: (10:19)

I move:

That this house notes:

(1) the extensive and long-lasting physical, psychological and financial impacts frequently experienced by victims of crime;

(2) the importance of a comprehensive, well-structured and easily accessible system of state assistance for victims of crime that encompasses forms of support and care, including counselling, that are particularly responsive to victims’ individual needs and priorities;

(3) the urgent need to substantially revamp assistance to victims of crime in Victoria which has been identified on many occasions, including in the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s 2018 report on the review of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996, and as part of other formal government review processes dating back to 2009;

(4) the imperative for new, simplified victims of crime award categories in the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 that better define who should receive assistance and in what forms;

(5) the complementary need for enhanced, specialised child-focused services that will lead to better healing and recovery for children and young people who are victims of crime; and

(6) calls on the government to expedite its response to the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s review, especially in relation to the implementation of the critically important recommendations under chapter 13 of the review on restructured forms of assistance.

I should also clarify at the outset that I am using the term ‘victims of crime’ in this motion and speech as a reference to all victims and victim-survivors of crime collectively.

As everyone here knows, it is a very regular practice of mine in this Parliament to raise issues relating to victims of crime. There are countless such issues, and this motion focuses on a very specific subset of those. However, they are as important as almost any group of matters pertaining to how the Victorian government should treat people materially affected by crime.

The motion is largely in recognition of the extensive and long-lasting impacts victims frequently experience and it acknowledges that there must be a well-coordinated and easily accessible state-funded system of assistance in Victoria for victims of crime.

The motion also recognises that those victims’ rights and needs have for far too long been disregarded, discredited and dismissed and that they are often alienated by processes, services and programs that were supposedly intended to help them.

The motion then states that there needs to be an urgent overhaul of the current model of assistance, calling on the government to use the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s 2018 Review of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 as the main blueprint for change. Government MLCs might well point today to some announcements in last week’s budget that confirmed they are working on the VLRC review’s recommendations. However, I suspect they might also say they are still not ready to implement all of them until at least next year or beyond. If that does turn out to be the case, then I am suggesting that they should in the interim at least act immediately upon the crucial recommendations of chapter 13 regarding the establishment of new and reconceived forms of financial assistance.

As important as it is, the base of evidence for this motion is not purely that VLRC review, though, nor even last year’s RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice report on strengthening victim support services. Instead it is predicated on a diversity of evidence, including reviews and other documents from at least 2009. Back then the Department of Justice’s Reviewing Victims of Crime Compensation discussion paper was already raising many questions about the merits of the state-funded assistance program, which still persists to this day. In turn, today’s motion is also shaped heavily by the personal accounts of many victims themselves.

On that note I would like to thank and pay tribute to every victim of crime here with us in the gallery today and to express my continued admiration for and awe at your capacity to continue to live your lives with such courage and dignity even after everything you have endured. It is truly humbling, and it means so much to me that you have come here today to support this motion. I also thank the many victims of crime who could not attend in person but are watching and listening today. As part of that I salute those young victims of crime who are following the debate, because to me their interest in these matters is symbolic of the increasing feedback that my colleague Mr Grimley and I are receiving about the general inadequacy of support for children and young people directly affected by serious and violent crimes.

I would also like to quote our Premier, Daniel Andrews, who tweeted on February 18, 2020, and I quote:

It’s easy to say you’re against child sexual abuse. It’s another thing to actually demonstrate that. Victims should always be supported—no matter what. Anything less simply isn’t enough.

Dan Andrews @DanielAndrewsMP

I have pinned this to the wall of my office to remind me of our Premier’s commitment to victims of crime.

Accordingly, in part (5), I have sought to reflect one of the current policy priorities of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare and its CEO, Deb Tsorbaris. That organisation and indeed many other people undertake vital work in assisting young people to recover after witnessing and/or directly experiencing a crime, but additional specialist services are also still badly needed.

This is both in the crime’s immediate aftermath and also later in life, especially where conditions such as PTSD and psychosocial impacts continue to exert sustained adverse effects on these victims in a multitude of forms.

Of course it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that globally there has been a growing recognition during recent decades of the rights and interests of victims of crime. We just need their needs to be prioritised. Many important developments have certainly occurred here in Victoria, including the introduction of the victims charter in 2006, the creation of the victims of crime commissioner role in 2014 and indeed last week’s response to the call of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and other stakeholders for the first-ever dedicated victims legal service.

However, the world over there has unfortunately also remained a wide gulf between lofty rhetoric about victims’ rights on the one hand and its actual translation into meaningful outcomes on the other.

Here in Victoria the most disheartening thing of all has been the continual evidence of a criminal justice system affording more weight to the interests of those who break the state’s laws than those who abide by them. This has unfortunately been compounded by the retention, even amidst repeated complaints and criticisms, of a structure of assistance that most crime victims say devalues and often re-traumatises them. Partly this is because Victoria is one of only two Australian jurisdictions that still uses a judicial model and a victims of crime assistance tribunal in this field.

Over time this system has become so bewildering and created such instant and high barriers to surmount that victims typically need to hire lawyers, including at their own substantial expense, to help them understand and navigate many of its complexities and difficulties. Some victims have even had to launch their own lawsuits against offenders instead of relying on this model.

Overall the system is far too cumbersome. Its response times and processes are laborious, with waiting periods of Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal claim approvals historically averaging around nine months and some even lasting four years. It is also underpinned by some strange rules that leave it poorly geared to account for victims’ level of pain and suffering, their current circumstances or their future requirements. There are numerous other problems as well and to illustrate just a fraction of them it may be helpful for members if I relate a selection of experiences that some victims have allowed me to share with you.

Among those is the case of Janelle Saunders, the mother of 11-year-old Zoe Buttigieg, who was raped and murdered in Wangaratta in 2015 by a recidivist violent criminal. Janelle was treated atrociously by the victims assistance system in so many ways. This included being left unaware that other people who had not even seen Zoe since she was a baby were approved for compensation as so-called secondary or related victims.

The funds available to Janelle as the primary victim were accordingly reduced and she therefore ultimately lost access to the counselling sessions that she continues to require to this day. Notwithstanding her ongoing deep trauma, news of the termination of the counselling was then conveyed to her through the mail and in the space of only four words in the most soulless, bureaucratic and miserable letter I have ever seen. The letter delivered the words that funds were exhausted. I would suggest that an official review of Janelle’s case on its own should be enough to see the current system terminated.

Another case is Kerryn Robertson, the mother of Rekiah O’Donnell, who was shot and killed by her partner in Melbourne in 2013. Kerryn and her family encountered serious difficulties in relation to financial support too, as they were told that a lump sum of money that had been set aside for sessions with a counsellor—one that had to be selected from a very limited list of approved counsellors, I might add—could not be used for any other purposes. Both Kerryn and Rekiah’s sister Indiana, who was only 15 at the time, only used a few of those sessions.

They later felt they needed assistance with many other priorities instead, including with education, as their learning and work were both set back after Rekiah’s death. However, that help was not available. Indiana’s money was also embargoed until she was 18, rather than being accessible for the urgent, immediate support she needed, which should have catered more specifically to the need of a teenager. They are both still experiencing many repercussions from all of that.

Here today in the gallery is Noelle Dickson, the mother of Sarah Cafferkey, who was murdered in Bacchus Marsh in 2012 by a violent criminal, inexplicably on parole. Noelle has actually interacted with the victim assistance system more than once, but her experience has never been a pleasant one. She felt she was confronted by a system that was constantly and quite extraordinarily requiring her to actually prove she was a victim. She was asked to recount her experiences multiple times to multiple doctors, counsellors and others. This was even after all the relevant facts had been clearly established, including in court, and even though like almost every victim of crime she already had more than enough to process as it was, without all of the extra stress and trauma of having to recite her story over and over again.

I thank you, Janelle, Noelle, Kerryn and Indiana, for consenting to me sharing just some of the many elements of your very difficult experiences with the existing system. I also thank the many other victims who have allowed me to potentially tell their stories too. If only there had been more time available to me today. I also hope that I can say on behalf of all of you that neither you nor I believe that the solutions here are especially difficult to achieve and implement.

In fact, and as the wording of the motion highlights, they are actually substantively identified in the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s (VLRC) review chapter 13 findings. Among other proposals, these recommend the replacement of the existing act’s award categories with six more broadly based streams of support. Collectively these are aimed at delivering more transparent, more predictable, less confusing and fairer assistance. They are also far more closely based on victims’ individual priorities rather than being constrained by arbitrary, predefined limits, caps and other restrictions. As part of this they lift the current maximum time limits for claims. These limits are simply not aligned with the reality that every victim of crime responds and heals in their own unique way and at their own individual pace. Many are unable to move forward for a very long period, and it is ill informed to presume they will always do otherwise.

The VLRC’s proposed changes also reflect the widespread dissatisfaction with the existing primary, secondary and related award categories in particular and the complexities around who can apply for and receive assistance as well as how, when and why. They also honour the crucial importance in many cases of more immediate access to support. Crucially in cases like Janelle’s they will also permit access to counselling services on a long-term basis, where this is appropriate to recovery needs, irrespective of whether any limits that might apply to other forms of assistance have already been exhausted. Equally, though, they do not mandate compulsory attendance at counselling, especially where this is not in someone’s best interest, as was true for Kerryn, Indiana and Noelle.

In the event funding should be a sticking point for any of these changes, then the government would do well to instigate a dedicated review into the potential production of a victim levy, as the VLRC separately recommends in chapter 18. Other states and territories far more adequately resource victim support in this way, compelling offenders themselves to fund a greater share of victim assistance. Naturally I acknowledge that it is important to review laws and policies carefully and not rush the results. In the case of victims of crime assistance, though, I would say that asking people to wait at least 12 years for the serious reforms that are required is stretching that sentiment beyond all acceptable limits.

In such circumstances I do not think it is unreasonable to ask that these reforms now be introduced immediately. Furthermore, the road map for change already exists. The government should by now know exactly what it needs to do. Sadly, none of us has the power to end all crimes or violence. However, if these reforms are implemented, they will obviously improve one vital aspect of how we respond to these acts and enhance the wellbeing of past and future crime victims in the process.

It is often said that a society—and a Parliament—is best judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable, and there are very few people who experience more vulnerability or feel more demoralised or broken than those directly impacted by serious crime. No words from me can adequately lay bare their pain and trauma nor the heavy burdens they carry—generally for the rest of their lives.

However, what I can say with confidence is that there is an obligation on every one of us in this Parliament not to forget or overlook them and certainly not to exacerbate their suffering. We must all recognise that the very least we can do is to make available forms of support that are compassionate, sensitively delivered and genuinely responsive to their needs. Frankly, those aims should be absolutely intrinsic to what this Parliament is about. It is for each of these reasons and many more that I thank everyone for listening and that I commend this motion to the house.

Other Members’ responses

Summing up

[In this latest budget, the government has] committed money, and I am extremely grateful for that, but we need to do more. We need to put victims of crime as the number one priority.

Tania Maxwell MP, Legislative Council: May 26, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:45): In summing up my motion, I would like to sincerely thank Ashleigh, Scott, Di, Noelle, my staff and my intern Vera for being here today and for supporting this motion. I would like to thank and acknowledge the very emotional contributions by Mr Ondarchie and Mr Limbrick today. Your voices have certainly been heard, and I thank you for standing and giving your heartfelt contributions. I would like to thank everyone who has spoken today. I would like to reiterate many of the words that Mr O’Donohue brought to the chamber, and I thank him for those words in support of my motion.

This motion is something that I have wanted to bring to the house since the day I was elected. Even before I was selected, when I became a member of the victims reference group with Mr O’Donohue and when I co-founded of the Enough is Enough foundation, victims were always at the core of the work that I wanted to do and achieve. Little did I know then that I would actually have the honour and the privilege to be elected to Parliament and bring my work to represent victims of crime in this house.

I agree with Mr O’Donohue that we certainly need a cultural change. We need to be putting victims at the forefront of the work that we are doing to support them. We need to stop with the priorities for offenders over victims. We have raised the impact statements today. How does an offender get to have a say and redact information in a victim’s impact statement? That is absolutely insulting. It is abominable. It just should never be happening.

We have got to look at ways that we can prevent crime, and I have stood here in this place so many times and talked about early intervention and primary prevention. A way we can support victims is to prevent these crimes from happening. We know that the government has a strong focus on mental health at the moment, and I certainly hope that our victims of crime and survivors will be considered as a priority in becoming supported through accessing mental health.

Dr Kieu stated something in his speech, about the $60,000 for victims of crime, with the $10,000 of special assistance. What I want to bring to the attention of this house is that I have seen offenders in prison, incarcerated, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. That makes me furious, when we have victims of crime sitting up there who have to fight and be retraumatised to get a single cent. It is wrong—and I am sorry for yelling, but I am so passionate about this. It is an absolute disgrace. Trauma does not leave these victims when the sentencing is handed down. They experience it for the rest of their lives, and they need to be supported. We need to invest in that early intervention.

When everybody goes to bed at night I hope the last words that go through your minds are: ‘Victims of crime—we need to support them’.

I acknowledge the government in this latest budget is doing that. You have committed money, and I am extremely grateful for that, but we need to do more. We need to put victims of crime as the number one priority.

Motion agreed to.

Victims’ experience must inform charter compliance

I asked Victim Support Minister Natalie Hutchins MP if the apparent exclusion of victims from consultations to make sure the Victims’ Charter works will be rectified.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (17:54):

My matter is for the Minister for Victim Support. It relates to the processes currently being undertaken by the victims of crime commissioner, Fiona McCormack, to develop a framework for compliance with the Victims of Crime Commissioner Regulations 2020.

In essence, these regulations govern the services provided by various organisations to Victorian victims of crime, particularly those organisations’ obligations to comply with the principles laid out in the state’s official Victims’ Charter.

In theory, it is actually a really good idea to strengthen that compliance. It is also desperately needed and is consistent with similar sentiment elsewhere, including Canada, for example, where there has been considerable recent focus on overhauling their victims bill of rights and thereby replicating best practice models in countries like England and France.

However, I am puzzled by some of the aspects of how this process is occurring here in Victoria.

First, it seems the commissioner was only asked to undertake this work either after or not long before the regulations actually came into force. So she is not scheduled to complete this process at the earliest until the regulations have already been in operation for around two years.

Second, from reading a discussion paper the commissioner released in March, it appears that it is purely the relevant organisations and agencies themselves that are being invited to provide their perspectives and feedback.

As happens far too often, it again seems there is not enough consideration or priority—maybe even none in this case—being afforded to the needs and lived experiences of victims of crime themselves.

Anyone who has read the 2018 Victorian Law Reform Commission or the 2020 Centre for Innovative Justice reports on victims of crime services and assistance in Victoria or indeed anyone who has talked to even just a few victims of crime will know they almost all have very important stories to share about how they have been let down by the current system.

In a process such as this, I would therefore have thought that those experiences and insights should have been regarded as incredibly instructive in examining where and why the victims charter is being breached and how future breaches can best be averted.

So the action I seek from the minister is for her to provide a clear explanation of why victims of crime have seemingly been excluded from consultation for the development of the compliance framework and whether this apparent oversight will be rectified in the course of the remaining year of the project.

Enable victims to appeal sentence leniency

Question without notice

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:46): My question is to the Attorney-General, Ms Symes. It follows the public outrage over the sentencing last week of Richard Pusey to potentially only one further week in jail for his actions following the 2020 Eastern Freeway crash that killed four police officers. To most Victorians this was yet another sentencing decision amongst so many over a long period of time completely out of kilter with community expectations and values and an insult to victims’ families. I do note the Attorney’s public statement last week that she did not wish to comment on individual sentencing decisions, so I ask—this is my more general question—what is the government’s position on whether victims of crime in particular should be provided with the opportunity to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to seek leave to appeal the apparent leniency of a sentence?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Resources) (11:47): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question at the outset. Ms Maxwell, thank you for your question. In relation to my position on not publicly commenting on individual cases, that is not something new that was from last week. I made that very clear upon being appointed to the position of Attorney-General. I certainly have no intention of compromising the independence of our courts or the DPP by running commentary on sentencing decisions. Nonetheless of course I too am very aware of the public opinion in relation to this case. I would point out that the judge’s assessment I think we can all agree with—that Mr Pusey’s conduct was callous and reprehensible and had a profound impact on the families of the four slain officers, who of course we paid tribute to with a minute’s silence last sitting day. There are no excuses for the conduct of Mr Pusey, and he was rightly condemned by the sentencing judge for it. It is understandable of course that this behaviour has provoked a strong and public outcry.

I agree with Ms Maxwell that decisions about sentencing must be responsive to community expectations and the values that we share as a society, and as Ms Maxwell has noted, it is critical that our courts can sentence people independently and without political interference. I am sure that is something that this house expects and indeed the community does.

In terms of Ms Maxwell’s question in relation to the involvement of victims in decisions made by the DPP, I would like to point out that there have been several changes over recent times to strengthen the roles of victims in criminal trial processes. In 2018, for example, we passed laws that required the DPP to strengthen victims’ rights to be given information to be consulted during court proceedings. Those laws specifically require the director to seek victims’ views before making a decision to appeal a sentence. However, it is important to remember that an appeal against a sentence can only be filed by the DPP if she considers that the sentence imposed was manifestly inadequate and that an appeal would be in the public interest.

I have met with the DPP a number of times, and certainly the views of victims and how the Office of Public Prosecutions can better support victims is something that is front of mind of that organisation, and I commend them for their commitment in that regard. I can assure you that their work has victims at front of mind in the way that they go about their business. I thank you for your ongoing interest in this matter and I am always happy to have these conversations with you, Ms Maxwell.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:50): Thank you, Attorney. Attorney, I imagine you would be aware of the existence in this field of policy of the UK’s unduly lenient sentence scheme. Under clear criteria and guidelines, this scheme allows anyone to ask the Attorney-General’s office to review a sentence they regard as too low. It has operated highly successfully since the 1980s, resulting annually in dozens of increases to sentences that were later agreed to have been too lenient originally. It is my party’s view that such a scheme could have great value in Victoria, including in lifting the low levels of public confidence in court sentencing. I therefore ask, Attorney, as my supplementary question whether the government has given any consideration to the merits of the potential introduction in Victoria of an unduly lenient sentence scheme or a model along very similar lines?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Resources) (11:51): I thank Ms Maxwell for her supplementary question highlighting alternative approaches in relation to sentencing appeals and the like. I am certainly aware of the UK model. I have not had extensive briefings on it nor have I conducted my own independent research, but it is a significant departure from the Victorian model here.

I can assure you I get a lot of emails asking me to intervene and personally review cases. The independence of the courts from the Parliament is something that I am a supporter of, and as I have previously said in my answer to your substantive question, the DPP is responsible for reviewing sentences independently and deciding whether or not there should be an appeal. I think that the value of that independence has received bipartisan support over many, many years and indeed is entrenched in the Victorian constitution, so it is my view and that of the government that decisions about sentencing should be done with that.