WACOSS is strongly supportive of the move to abolish the Cashless Debit Card arrangements. (more…)
WACOSS commends the State Government’s investment in workforce training and skills development, particularly in the critical areas of mental health and alcohol and other drug conditions. We support the fostering of stronger links to and pathways from education to training institutions and work placements that reduce barriers to employment for cohorts under-represented in the workforce.
We suggest that stronger focus is needed in on-the-job training and effective workplace supervision within human services, as many of the interactional complexities of community service occupations are not easily or effectively taught in classrooms but require real life experience. Greater recognition and support for experienced staff to take on supervision and mentoring roles will result in both improved service quality and improved workforce retention.
While WACOSS recognises that this strategy centres on developing a skilled workforce and focuses on key sections of the employee life cycle, including attraction, recruitment and skills development, we firmly believe that any workforce strategy must include a commensurate focus on job security and staff retention across key industries, especially in the health care and social assistance sector.
Retention is the single biggest challenge for community service organisations in the current economic cycle. The combination of slow sector wage growth and insecure employment contracts (a knock-on effect of ongoing short-term and last-minute funding contract rollovers arising from machinery of government changes – which should eventually be fixed by the State Commissioning Strategy) has led to significant numbers of skilled staff to leave the sector for better paid public sector or private sector roles.
Though it is imperative to focus on skills and training, we must follow the pipeline through to job design and job quality, ensuring that the nature of jobs in Western Australia supports worker retention and wellbeing. This, in turn, ensures that employment in Western Australia is attractive for workers, meets community expectations around workplace conditions and ultimately delivers higher quality services with better community outcomes.
Developing and sustaining a skilled community services workforce to meet projected need is becoming an increasing challenge, given the existing gap in skills and workforce capability across a number of service areas and a tightening funding environment. Safe, effective, connected, person-centred community services require a skilled, competent and proactive workforce with appropriate qualifications and experience to deliver high-quality services; these jobs cannot be automated. The diverse skill sets to meet industry needs has been outlined by the State Training Board in their Future Workforce Skills Report.
Addressing the skilled worker shortage in the community services sector requires strategic investment to attract workers, not only through education, training, and qualifications, but also through improved wages, job security, workplace conditions and career pathways. Without such investment, the community service sector will experience significant impacts on their capacity to retain skilled workers and to service the increasing complexity of need spreading throughout our communities.
It is important that the way we respond to workforce development and retention issues is well-targeted and evidence based. There can be a tendency to talk about ‘skills shortages’ when we have a tight labour market and particular sectors are less able to attract or retain skilled workers; these workers may simply be choosing to pursue better opportunities elsewhere, thus creating a labour shortage, or a shortage of willing workers. Simply focusing on more training places and incentives in the VET and tertiary sectors without considering retention and career development may ultimately merely increase the churn rate.
In a tight labour market, we need to be focusing on increasing the workforce participation rate by addressing the barriers to work faced by key groups currently excluded from the labour force, including single parents and working mothers, skilled seniors, people with a disability, Aboriginal and migrant LBOTE workers, those on humanitarian visas and the under-employed. Tackling these barriers will require changes and better targeting of policy at state and federal levels, complemented by personalised support provided by local community services with knowledge and experience working with these marginalised cohorts.
The evidence on the scale, impact and projected future growth of the health care and social services workforce indicates that it is both the largest and fastest growing employment sector in Australia and WA, employing 14.3 per cent of WA’s workforce (184,900 people as of November 2021) and projected to grow by 14.5 per cent by 2025, requiring an additional 27,000 workers. This means that we will need to be training more skilled workers through both VET and tertiary sectors and retaining and up-skilling existing workers and bringing in a migrant care workforce over the next decade to meet the needs of an ageing population and address projected demand in childcare, disability and aged care services. Other nations face exactly the same population ageing challenges and will be competing for migrant workers. In this context, we need to be acting now to both develop training and immigration pathways as well as tapping into our own latent workforce capability, enabling excluded workers, changing attitudes to the care professions, and ensuring the work is more secure and rewarding.
The focus of this submission will therefore centre on opportunities to better attract and retain workers and the systemic factors that contribute to worker shortages in the community service sector. Increasing retention rates through better job quality and training is a top policy priority to develop a skilled workforce, while broader factors such as affordable housing and placing a greater investment in community-based services must also be addressed, particularly in regional areas.
Adequate, sustainable funding for the community services sector
Unlike other areas of public service delivery such as education and health, that are founded on policies of universal entitlement and population or demand-based funding, social services continue to rely on ad hoc program-based funding models that seldom keep pace with community need or the true cost of service delivery. The uncertain funding environment constrains job security and employee confidence for their immediate future.
In addition, a significant gap between funding indexation and direct labour cost increases has been a consistent trend for community organisations for years in WA, as service contracts have continued to be rolled over rather than recommissioned. WA State Government indexation of 2.55 per cent under the Non-Government Human Services Sector (NGHSS) Indexation Policy will be applied to community sector funding for the 22/23 financial year. This level of indexation does not reflect the true increased costs for organisations, especially in light of the recent Federal and State award wage announcements.
The Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission announced a 5.25 per cent increase to the State Minimum Wage and a 4.65 per cent increase to WA Awards in its 2022 decision on the State Wage Case. Approximately 30 per cent of the WA community sector workforce is covered by the state system, and around 70 per cent by Federal Awards. When combined with the Superannuation Guarantee increase, the Fair Work Australia decision for the National Annual Wage Review results in a minimum 5.1% increase in labour costs for community organisations. Since the sector is comprised of people-centred social services, staff costs account for around 70-80 per cent of its running costs.
The difference between indexation and wage costs has been steadily growing over the last decade. Analysis estimates that this has resulted in a gap of 13.35 per cent to the real cost of service delivery.
Table 1. Differential in indexation and wages costs in WA Government funded contracts
Current trends in indexation may increase barriers to industry investment in training, create greater pressure for adaptability and the minimisation of labour costs, and limit opportunities for career development and higher-paid work, all of which have the potential to degrade jobs. The 2022 ACOSS Community Sector Survey revealed that only 14 per cent of community sector organisations across Australia reported indexation arrangements for their main funding source as adequate.
Without an increase by the State Government to the 2022/23 NGHSS indexation, the impacts will include:
Inadequate funding and indexation hold the sector in a low-experience vortex, with entry level workers unable to access ongoing training and skills development opportunities, and experienced workers choosing to exit the system because of the pressure associated with heavy workloads and low pay.
The new Federal Minister for Aged Care, the Hon. Anika Wells recently told ABC 730 Report that the Albanese Government was committed to funding a 25 per cent pay increase for aged care workers if and when the fair Work Commission delivered their decision on sector wages (see also comments on ‘fixing aged care’ by the Prime Minister). A significant increase in pay within federally funded aged care services is likely to see a substantial number of workers in low-paid and insecure roles in state-funded services with similar skill sets choosing to change roles.
- Indexation and resourcing of State and Federal contracts must be sufficient to ensure award obligations can be met
- Public authorities contract with the not-for-profit community services sector in a manner that supports sustainable and effective service delivery and greater parity in pay and conditions for community services workers.
WACOSS commends the State Government’s commitment to providing low-cost vocational training in priority areas, and the promotion and development of skill sets to build the capability of the community services and health workforces, as outlined in the Strategic State Government Response to Social Assistance and Allied Health: Future Workforce Skills Report. These commitments will help address financial barriers to education and training opportunities and spur commencements in training.
Further training opportunities to grow Western Australia’s community service sector workforce can be pursued by developing sustainable training regimes and expanding the capacity for skills growth in community service organisations and for their workers. This will require a multifaceted partnership approach between government and the sector that addresses on-the-job training barriers.
Taking a ‘skills ecosystem’ approach that recognises the interdependent nature of employers, workers and training providers in skill formation will help address the complexity of issues in developing and retaining a skilled workforce. Expanding training opportunities in the workplace will help ensure that current government investment in expanding training opportunities with VET providers are not met with high attrition rates due to wider workplace conditions across the sector.
As previously highlighted, indexation rates and procurement models that force organisations to compete for limited funding, influences the propensity for organisations to provide training to new recruits and existing staff across the sector. Organisations must tightly balance how budgets and workloads are managed, particularly when servicing increasing demand, which limits expenditure and opportunity for investment in on the job training and mentoring. On the job training and mentoring, for example, is critical in the disability sector, yet NDIS funding fails to incorporate training of staff into funding models.
Wider workplace conditions, including high levels of casual and part-time work, high levels of unpaid work being performed by workers, and staffing shortages that inhibit meeting service demand, act as additional barriers to work-related training and professional development opportunities. The Community Services and Health Industry Skills Council outlines how the increasingly casualised and insecure nature of employment within the sector has resulted in training costs being shifted more directly on to the employee. They note that as a greater proportion of care work is undertaken by women, it is women workers who tend to be excluded from opportunities for employer sponsored training, limiting career progression and higher-paid employment opportunities.
Evidence on community services training completions within the VET sector suggests that there is a comparatively poor completion rate, suggesting that significant numbers are attracted to a vocation in the caring professions, but are potentially dissuaded as they learn more about the roles. More work is needed to understand the barriers to course completion, such as analysis of student intake and exit surveys, to determine what is dissuading students and to provide better incentives to complete training and take up employment within the sector.
There is a critical shortage of trainers and assessors across the community sector to develop and promote the skills sets to meet its needs. Training should be seen as a partnership between government, training providers and community service organisations, where organisations are supported and funded appropriately to provide on the job training and mentoring. Investing in on-the-job training and professional development provides workers with the space to continuously grow and learn, strengthens the delivery of safe, high-quality care and supports regulatory compliance in sectors such as aged, disability or child care, among others.
- Support greater links and partnerships between training providers and community service organisations
- Recognise the importance of worker training in procurement policies.
The gap in economic participation and life outcomes for Aboriginal people in Western Australia remains significant. The continued impacts of colonisation, racism and intergenerational trauma are sustained by harmful government policies and practices; health, education and support service systems that are inappropriate or inadequate to meet levels of need; poverty and lack of opportunity. Fear and a lack of trust in institutions also play a critical role in lower rates of access to universal and secondary support services, particularly when it comes to justice and child protection services that many families associate with both former stolen generation practices and current harms that have been perpetuated by agencies.
There is a strong need for a greater focus on Aboriginal employment in health, education and community services. Given the projected growth of the service and caring economy, and disproportionately high levels of need for services and support by Aboriginal families and communities, the development of a human services workforce offers an excellent opportunity for generating greater trust in services and for increasing economic participation, helping develop more sustainable and resilient local economies.
A planned and sustained strategy is needed to provide a coordinated approach supporting a skilled Aboriginal human services workforce, and build sustainable Aboriginal organisations and businesses by setting clear employment and training targets. The example of the State Government’s Aboriginal Procurement Policy, which quickly and significantly surpassed its mandated targets, demonstrates how successful this kind of approach can be.
A combination of contracting requirements, additional incentives, and training support is likely to deliver the most effective outcomes. Contracts over a certain size should include minimum employment and training requirements, additional resources made available to leverage increased employment outcomes, and access to targeted support to ensure Aboriginal workers are work-ready, have access to additional training where necessary and their supervisors and co-workers have access to appropriate information and assistance.
There is a significant risk that a strategy that does not address these gaps and challenges would be setting up Aboriginal people, communities and community services to fail. There is a clear role for government to commission employment services at a local or regional level to provide appropriate support. Existing Aboriginal organisations are most likely to be best placed to deliver this support, with many Aboriginal community-controlled organisations having a strong record of outcomes in this area.
In September 2021, the State Government released its first Implementation Plan for Closing the Gap and the Aboriginal Empowerment Strategy. These documents provide the groundwork for a significant shift in the way that government has typically related to Aboriginal people in WA, with a new focus on empowerment, truth-telling, culture and country permeating the direction they set.
The community services sector has a critical role in the delivery of these priorities, partnering with government to create systems and services that are culturally secure and safe, and significantly increasing the proportion of those services that are delivered by Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.
- Develop an Aboriginal workforce development strategy that provides incentives and support to increase Aboriginal employment in human services contracts
- Establish requirements in State and Federal Government contracts to train and employ people within the local community with a focus on Aboriginal workers
The early education and care (ECEC) workforce play a critical role in both workforce productivity and community wellbeing. It provides both childcare services which enable parents (particularly mothers) to participate in the workforce, and it provides crucial early development, education and wellbeing to children during the critical early years. It is crucial that government policy on workforce, education and social welfare balance both the workforce participation and early development aspects of early learning. A focus on the marketization of the provision of cheap childcare at the expense of sufficient care to support social and emotional development will cost us more in the long-term. It is arguable we are now seeing the generational impacts of inadequate investment in early development and care result in increased rates of anxiety, poor mental health and wellbeing in young adults who are now completing school and entering the workforce.
Childcare services are projected to increase by over 10 per cent nationally between 2020 and 2025, requiring an additional 154,000 workers nationally and around 16,000 in WA. Higher rates of workforce development will be needed if we are to increase the workforce participation rate of women within the WA labour market (now up to 64.5 per cent, vs 74.8 per cent for men) and to increase the proportion of women working fulltime (51.5 per cent, vs 82.6 per cent for men).
There are currently significant barriers to childcare availability and affordability within WA that are creating significant barriers to women’s workforce participation. This is particularly true in regional areas, where a lack of services and the inability to attract and retain skilled staff is at crisis point. Regional centres in the northwest in particular cannot secure ECEC staff, as higher living costs and a lack of affordable local housing have become significant barriers. While local services have been partnering with the resource sector in regional centres in the Pilbara and Kimberley to come up with interim solutions, there is a need for longer-term systemic solutions to support and enable regional development. Childcare availability is also a significant barrier to regional development and workforce participation in the Midwest and Southwest regions, where similar private sector partnerships to set up facilities or access subsidised housing are not an option.
Recent surveys of childcare workers indicate that a high proportion of current workers are dissatisfied with job insecurity, pay and conditions as well as working conditions and future prospects, and intend to leave the industry.
ECEC providers have reported to the Children’s Policy Advisory Council (CPAC) that they face significant capacity constraints in taking on newly graduated staff, without sufficient experienced staff capable of providing ongoing supervision. The sector is concerned that the focus of workforce policy in this area appears to be largely on VET sector training student intake, while ignoring the need to retain existing experienced staff and to provide sufficient support for on-the-job training and upskilling the existing workforce. Service managers caution that unless something is done to address the current retention crisis and reduce the numbers currently leaving the sector, providers may be unable to meet mandated ratios and ensure adequate supervision. Without the experienced staff, childcare centres are not able to meet their compliance requirements and taking on new students is not an option to address this challenge alone, given the ratios and the need for experienced supervisors.
The role of early childhood educator needs to be promoted and recognised for the critical impact it has on a child’s development (and workforce participation and productivity) and mechanisms established where the experienced workers are offered appropriate levels of remuneration and access to ongoing professional development). An effort needs to be made to attract skilled and experienced workers back to the sector to have a more immediate impact on workforce participation in the short-term, while longer-term workforce development policies are implemented.
Western Australia faces some unique challenges in responding to recent national preschool funding reform commitments to ensure our ECEC sector is fit-for-purpose and addressing both participation and early development quality challenges. In relation to increasing workforce participation, the current system divides care between the hours provided through school-based preschool centres delivered through the Department of Education, and the actual hours of care needed by working parents – who then also need to access community-based care and/or long day-care to ensure their children are cared for and safe during work hours. Changes to mandatory entry requirements and qualifications may also result in barriers for existing skilled workers who need to upskill or re-qualify to maintain employment, but do not have access to the professional development support required.
Underemployed workers and those currently excluded from the workforce (such as single parents) face additional systemic barriers to securing and maintaining adequate childcare. Those with insecure work and uncertain hours face significant barriers in planning and scheduling childcare, with care schedules determined in advance, and waiting lists of many months to secure ongoing care or additional hours. Those on unemployment benefits or the single parent pension face further barriers in securing sufficient care entitlement to be able to take up work. There is generally a limited entitlement to care for the unemployed, and so prospective workers need to secure work to be able to access sufficient care, but childcare waitlists mean that they are unlikely to be able to do so in a timely manner. This means in practice that if they are unable to access informal transitional care through family or friends, they are unlikely to be able to transition to work effectively.
- Encourage and support early childhood centres to provide on-site training and professional development and provide scholarship funding to up-skill experienced staff to provide supervision and mentoring.
- Develop policies and incentives to retain existing skilled early education and care staff, including greater job certainty and improved employment conditions.
- Prioritise the development and provision of childcare services in regional areas as a key support for regional development outcomes.
- Reform funding of preschool care to better support community-based care and increase access to long day care.
There is a significant amount of work that has been done in relation to the workforce development needs of the aged care and disability sectors, and recent national inquiries and Royal Commission have highlighted significant challenges in relation to quality and sustainability of services. We expect that detailed submissions will be prepared by the relevant industry and consumer peaks on workforce issues in these sectors.
WACOSS members are concerned by the broader longer-term workforce trends that have emerged over the last decade or more across the aged care, disability and childcare workforces. We believe that there are fundamental underlying structural changes that have occurred to the labour market for the care industries that have been driven by government policy, regulation and funding levers that have undermined both the quality of employment conditions and service outcomes. Human service quality and sustainability has been undermined by service marketisation and individualised funding models, in a manner that is increasingly enabling the exploitation of insecure workers and enabling third-party labour hire agencies to profit, while mission-driven not-for-profit providers lose staff and become increasingly unviable. Gig-economy platforms such as Mable are able to circumvent the regulatory costs and requirements placed on traditional aged and disability care employers in a manner that reduces costs and responsibilities. The end result however, for service users and their loved ones, is lower quality and less reliable services.
When it comes to caring and support services, such as early childhood education and care, or home and community care, service users and carers want and highly value a meaningful and ongoing relationship with the care provider. Quality and consistency of care is predominantly relationship-based, it is important that the care providers know and understand their needs and circumstances. An increasingly casualised and varying workforce, where workers are interchangeable, time-poor and stressed, and must rush from job to job to meet deadlines does not deliver the kind of services the community expects and values. Increasing use of platform-based care is a clear and emerging trend, but it is unclear how well the impacts of this mode of delivery are captured in agency reporting and regulator quality oversight. Service providers report their staff are increasingly choosing better pay and the promise of flexible hours, over ongoing employment under existing funding and award arrangements. As a result, they are finding it hard to recruit new skilled staff and have to increasingly rely on agency staff to meet care commitments, which costs the service more and undermines their ongoing viability.
- Engage with the Federal Government (via COAG and the National Jobs and Skills Summit) to discuss collaborative reform approaches to service delivery and funding models in aged care, disability and childcare services.
WACOSS recognises the government’s efforts at attracting skilled interstate and overseas workers to live and work in Western Australia. However, efforts to attract interstate and overseas workers without consideration of where these workers will be able to affordably live is a vital piece missing from the strategic plan to address the state’s skilled labour shortage. Rising rents and a lack of rental properties and affordable housing across Western Australia already has a range of implications for low- to middle-income earners, particularly in regional areas.
In many regional communities, community services cannot keep pace with demand for services, with workforce shortages exacerbated by low-paid, short-term contracts and high cost of living. Attracting and retaining staff is extremely difficult in regional areas as salary packages do not cover housing and rental costs, which are prohibitively high in towns that also service a large number of the fly-in fly-out mining workforce.
With essential services being delivered in regional areas predominantly through short-term contracts and relatively low annual salaries compared to mining or government salaries, the lack of job security coupled with the high cost of living is not only undesirable for most workers, but financially untenable. Insecure, inappropriate and unaffordable housing in regional areas intersects with insecure and precarious work to create barriers to regional employment that limit regional growth and exacerbate boom and bust cycles in regional towns and centres.
In both regional and metropolitan areas, many workers in community services perform physically and emotionally demanding jobs, work long shifts, work during anti-social hours and/or work in high stress situations. Housing stress and insecurity can exacerbate the stress and fatigue resulting from performing their essential duties. That, in turn, can negatively impact service quality, including through an inability to retain more experienced workers in the long term.
WACOSS recognises the government’s action to freeze rents on public sector housing in regional WA to support worker retention. A focus is also needed on improving access to housing for workers in the NGO community service sector. Across Australia, there have been limited federal or state housing programs or policies specifically designed to support key workers outside of the public sector to access housing or the delivery of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income earners.
Housing All Australians Give Me Shelter report found that the national average benefit-cost ratio for Australia in providing adequate social and affordable housing infrastructure is 2:1. Not only is there is a strong underlying business case to create more public, social and affordable housing supply, but also a clear rationale to address housing affordability and availability as part of any effort to attract workers into the state, particularly in regional areas.
- Develop housing initiatives that ensure provision of accommodation for employees of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) contracted and funded by the State or Federal Government to provide key services in regional locations
- Incorporate housing costs into service delivery contracts with the State Government in high-cost regional locations to sustain the delivery of funded NGO services.
It should be noted that the term skill shortage is often a surrogate term for more general recruitment and retainment difficulties in the community service sector. It is unlikely to be possible to attract and retain sufficient workers to meet the growing demand unless pay and working conditions change. Improving community service sector job quality and conditions would also improve quality of care and reduce turnover costs.
It is widely acknowledged that care-giving remains devalued in both social and economic terms. In real terms, the wages associated with performing care work are lower than other forms of work requiring comparable qualifications or skill, and this remains a significant deterrent to attracting and retaining workers for the sector. Workers are consistently poached from the NGO sector by government agencies and the mining sector, particularly in regional areas, who can offer significantly better pay, along with greater job security, and clearer protections for working hours. This is particularly common for the ACCHO sector.
The WA health care and social assistance workforce is highly feminised, with 79 per cent of the workforce female.  By comparison to the national average, WA has fewer health care and social assistance workers in fulltime work (51 per cent vs 55 per cent) and more in part-time roles (49 per cent vs 45 per cent). The workforce is also ageing, with 45 per cent of workers aged over 45 years and 22 per cent over 55 years. The female underemployment rate for WA women also remains high at 8.76 per cent (vs 5.2 per cent for men).
Roles in the sector are increasingly being portrayed as a less attractive option for women than those in STEM, Construction or Mining. This is damaging, and can actively discourage people from entering the community service sector workforce. Public perceptions of care work need to be lifted and the extraordinary contribution of workers in caring for Western Australians better recognised and rewarded. Those who chose to pursue roles that involve caring for others should not be made to feel like that are taking a less challenging or valued pathway.
The community sector has immense expertise to offer government, and this has been especially valuable as Australia responds to the multi-faceted crises posed during the pandemic. A collaborative approach between sectors could include mentoring, supervision and personal development that even encourages sharing of staff across sectors and industries (such as Allied Health Professionals), which may assist with attraction of staff to regional areas and enable ongoing professional development.
While we often think of mining and construction as the pillars of our state’s economy, health care and social assistance is the largest employing industry in Western Australia, and is projected to grow faster than any other area of the economy over the next five years.
Researched commissioned by the International Trade Union Confederation found that if Australia invested 2 per cent of its GDP in the care industry, it would directly create 356,812 new jobs and raise the employment rate by 2.3 per cent. When both the indirect effects through the supply chain and the induced effects from increased demand within the economy are added, this sees the creation in Australia of 613,597 new jobs and a rise in the employment rate of 4 per cent.
In comparison, the same level of investment in construction only directly increase the employment rate by 0.5 per cent and by 2.5 per cent when indirect and induced effects are considered.
Investing in the care economy also has a profound impact on closing the gender employment gap, with the modelling showing that 79 per cent of the new jobs created by this level of investment would be taken by women, increasing the employment rate for women by 3.7 per cent and decreasing the gender gap by 2.6 per cent. This far outpaces what would be seen in the construction industry, where only 11 per cent of the jobs would be taken by women and their employment rate would rise by just 0.1 per cent.
Importantly, investment in community-based services that focus on prevention and early intervention will reduce the pressure on the health care system, helping to alleviate critical staffing issues, reduce the cost burden and improve health outcomes.
- Targeted transitional investment in job creation and training in areas of unmet and growing need, such as aged care, disability services, FDV services, ACCO services.
 Government of Western Australia (2022) Strategic State Government Response to Social Assistance and Allied Health: Future Workforce Skills Report.
 Cortis N and Blaxland, M (2022) Carrying the costs of the crisis: Australia’s community sector through the Delta outbreak. Sydney: ACOSS
 Government of Western Australia (2022) Strategic State Government Response to Social Assistance and Allied Health: Future Workforce Skills Report.
 Community Services and Health Industry Skills Council (2012) Identifying Paths To Skill Growth Or Skill Recession: A literature review on workforce development in the community services and health industries. Industry Skills Councils: Australia. (see also the Future Priority Skills Resource)
 Hon Ben Wyatt (2020) ‘Government’s Aboriginal procurement exceeding expectations’, Media Statements, Government of Western Australia
 Hon Stephen Dawson MLC (2021) ‘State Government releases Aboriginal Empowerment Strategy and Closing the Gap Implementation Plan’, Media Statements
 United Workers Union (2021) Exhausted, Undervalued and Leaving: The crisis in Early Education
 For example ACIL Allen (2021) The economic and social impact of the aged care sector in Western Australia
 Gilbert, C., Nasreen, Z. and Gurran, N. (2021) Housing key workers: scoping challenges, aspirations, and policy responses for Australian cities, AHURI Final Report No. 355, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/ research/final-reports/355, doi: 10.18408/ahuri7323901.
 SGS Economics and Planning for Housing All Australians (2022) Give Me Shelter: The long-term costs of underproviding public, social and affordable housing
 ABS 2016 Census Place of work, employment, labour market information (November 2021)
 WA Women’s Report Card 2022, op cit.
 State Training Board (2019) Social Assistance and Allied Health Workforce Strategy
 Jerome De Hanau, Susan Himmelweit, Zofia Tapniewska and Diane Perrons (2016) Investing in the Care Economy: A gender analysis of employment stimulus in seven OECD countries, UK Women’s Budget Group, International Trade Union Confederation
WACOSS understands, through consultation with members and family and domestic violence and women’s legal specialists, that there is a general consensus that the introduction of any new criminal offences alone, without whole of system reform, could lead to adverse outcomes for victim-survivors and have limited impact in improving their safety.
Criminalisation can be symbolically appealing, but due to the severity of the possible unintended consequences, it must be carefully considered whether such an approach would in fact be effective or appropriate. We note that there is currently little evidence to indicate how new criminal offences would impact communities who are already subject to systemic harm and marginalisation by the justice system, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people who are culturally and linguistically diverse, and people living with a disability. This lack of evidence means that it is challenging to determine whether criminalisation as an approach improves outcomes for victim-survivors.
We recognise the need for improved whole-of-system responses to coercive control and better outcomes through the criminal justice system, but believe this must be part of a larger integrated effort to transform the way that we respond to family and domestic violence, both in and beyond the criminal justice system. By addressing the systemic causes of abuse, we can develop approaches that prevent it occurring in the first place, achieving better outcomes for community safety than can be achieved through a narrow focus on punishment and incarceration.
It is important to contextualise the discussion around legislative responses to coercive control in the sombre reality that the vast majority of intimate partner violence remains unreported and unaddressed. More needs to be done to address barriers to reporting, to secure better outcomes from reported cases, and to improve the safety, protection and wellbeing of women and children at risk of or fleeing abusive and violent relationships.
Our recommendations are directed at strengthening the foundations of the current systems that respond to family and domestic violence, pursuing opportunities to prevent and reduce family violence to the greatest extent possible, and ensuring extensive cross-sector consultation and collaboration with diverse groups of women and the service providers they engage with, to carefully consider alternatives to criminal justice approaches.
WACOSS recommends the following:
WACOSS considers that these recommendations will improve safety for victim-survivors, ensure the particular needs of vulnerable groups are better served, improve accountability for perpetrators, and strengthen community-based responses to coercive control. If the above priority and prerequisite recommendations are not implemented as part of a whole-of-systems response to family and domestic violence, WACOSS is of the opinion that it would be unwise, harmful and potentially dangerous to introduce new legislation that criminalises coercive control in WA.
WACOSS recognises that various terminologies are used in policy, practice and research to describe family and domestic violence (FDV). There are many types of family and domestic violence, but all forms are characterised by behaviours that are intended to coerce, control and/or create fear within an intimate or familial relationship.
A strong evidence base demonstrates the gendered nature of FDV and that the overwhelming majority of violence experienced in the home is perpetrated by men against women and children. As such, gender-binary language and terminology is often used to acknowledge and communicate that family and domestic violence is underpinned by deeply entrenched gender inequalities and power imbalances between women and men. This submission will primarily use gender-binary terms (i.e. women and men) to reflect the current evidence base demonstrating that FDV is gendered in nature. WACOSS recognises that FDV does, however, impact people across a diversity of gender identities, social and cultural contexts, and within various intimate, family and family-like relationships.
WACOSS understands that coercive control has been considered by the Meeting of Attorneys-General (MAG) and that in June 2021, the MAG agreed to co-design national principles to develop a common understanding of coercive control and matters to be considered in relation to potential criminalisation. One part of these national principles will be to establish a common understanding of coercive control. In view of this, WACOSS believes it would be counterproductive for the Western Australian Government to use a different concept to understand and describe the nature of family and domestic violence.
As outlined by ANROWS, WACOSS reiterates that:
Responding to coercive control more effectively requires a consistent definition of coercive control and of domestic and family violence across legislative and policy settings, Australia-wide. This definition needs to position coercive control as an overarching strategy designed to remove personhood using a range of physical and non-physical behaviours.
Additionally, WACOSS believes that it is important not to present coercive control as a “new” concept to victim-survivors and the community. There is in fact an extensive body of work that emphasises that family and domestic violence is rarely a single incident, rather, it is a pattern of behaviour that is cumulative and ongoing. This pattern of behaviour may or may not include physical violence, but rather includes a wide range of controlling and psychologically abusive behaviours that together function to control the victim.
Coercive control then is not a list of non-physical behaviours (such as emotional, financial or physical abuse, isolation from friends and family, placing restrictions on what a woman can wear and so on) rather it is the overarching context in which those behaviours occur. This contextual understanding shifts the focus from individual acts and behaviours to the way in which they function together as a patterned, cumulative environment that serves to instil fear, limiting a woman’s freedom and space for action. The seminal work of Evan Stark, Coercive Control: How men entrap women in personal life, published in 2007, has been key to the development of the theory of coercive control. So the concept of coercive control is not new, rather what is new are the discussions around criminalisation of this patterned form of behaviour.
The serious and widespread nature of FDV within Western Australia, as evidenced through increasing year-on-year statistics, places significant pressure on specialist FDV services. In addition, the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 has produced a significant and rapid rise of demand for services in recent years, which has outstripped capacity and placed the sector under significant strain. Services are not currently equipped to meet this high level of demand, which undermines the safety of those experiencing family and domestic violence and their potential for recovery.
Media reports and consultation with our members reveal that services are forced to turn away hundreds of women and children as they face greater demand than they can meet. Specialist FDV services have a long history of providing an invaluable range of supports to women, children and gender diverse people experiencing, or at risk of, family and domestic violence and abuse. These services, and their workers, are highly skilled in the provision of risk assessment, risk management, safety planning, crisis accommodation provision and referral, case management, counselling, and advocacy, with wide-ranging and deep legal and clinical knowledge and experience. These services provide a range of supports to women and children, and contribute unique skills and knowledge about family violence risk that guide the broader system response.
Specialist FDV services enable and support:
Specialist FDV services are an integral part of Western Australia’s response to family violence and abuse, particularly as the vast majority of victim-survivors do not report their experiences to the police. Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) estimates that less than one in 10 victim-survivors choose not to engage with the criminal justice system.  There are a range of reasons for non-disclosure of family violence to police by victim-survivors, including: fear of further/escalation of violence, feelings of shame or low self-esteem, concerns they won’t be believed, or perpetrator tactics of isolation and control.
Additional and distinctive barriers to disclosure are also present for diverse groups of women. Aboriginal women, for example, are substantially less likely than non-Aboriginal women to call police due to experiences of colonisation, dispossession, ongoing racism and discrimination, fear about authorities removing their children or about Black deaths in custody. Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) women may hold religious or cultural beliefs about gender roles and behaviours, particularly within marriage, that are inconsistent with speaking out and seeking help from police about violence perpetrated against them and their children. For women in small communities in regional and rural areas, there might be a perceived lack of confidentiality, privacy and anonymity.
People with a disability, the LGBTIQA+ community, and the elderly are other groups who face greater challenges when it comes to reporting abuse. In addition to demand pressures, specialist FDV services must be adequately resourced to provide tailored responses to victims, with the flexibility to respond to women’s and children’s individual needs.
The WA Labor Government has recognised that “the current system is in crisis.” While a number of funding commitments made by the Western Australian Government to support women and families experiencing family and domestic violence over recent years are very welcome, essential frontline support services remain chronically underfunded and unable to meet the diverse and complex needs of those affected by family violence. WACOSS recommends that an immediate funding boost be granted to FDV specialist services prior to the introduction of any new legislation so that they can move from managing demand to meeting demand.
Recommendation: Increase funding to the specialist FDV sector to deal with the current crisis in demand and to ensure that women, children and gender diverse people impacted by FDV receive effective specialist support.
Work to address violence against women and children exists along a continuum that includes primary prevention, early intervention and response. Each of these approaches reinforce each other and are equally critical to an integrated, multi-faceted and long-term approach to family and domestic violence. Government spending on FDV services and programs, however, is heavily weighted towards the crisis-response end. The existing focus on crisis response and justice system mechanisms must be matched by a similar focus on, and investment in, primary prevention and early intervention to prevent and reduce family and domestic violence to the greatest extent possible.
Problematic and unacceptable attitudes to family and domestic violence and gender inequality in society have remained stubborn and pervasive, and our systems and institutions are not immune to harbouring these attitudes. Cultures of victim blaming and denial are still operating systemically, and regularly jeopardise the safety of victims seeking support and services. A primary prevention approach works across the whole population to address the attitudes, practices and power differentials that drive violence against women and their children and to promote a culture of non-violence and gender equality.
Examples of primary prevention activities include schools-based programs to create gender-equitable environments and build students’ relationships skills, efforts to reduce the disrespectful portrayal of women in the media, comprehensive public education and social marketing campaigns, and workplace initiatives promoting positive bystander responses. Such approaches are distinct from responses to existing violence such as crisis counselling, police protection or men’s behaviour change programs, as well as from early intervention activities such as working with ‘at risk’ young people or families.
In addition to current programs, such as Respectful Relationships, it may be of benefit to develop an education campaign on coercive control which can be launched in WA schools and through the media. This can include teaching young people what coercive control looks like, encouraging healthy and respectful relationships, help young people to access support services and combat stereotypes and stigma.
Increased investment in early intervention strategies is also critical, as they have the potential to stop early signs of violence from escalating, prevent a recurrence of violence, or remove some of the significant barriers that still exist to women accessing the service system and the supports they require. Expanding preventative and early intervention training and activities to frontline workers who are well-placed to recognise and respond to diverse presentations of abuse across a range of sectors and services is essential in developing a whole-of-community response to FDV.
There is strong evidence for providing early intervention through universal services such as GPs, hospitals, financial services, early childcare services, child protection services, maternal, sexual, and reproductive services, Centrelink and social service providers, where women may disclose or evidence of FDV is present. Staff in these services can be trained to identify family violence and to facilitate access to supportive services in other sectors.
The health system, for example, can be an important point of entry to a network of supporting social and legal services for women experiencing abuse. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2016 Personal Safety Survey, four out of 10 women who sought advice or support about sexual violence did so through their GP or other health professionals. It is crucial that frontline workers who are in a position to respond to disclosures of violence, including non-physical forms of violence, know how to do so in a way designed to reduce further victimisation and re-traumatisation of victim-survivors and improve their safety.
Reducing levels of harm and death arising from family violence also requires addressing the barriers women and children face in seeking to escape abusive and controlling relationships. This includes better access to adequate income support, safe and secure housing, and immediate, accessible financial support to exit abusive situations.
WACOSS believes that any legislative changes to criminalise coercive control must be underpinned by a commitment to supporting these primary prevention and early intervention measures on a larger scale if we are to create the conditions necessary to reduce the incidence and effects of family violence. If we do not tackle the problem of family violence at its source and become better at preventing it from occurring in the first place, communities and the systems that support them—police, courts and other services—will continue to be overwhelmed.
Recommendation: Prioritise the funding of FDV primary prevention and early intervention programs across a range of settings to stop the violence before it begins, and to change the culture of gendered violence in WA.
While FDV is prevalent across all of Western Australia’s communities, there is sufficient evidence that demonstrates that certain groups and individuals are at greater risk of experiencing FDV, are more vulnerable to its impacts, and experience additional barriers to seeking and receiving support. The risk factors, experience and dynamics of domestic and family violence differ for:
Migrant, refugee and CaLD women, have specific support needs that may not be addressed by generalised FDV strategies and services in addition to facing barriers to engaging with the criminal justice system, such as limited access to resources, or failure by police or the legal system to utilise interpreters. The impact of violence may be exacerbated by the stressors of migration and resettlement and the constraints of visa status, which may increase women’s dependency on perpetrators for economic security and residency rights. This forced dependency is likely to intensify if the woman has poor English literacy, is caring for children, and is isolated from family and social support networks. Forms of violence and abuse may manifest for women from some cultural backgrounds in the form of dowry stealing, family and community scrutiny and surveillance, early or forced marriage, financial control by perpetrators or extended family members, restriction of movement, and threats to visa or migration status.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and gender diverse people may experience distinct differences in the forms of abuse and violence utilised by perpetrators. These may include threatening to out or outing the victim in terms of their sexuality or HIV status, withholding hormone treatments, preventing participation in LGBTIQ+ events, personal degradation and public humiliation. Research indicates that minority stressor variables, including internalised homophobia and discrimination, are positively associated with both increased perpetration and victimisation of FDV and intimate partner violence. Lack of understanding and sensitivity to issues specific to LGBTIQ+ people in mainstream services, discrimination and homophobic attitudes by police officers, or fear of discrimination within judicial systems act as barriers to LGBTIQ+ people seeking help from and using support services and the criminal justice system.
Women with disability who require support from, or depend on, the perpetrator for their daily needs and care, may be especially vulnerable to domestic and family violence. The perpetrator may restrict or deny access to transport, medication or other means of disability support, fail to provide adequate care, interfere with the victim-survivors reproductive health as well as act as a gatekeeper to victim-survivors’ attempts to disclose the violence and seek assistance from support services. Research indicates that when women with a disability disclose their experiences of violence, they are less likely to be believed, and when giving evidence in court, their competency, reliability and credibility are more likely to be questioned or given less weight. Their fear of prejudicial assessment or discrimination may cause women with disability or impairment to be less likely to access support services or engage with police or judicial processes. Recognising and identifying diverse types of violence that impact on the everyday safety and security of women with disability requires attention to individual, environmental and institutional factors.
Research demonstrates that women with mental health concerns who have been subjected to gender-based violence can be harmed by institutions tasked with helping them. Women experiencing mental health concerns are particularly vulnerable to being misidentified as an aggressor of violence and among the groups least likely to be believed when reporting sexual assault to police. Further, raising mental health in Family Court matters is gendered, with it given as the “reason limiting child contact with mothers in 30 percent of such cases, but only in 2 percent of cases limiting fathers”. Mental ill health can be a compounding factor, a barrier, and outcome of violence against women and can be weaponised by perpetrators for coercive control, through tactics such as gaslighting or using a woman’s mental illness to seek to deny her child contact. The complexity of the intersection of violence against women and mental health often requires collaboration between mental health, sexual violence, domestic and family violence and other sectors to provide effective care.
Pregnancy has been shown to increase and escalate a woman’s risk and experience of controlling behaviours by their intimate partner. This may be due to the perpetrator’s jealousy of the pregnancy or the extra attention their partner may experience from family, friends and health care and support service providers. Research shows that unplanned or unwanted pregnancy is more common among women experiencing domestic and family violence. The perpetrator may have forced or coerced the woman into pregnancy through, for example, emotional manipulation, contraception sabotage or forced unprotected sex. Pregnancy and infancy also create greater dependence for women on their partners physically, emotionally and financially, increasing their vulnerability to domestic and family violence.
Compared with the overall prevalence of violence against women, young women aged 18 to 24 years’ experience higher rates of physical and sexual violence by their partners or former partners. Within that group, those aged 20 to 24 years’ experience the highest rate of homicide victimisation. Young women are more likely to experience technology-based abuse, image-based abuse, stalking, intimidation and other forms of harassment. For example, devices such as computers and smart phones may be used by the perpetrator in conjunction with platforms such as social networking sites and text messages to record sexual assaults, to make threats to distribute images or videos of the victim, or to distribute images or videos without the victim’s consent. Young women are also less likely to report incidences of stalking or intimidation to police.
Older people can be at greater risk of experiencing some forms of abuse, including economic abuse, mistreatment or neglect. Older people may also face a range of barriers to reporting domestic and family violence, thus compounding their vulnerability. Some of these barriers include: lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse; lack of knowledge of their rights or resources; diminished cognitive or physical capacity; restricted mobility; social isolation; dependency on the perpetrator; stigma and shame; perceived or actual lack of options or access to services; and not wishing to tell authorities about abuse as they subscribe to religious, cultural or generational beliefs about family violence as a private matter. As a result, family violence against older people tends to be under-reported.
A range of geographic, economic, cultural and social factors place women living in rural, regional and remote areas at higher risk to FDV while also facing additional barriers to accessing help than those living in metropolitan areas. These include, but are not limited to: physical and social isolation; ready access to firearms and other weapons, heightened financial and economic stress and substance abuse; limited or lack of local services, professionals and trained workers to assist victims, children and perpetrators; and the close, conservative nature of rural and farming communities. A number of these factors may also contribute to the nature and severity of the domestic and family violence, impact victim-survivors disclosure and help-seeking, and the extent to which perpetrator programs commonly used in metropolitan areas may be inappropriate in regional, rural or remote communities.
Currently, the many different forms and manifestations of family violence are insufficiently recognised within the criminal justice system and responses are not tailored to the particular circumstances and needs of diverse victim-survivors as outlined above. An intersectional approach to family and domestic violence recognises that women from diverse backgrounds and communities can face multiple and intersecting barriers to reporting family violence as well as in finding appropriate help and support. An intersectional approach also means acknowledging that no single initiative will be equally relevant to, or effective for, all groups.
Effective care and response to family and domestic violence requires multiple different, but mutually reinforcing, efforts in different contexts. To adequately respond to coercive control, WACOSS recommends that the WA Government work collaboratively with other agencies to address the array of barriers that lead to the underreporting of violence and reduced help-seeking experienced by priority populations and marginalised groups, prior to introducing a criminal offence. Otherwise, the introduction of legislation to criminalise coercive control risks failing the groups of women who are most in need of support.
Recommendation: Work collaboratively with other agencies that specialise in supporting priority populations and marginalised groups to develop appropriate and culturally secure supports and address barriers to disclosure, prior to adding a separate offence of coercive control.
Community-led research highlights the importance of culture in healing from domestic violence and demonstrates the need for family-focused models of support to address FDV in holistic and culturally strong ways. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women refer to colonisation and other associated factors as a significant precursor to family violence. Systemic disadvantage, forced removal of children, cultural dislocation, gender and racial discrimination, oppression and intergenerational impacts of trauma shape the experiences of family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Research demonstrates that systemic barriers disempower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experiencing violence from reporting violence, including a fear of child removal, fear of isolation from family and community, and the threat of homelessness.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation Development Team strongly advises investment in four primary principles to support the healing of Aboriginal peoples:
Solutions that focus on the restoration of family cohesion and community healing are preferred, particularly those that allow the ‘victim-survivor and perpetrator deal with their pain and suffering’. Collective healing is about encompassing a culturally based approach viewing the individual in the context of their family, community, culture and country.
There is consistent evidence that Indigenous-run programs can contribute to healing and the prevention of FDV. The key elements contributing to effective programs include being long-term, holistic, Indigenous-led, adequately funded, grounded in the local community, culturally based, strengths-based, provided by skilled and well-supported staff and leaders, well-coordinated and provide referrals to other programs and supports as required. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child and family services should be provided with additional resources and support to enable culturally effective responses.
Recommendation: Place an immediate priority on working collaboratively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations in addressing the impact of coercive control in WA.
Effective victim support requires trained and experienced first responders and judicial staff, who are currently ill-equipped to provide appropriate support. Developing workforce capacity to ensure quality and consistency in responding to victims’ needs trauma informed principles to be embedded. It also requires increased support for regional and remote teams, who often miss professional capacity building opportunities. An inclusive workforce development strategy that ensures staff are representative of and able to respond to the needs of people from diverse backgrounds is also important. Equally, we need to ensure that the judiciary, court staff and the legal profession receive regular and appropriate family and domestic violence training.
Better training for police officers and more robust and effective police policies are needed. Transparency in police capacity building also needs to be elevated, with some inconsistencies in training and policy across different police stations and regions. This includes how breaches of restraining orders are dealt with, victim misidentification, and whether victims are charged with offences that arise out of self-defence in family and domestic violence situations.
The misidentification of victim-survivors as perpetrators by police can have profound and severe consequences, and cannot be dismissed as an inevitable by-product of police responses. Misidentification for Aboriginal women has been identified as perpetuating “toxic cycles of incarceration, child removal, mental illness and substance abuse.” Misidentification can be the result of deliberate actions by perpetrators, such as making false reports, manufacturing evidence, or coercing victims to engage in particular actions, as well as incorrect decisions made by police. These incorrect decisions can be based on not recognising self-defence, discrimination, and failures to engage interpreters when necessary.
Without addressing these issues, introducing new offences creates more opportunities for victim-survivors to suffer from misidentification and the resulting consequences that has. The critical nature of improving the response of police and the judiciary to coercive control was identified by the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, which warned that new offences alone risked having merely “a symbolic effect” as they would only be “as effective as those who enforce, prosecute and apply them”.
Police forces often do not have positive or well-established relationships with marginalised communities. In Western Australia, ingrained racial bias has been demonstrated through comparisons between the issuing of speeding fines from automated speed cameras and police-initiated traffic enforcement. Significant concerns have been raised regarding allegations of racial profiling within the WA Police Force and the capacity for incidents to be reported. Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have reported that when they have reported abuse to police that it has been overlooked or not taken seriously.
As such members of those communities may not be inclined to bring complaints to law enforcement agencies for investigation or may suffer further discrimination should they do so. Experiences of discrimination and disempowerment by the justice system act to discourage members of those communities to seek assistance through that system again. Mistrust between police and minority communities has been identified as resulting in members of minority communities being less likely to report instances of victimisation or seek police assistance than members of non-minority communities.
WACOSS does not consider that improved training alone will resolve this. Enhanced accountability and transparency measures for police are necessary to improve the relationship between police and the community, by providing greater confidence in the integrity of complaint processes. This could be achieved by establishing an independent body to investigate complaints made about Western Australian police officers.
Recommendation: Substantially increase investment in the ongoing education and training of police and the judiciary in how to effectively and appropriately police and prosecute FDV crimes, including non-physical abuse and patterns of violence.
The cross-cutting nature of coercive control means that to effectively address it, responses must integrate with other service systems, including child protection, financial hardship, housing and homelessness, mental health, and substance misuse. It is imperative that services and agencies are equipped to work in an integrated way to improve the safety, health and wellbeing outcomes for victim-survivors as well as respond holistically and appropriately to those who disclose or identify as perpetrators of coercive control.
A whole-of-government response is necessary so that responses to coercive control are not limited to the criminal justice system. There is little evidence to suggest that increasing incarceration is effective in making our communities safer or for rehabilitating people. As such, an increased focus on therapeutic and diversionary processes is needed. The principles of enhancing wellbeing and reducing contact with the criminal justice system must be our focus to achieve the best outcomes for our community.
There is also a strong need for coordination, information sharing and cross-referral between child protection and family violence services, and for a more nuanced and supportive approach to be taken to women and children who are victims of coercive control in child protection assessments. Women and children fleeing family violence can find that the combination of their lack of secure housing and the exposure of their children to witnessing family violence become grounds for child removal. We need to encourage and support victims of family violence to seek safety and support services, not create additional barriers to keeping children and women safe.
Western Australia’s 10-year strategy to reduce family and domestic violence is a critical mechanism for enabling a whole-of-government and whole-of-community response. It should be considered how the actions and directions identified in that strategy can be utilised to provide the coordinated systemic change that is needed to address coercive control.
Recommendation: Develop a whole-of-government approach to responding to and preventing coercive control in WA in consultation with the specialist FDV sector, experts and experts with lived experience, which is sufficiently resourced, reviewed, monitored and evaluated.
Financial disadvantage is a distinct contributing factor and outcome of FDV. Private lawyers are expensive, and out of the reach of many FDV victims. There are specialist services specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing family violence, and mainstream services for all Western Australians experiencing family violence, that provide culturally safe legal assistance and support to victim-survivors, including legal assistance, casework, counselling and court support.
These legal assistance services are vital to ensure that essential legal help is available to people and communities across Western Australia, regardless of their capacity to afford private legal representation. At present, there simply are not enough services to meet demand. At a conservative estimate, community legal centres across Australia are forced to turn away over 170,000 people each year.
Legal services provide a range of outcomes for victim-survivors, including, but also more wide-ranging than, outcomes of court cases. For women facing significant disadvantage, and particularly for those who have fear or aversion to the western justice system, community legal centres walk alongside women and communities to help provide a range of outcomes. These may be individual, from assisting women to engage with both legal and non-legal services, to supporting women to participate in required legal processes, through to immediate outcomes of legal processes to longer term impacts for families and communities.
There is evidence to suggest that perpetrators of violence use court processes to further inflict violence and abuse on women, known as systems abuse. In addition, research indicates that a court’s failure to respond adequately or appropriately to a victim-survivor’s allegation of FDV may constitute a form of abuse that is secondary to that of the perpetrator. The risk of systems abuse is heightened when women self-represent before the courts. Further, many women withdraw from criminal prosecution of FDV cases due to fears arising from contemporary and historical trauma, geographical isolation, and complex, protracted legal processes.
Community and women’s legal services must be adequately and sustainably funded to support and facilitate access to justice for women who face significant barriers in engaging with the legal system.
Recommendation: Ensure sufficient and reliable funding for community and women’s legal services to meet demand and improve access to justice for women.
Efforts to keep victim-survivors safe must be strengthened through a consistent and rigorous approach to perpetrator accountability. Victim-survivors are largely left to carry the burden of managing risk in the home, when leaving and post separation. Bringing perpetrators into view and assisting them to change behaviours is essential to reducing family violence.
Currently, the main mechanism to hold perpetrators to account is the criminal justice system, which externally imposes court orders to restrict perpetrators’ interactions with those against whom they have used violence, or charges perpetrators with a criminal offence if orders are breached. According to ANROWS,
Accountability to the state does not necessarily align with accountability to women experiencing violence. For example, crimes are prosecuted on behalf of the state, not on behalf of the victim. Therefore, decisions of the court which hold perpetrators accountable may do so in ways that do not acknowledge the impact of violence on the victim, promote her safety, or align with her wishes.
Men’s behaviour change programs (MBCPs) are designed to work with men who use family violence by supporting them to internally develop accountability for their behaviour. They may include individual counselling or group programs for men focused on men’s learning to understand and take responsibility for their violence, manage their emotions, how to reprogram their responses to conflict and stress and explore more respectful ways of relating. Coercive control is a core element that is addressed in programs.
The criminal justice system together with MBCPs are critical points for perpetrator interventions. WACOSS has been informed by our members, however, that there is insufficient breadth and diversity in MBCPs in Western Australia.
While WACOSS believes that providing the courts with the discretion to refer people who are subject to a Final Violence Restraining Order (VRO) to participate in MBCPs is key to increasing perpetrator accountability, we recognise that higher demand for behaviour change programs will mean that service providers who run these programs will need more resources. Further, interventions for perpetrators of domestic and family violence will need to tailored for different cohorts of perpetrators, including those for whom group work is not suitable. Men from a wide range of backgrounds require perpetrator programs that are adapted to their lived experiences, while programs must also be able to respond to diverse forms of perpetration.
Holding perpetrators accountable is essential to promoting the safety of women and children and to delivering long-term change. WACOSS believes that Investment in MBCPs and other perpetrator interventions should be increased so that they can be expanded across the state and adapted where necessary to engage and work with diverse perpetrators and circumstances. This will help to increase perpetrator accountability in conjunction with criminal justice measures.
Recommendation: Expand the funding and availability of men’s behaviour change programs to increase perpetrator accountability.
The proactive inclusion of the voices of people with lived experience can be critical in ensuring service systems are designed to be welcoming, supportive and responsive to the differing needs of survivors of family violence. Effective community consultation in priority setting and service co-design is critical, but it must also be informed by cross-agency data on community need, local services and outcomes.
There needs to be the capability and cooperation within local community service networks, consumer representation and lived experience to participate in co-design processes. Local public sector managers need the delegated authority to make decisions about joining up programs and budgets to enable joint commissioning. Sufficient time needs to be committed to an inclusive process, driven by clear and consistent guidelines for co-design processes to ensure transparency of processes and clarity of expectations.
Recommendation: Invest in ongoing research and evaluation of victim-survivor’s perspectives on justice based and non-justice based solutions for FDV, including coercive control.
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 National Association of Community Legal Centres (2016), National Census of Community Legal Centres, National Report
 National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book (2022)
 Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety. (2020). Improving accountability: The role of perpetrator intervention systems: Key findings and future directions (Research to policy and practice, 20/2020). Sydney: ANROWS.
 Stopping Family Violence (2022) Programs delivered by the MBCP Network: A powerful voice for
perpetrator programs in WA.
 WACOSS (2019) Submission to the Department of Communities 10 Year Strategy for Reducing Family and Domestic Violence Consultation Paper.
We welcome the opportunity to make a submission to the Economic Regulation Authority on the additional tariff structure and reference services information provided as part of Western Power’s access arrangement proposal for the period 2022/23 to 2026/27 (AA5). (more…)
WACOSS considers the minimum wage to be a vital means of protecting low-income workers from poverty, which also delivers economic benefits to the wider Western Australian community. (more…)
Submission to the State Government’s Shipping and Supply Line Taskforce, established to address the resilience and utility of the shipping industry serving WA and the nation, by Fair Food WA. (more…)