Friday marks White Ribbon Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Several Commonwealth agenices (AGD, DFAT, Finance, Communications and the Arts, Employment, PM&C and Commonwealth Ombudsman) will participate in a fun run/walk and an SES dragon boat race. Participants are asked to wear white and stay for a BBQ at Lotus Bay. There are also several other events, including a planned walk by the Department of Defence in support of White Ribbon Australia. But the events will all likely be lovely, sensitive community affairs and the commitment by the agencies and their staff is genuine.
But the public servant events on Friday hide an ugly fact: there is very little, if any, support for domestic violence survivors within the Commonwealth Public Service. And in this respect, the Commonwealth Public Service significantly lags behind the private sector and state governments including the ACT Government and the Victorian State Government.
I should know. Two and a bit years ago, I separated from my husband after obtaining a Domestic Violence Order from the ACT Magistrates Court. The order itself was granted 18 months after the initial violence; my ex got drunk and beat me around the head and threw me into a door. We were on posting in Asia, and the local police were dismissive and told me to spend the night elsewhere, despite the fact that I had no money and two young children remaining in the apartment (including a six month old I was breastfeeding). The incident came after months of intense marriage counselling. Despite his apologies and yet more counselling, it set in train a scary cycle. Six months after returning to Australia, and after more than one phone call to the police and the Domestic Violence Crisis Service later, I plucked up the courage to get my kids and I out.
I am angry.
I do not have family in Canberra, and having been away for three and a half years, at the time I didn’t have much community support either. Nor did I have much money, yet somehow I found reserves to continue to pay for mortgages, childcare and a $500 an hour lawyer. Some people have been judgmental about me leaving my marriage; I feel sometimes that my ex gets more empathy and support as a man whose wife has taken the kids and left him. My kids still show signs of trauma, and yet again, some people criticise my parenting when they act that out in normal ways like throwing tantrums.
I am grateful for my new life, and the liberation that I now have as I glue back together the pieces. I am resilient. I tell myself that whenever I doubt things. I count each and every blessing. I give thanks for each day just for being alive. I am now financially secure. I am dating again. And when I hear my children’s laughter as they run around our home, despite the exhaustion of the predominantly single parent routine, I know I made the right choice.
To be clear, this is not a rant about my evil, male ex-husband. As his wife, I loved him and understood the demons that raged inside him. I wanted to help and nurture, and was sad to realise that I was just making things worse. I understand that he was incapable of stopping himself, without professional help, that he could not control it, and that perhaps – controversially – in some ways I contributed to the cycle. He is proving to be a devoted father, and while I don’t always agree with his parenting style, he genuinely loves them. But that doesn’t make what happen right, and that doesn’t mean I deserved what happened. No one does.
Since I have become open to my experience, too many beautiful, intelligent, articulate and caring women have shared with me what they went through – or are going through – for me to know that my experience is unique. It can, and does, happen to more people than it should. Nor do I view this as just a problem of male aggression against women. I have male friends who have experienced physical and verbal abuse that is just as bad, or worse, than what I went though. A reluctance to report issues for the police for fear of being laughed at compounds the issue.
But what I am angry about is the lack of institutional support within the Commonwealth Public Service, which continues even as agencies parade about how they care for the problem out there and give themselves high fives for what are essentially vacuous human resource policy pronouncements and vague promises of access to leave. Yes, by all means raise money for women’s refuges and the Domestic Violence Crisis Service and White Ribbon Australia and other organisations. They need the money, and whether it is helping women or encouraging men to break the cycle, it is all essential work. Yes, poor women are especially vulnerable, especially where they come from Indigenous communities. The statistics on domestic violence in the Pacific is also uncomfortable, and this ought rightly to be a focus of aid projects. But even educated, middle class public servants can be victims – and also perpetrators.
When the incident happened while overseas, I rang for consular support and the consular officer (a friend and colleague) came to the hospital and lent me money to pay my medical bill. She later let me stay at her place that night. She never wrote a report or reported back to Canberra: she was told not to. I went back the next morning to face my ex by myself. Despite turning up at work with a black eye and stitches to my face, no one ever asked how I was (or if my young children were safe). My boss would not look me in the face; later that day he screamed at me and told me I was “fxxxing useless” (nor was that the first time I heard such remarks.) Colleagues were told to ‘respect my privacy’ and gave me a wide berth. While I felt incredibly isolated and alone at the time, I do not blame them. There was no policy and they were too shocked to know what to say or do.
Back in Australia and as things began to further unravel at home, I notified staffing and my Director about what was happening. They were polite but offered no support or advice. After I obtained the interim DVO from the Magistrates Court, I sent it to staffing, my branch and to security. Everyone ‘noted’ it on file; not one person asked if I was okay, advised about leave or other support, or even offered to walk me to my car on those dark mid-Canberra winter nights. I had learnt that it was easiest not to talk about it as many people felt uncomfortable. I showed up for work. I still performed. I needed my job to provide for my kids. I also needed it for my self-esteem.
Despite a higher public understanding of domestic violence, there is still not enough services available relative to the demand. And most support mechanisms go to women on low incomes. This is understandable as often they leave with nothing. But this makes it even more difficult for working women like me; monetary control is often a part of domestic or family violence, and no matter what assets someone might hold on paper, during that dangerous period when someone is escaping a bad relationship she/he still needs food to eat, a roof over her/his head, a sturdy door that will lock at night and good legal advice. Legal advice is especially important when there are children involved.
My department now has a domestic violence policy, something that I agitated for. While legal processes continue for me, at least there is a piece of paper I can rely on when I go to court. Well, in theory – recently I tried to access it and was referred to five different people before I could track down the relevant area. I still don’t have an answer about whether I can access leave. Beyond the leave issue itself, the policy is definitely not robust, nor does it provide much in the way of practical support for victims. When you think about how many Australian Public Service employees there are, and where Commonwealth officers are posted to around the world – often to places where a woman (or say a gay man) can’t just pick up the phone and call the police at midnight and expect them to come and help you – the need for a compassionate response is especially vital. Locally engaged staff are also especially vulnerable and ought to be provided with compassionate support. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the problem, especially where children are involved.
And most other departments are just as bad – most do not, for example, provide specific DV leave. Earlier this year there was media about how specific domestic violence leave was ‘removed’ from around 30 departments. The issue basically is that in this round of enterprise bargaining, agencies that do not already offer DV leave have been asked to remove it because of the policy of not providing any new entitlements. And there is little enthusiasm for giving up existing entitlements in an environment where any pay rise is hard won. At a rally in Canberra by the CPSU calling for DV leave earlier this month, only one member of the Australian Public Service turned up. What is needed is greater commitment within the Australian Public Service to push for more pragmatic and compassionate policies, and also a higher level decision to make DV leave compulsory, perhaps not just for all public servants, but for all of Australia.
Why is this so important?
In those dark days as I left a violent situation, knowing that I had a solid job was the life raft that got me through. I was so scared, petrified, that I might lose the career that I had spent years working on because I was not scoring high ‘results’ and working long hours of overtime. My sense of worth was at a low, and I would have very much welcomed a message that I was a valued member of staff. I remember thinking how I desperately needed a holiday, yet I was using up my recreation leave on going through the legal and court processes. How many people out there are reluctant to get out of a bad relationship because they worry that they could lose their job?
To be clear: I love my job and am committed to making a valuable contribution. I do not have issues with my department or the Australian Public Service; it is somewhere I always aspired to work and I see its broader goals and values as meaningful, valid and important. I am not seeking to embarrass it, or my ex, or anyone else. What I am trying to do is to bring awareness to why practical and supportive domestic violence policies, including leave, is so important.
The Commonwealth Public Service ought to seek to model the highest standards in work place conditions, and to model appropriate policy for the rest of Australia to follow. What is it afraid of? That we might learn that domestic violence also affects friends and colleagues, and that they might need our help and support? I urge departments and agencies to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, during this year’s White Ribbon Day.