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Shauna McGreevy

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Volume 3, November 1998

The People Together Project

Social Justice Report Card: Women Acting Together: Public Community Inquiry: Melbourne 28th and 29th April, 1995.

On April 28 and 29, 1998 at the YWCA Headquarters, Melbourne, the People Together Project in conjunction with the VictorianWomen's Coalition conducted a Public Community Inquiry to investigate the impact of Government reforms on Victorian women. This inquiry was one step in a proposed four step plan to develop a Social Justice Report Card reviewing the Victorian Government's social and human service programs. It invited written and oral submisions from any organisation representing women that wished to present evidence on the adverse effects on women of Government policy changes and cutbacks to those programs. Submissions presented over the two day seminar would contribute to a publication - the Social Justice Report Card - which would be published in June/July, 1998. Evidence was presented at the inqury to suggest that both service providers and those who access these services are facing greater economic and personal hardship than ever before.

As a means of pursuing the objectives and vision developed during the course of the two-day Victorian Community Summit held in Melbourne in November 1993, the organising body of the People Together Project (henceforth referred to as the PTP), comprised of organisations such as the Victorian Council of Social Services and members of various Church communities initiated the PTP in 1994. Its function was to act as a watch dog in respect of Government cutbacks to social and human services policies and the effect of those cutbacks on the community.

The PTP is a nonparty political organisation, promoting the ideal tht the people of Victoria should have a say in the type of community they want to live in. To offer the commnity this opportunity, the PTP initiated public debates and seminars on issues of interest to the community, including the devastating social effects of gambling, the need for adequate services for people with disabilities and the Government's introduction of a tender process for social and human services programs. PTP also organised audits to raise public awareness of how the Victorian Government's policy changes were impacting on the areas of health, education, community services and public transport. An audit planned for April 1998 to specifically investigate policy reform directly affecting women brought the Public Community Inquiry into being. The Women's Project was thus a part of the PTP process of developing a Social Justice Report Card; the overall project was to begin in February 1998 and culminate in the publication of the Report card in June/July 1998.

Public Community Inquiry - April 28-29, 1998

Essentially an information gathering tool, this program invited submissions from women's organisations to be presented to a panel and to cover four areas: health, education, community services and employment. More than thirty five organisations, including WEL, Fitzroy Legal Service, Family Planning Victoria, Network of Women in Further Educationg, Young Women's Housing Shopfront, YWCA, Textile Union, VCOSS and The Royal Women's Hospital presented evidence over the two days of the inquiry. Although the organisations represented were diverse in the services they provided, there were similarities existed between them in terms of the problems they were experiencing and it became evident that competitive tendering and privatisation were key issues in the escalation of these problems.

Certain issues stood out for me as areas of interest at this Inquiry, and I have chosen to focus on four of these: women and the privatisation of prisons; legal aid; child care; and family planning.

Privatisation of Prisons: Women Incarcerated

Pauline Spencer, Projects Officer of Fitzroy Legal Service, gave a graphic account of the recent Victorian Government trend towards privatisation of the prison system, likening it to a return to the days of punishment for profit (Spencer, 1998). Comparing the current prison system to the privately run places of incarceration of medieval England, Spencer argued that a system concerned primarily with profit targets rather than human rights is a system open to the possibility of human rights abuses, particularly when it remains shrouded in secrecy, both in the processes of tendering and management. She reminded the Inquiry that such institutions had reputations for cruelty and abuse and discriminated against those who could not afford to pay for better treatment. Private administrators were prevented from running prisons in the nineteenth century because death rates and abuses were unacceptable (Gow, cited in Healey, 1995, 20).

In December 1993 when the Victorian Liberal Government announced the closure of Fairlea Women's Prison and Pentridge Prison and the construction of three new prisons to be tendered out for private contract little information was publicly available. Government legislation, labelled 'Commercial-in-confidence' was passed to allow for secrecy provisions on privatisation contracts and a confidentiality clause was added to Section 30 of the Corrections Act (1986), making it almost impossible for outside organisations to scrutinise the process. The only information made available by the Government and the Department of Planning and Development was a ten-page document deemed 'publicly accessible' at a cost of $100 each (all Spencer, 1998). The Metropolitan Women's Correctional Centre (MWCC) was opened in Deer Park on August 16, 1996 and has since then been plagued by controversy and besieged with problems (Spencer, 1998. Its location, some twenty eight kilometres from the city with no public transport access, adds to the problem of 'secrecy'. It is extremely difficult for friends and family to visit the prison and this makes its practices and processes almost impossible to monitor.

Spencer raised other problems, including those of inadequate clothing and medical equipment, strip searches, drug-related assaults, riots, and stand-over tactics by staff. There have also been complains of lack of privacy and adequate supervision; electronic surveillance equipment has replaced the need for staff, compromising prisoner safety. The recent death of an intellectually disabled prisoner while in custody underlines these problems. There is an argument that this situation is not unique to private prisons and that all these issues are common to prison communities. However, since the Victorian prison system has been removed from Government responsibility, several new concerns have been raised by organisations such as Fitzroy Legal Service.

One is the issue of accountability. The secrecy surrounding the private prison system makes it difficult to monitor human rights issues. When something does go wrong - for example, allegations of the use of chemical weapons on three handcuffed prisoners, or the alleged use of prison 'spies' to collect information on prisoners and their visitors - it is difficult to pinpoint responsibility and ensure an investigation. Spencer argued that with the previous system, the responsibility for appropriate behaviour and action clearly lay with the Government; the potential for cover-up is elevated in the private system.

Secondly, the potential for human rights abuses is inherent in the necessity for private prisons to earn profits for shareholders. As businesses operating under a performance-based contract with the State Government, they are likely to be more concerned with making money than with the welfare of prisoners. It is therefore necessary to question the ways in which management will make its 'bottom-line' targets (Spencer, 1998), and allegations by prisoners of inadequate food, clothing and other essentials must be further investigated. Fitzroy Legal Service suggests that the potential for abuse of all prisoners in the private system is high, but it is particularly so for women. Given that 80% of female offenders are imprisoned for charges relating to drug and lcohol offences (Spencer, 1998, 6), they argue that prison is not an appropriate punishment for such crimes. Moreover, most of these women are survivors of sexual and/or physical abuse.

Victoria has the highest rate of private imprisonment in the world, at 45% of the prison population (Healey, 1995, 20), and the ethical problems inherent in using people to make profit through this system does not make this figure one to be proud of. If the Victorian Government had been more concerned with implementing an efficient and cost effective system of change than with cost cutting, it would have been well advised to consider the problems experienced by the Queensland Government in this area. After the privatisation of the Borallon Prison (1990) under the Bjelke Peterson Government and the Wacol Remand and Reception Prison (1992) under the Goss administration, both prisons had alleged administrative and operational problems, similar to those now being experienced in the Victorian system (Moyle, 1994, 93). Given that a high percentage of female inmates are incarcerated for non-violent offences, the potential for further unacknowledged and unmonitored abuse and unethical treatment must be addressed if Australia is to maintain its Agenda of Human Rights principles. A review of the private prison system by Government and independent organisations is necessary if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated.

Women's Health: Family Planning Victoria

Dr Anna Lavelle, Manager of Family Planning Victoria, spoke of the difficulty experienced by Family Planning clinics as State and Commonwealth Government funding has taken a steep downward slide over the past twelve years. The total budget for all Agencies, Australia-wide, was $700,000 in 1997/98, making it extremely difficult to maintain existing programs, such as sexual and reproductive information, schools programs and relationship advice, or to implement new programs. Dr Lavelle contended that the message being sent out not only in Victoria but nationally is that sexual and reproductive health is seen as unimportant by Government and therefore ignored in budget considerations. Apparently, not a lot of votes are to be gained from funding these programs. Dr Lavelle said that Senator Harradine wished to cut funding to clinics altogether in order to promote a return to 'old family values'; no contraception, no abortion. In order words, cuts to family planning programs appear to be a further attempt by men to control women by taking away their choices.

The abortion issue is an example of the means by which Government attempts to implement control. According to Dr Lavelle, Kim Beazley has indicated that he is not in favour of abortion and certain female politicians seem to have been hobbled on this issue. With cuts to the funding of Family Planning clinics and the move to amalgamate and tender services out, less money isavailable and fewer women are able to access these vital services. Dr Lavelle argued that services such as the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) are unable to retain expert sexual assault personnel as they cannot pay their salaries. Other women's organisations such as the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) have a strong history of action on these issues and always maintained support for abortion and family planning, as their presence in the recent Western Australian abortion campaign demonstrates. WEL supports the ethical principle that "decisions ought to be made by those most affected by them", that is, by women (WEL, April 1998, 5). WEL had an established policy on birth control (family planning) by 1975 which called for the establishment of clinics that could offer a full range of services, including abortion referral, contraction advice and sex education, to be separate from general medical services. In 1986, WEL lobbied the Federal Government to make funds available to introduce health and human relationship courses into all Australian schools, and to extend family planning services to reach isolated and immigrant women.

However, Dr Lavell's submission made it obvious that Government is not listening to what women are saying, nor taking into consideration that women are using these services in increasing numbers. The Victorian Government's proosal to amalgamate and tender out family planning services will mean that such services are available and accessible to even fewer women in the community in the future, if at all.

Legal Aid

Maggie Troup from the Women's Legal Resource Group (WLRG) provided evidence that women are being adversely affected by Government cutbacks to Legal Aid. The WLRG is a state-wide service that offers information and referral advice to women on legal matters, in an attempt to improve women's access to the justice system. As well as legal advice, WLRG can also offer legal representation to women in intervention matters, and help them apply for Legal Aid funding (National Women's Justice Coalition, 1998).

In June 1996 the Attorney General gave notice that the Commonwealth would terminate State/Commonwealth Legal Aid funding agreements in June 1997 and in the August 1996 budget, Legal Aid funding was reduced by $33.2 million (NJWC, 1996). "Given that the Australian Law Reform Commission acknowledged women's unequal positon before the law and women's failure to receive adequate LegalAid in its report, Equality Before the Law", it would appear that Government gave little thought to the disadvantage to women of such huge cuts in funding (NJWC, 1996). The gender imbalance in grants for Legal Aid breaks down to approximately two thirs of grants going to men and one third to women. This means that women, who constitute over 50% of the population, make up only 33% of successful applicants for Legal Aid funds. Priority for funding is given to criminal cases over family matters and the defendents in suchy cases are usually men. Women who are not granted funding may find themselves in a situation where they are self-represented and have to cross-examine the accused in cases of domestic violence, child abuse and rape. Women who are granted Legal Aid funding, which has a cap of $10,000, may find that the accused can apply for and be granted successive interim applications which delay the Court process and use up vital Legal Aid monies unneccesarily in the process.

Feminist opposition to these budget changes has been swift and on going. The NWJC article, 'Briefing on legal aid cuts' (20.11.1996) posited that the "Coalition Government has broken every one of its election promises on its Law and Justice Policy including their promise to redress imbalances which disadvantage women within the Legal Aid system" (NWJC, 1996). In this article, the NWJC suggested that by the end of 1999-2000, approximately 15,000 females will have missed out on Legal Aid funding. They are most concerned about the impact of cuts on victims of domestic violence given that over 30,000 women apply fordomestic violence restraining orders in this country each year. They argue that the Government is effectively putting the lives of women and children at risk by imposing these changes. The NJWC strongly opposed these changesand called in the Government to hnour its election promises. WEL has also expressed its concern on this issue, and in its pre-budget submission, dated February 1998, called on the Government to strengthen its commitment to Legal Aid and re-establish lost funding. Well also urged Government to create a separate Legal fund scheme for Women's Legal Centres in this submission, and to provide funding to train para-legal professionals to give women a better chance at accessing legal representation.

Child Care

The removal of the Child Care Operational Subsidy and its replacement with a means-tested fee relief scheme has probably been the most prominent issue facing women in recent months. A number of the organisations submitting to the panel referred to this problem, and its adverse effect on women, particularly that for some women remaining in the workforce was no longer a viable option. Heather Findlayson, Director of Community Childcare, said that approximately 73% of families had left child care because fees were now too expensive (Community Child Chare, 1998). Nineteen Community-owned centres had already closed, with more closures likely as centres struggle to keep going as attendance drops.

Women rely on child care to allow them access to the work force and the greater community. Many women feel that the move by the Howard Government to abolish the Oprational Subsidy is a not-so-subtle message to women that their place is in the home. The child care debate has been a hot issue in recent months. In March, 1998, the Federal Minister for the Status of Women, Judi Moylan, assured women that the Government was committed to providing Australian families with quality child care. She argued that the AustralianConfederation of Child Care, an organisation representing over one thousand private centres, had said that "Australia had the best and most affordable child care in the world and that children and families were the winners under Howard Government Child Care policies" (Office of the Status of Women, March 1998).

Not so according to WEL. In its Pre-budget submission in February 1998 it made a recommendation to the Federal Government to reinstate the operational subsidy to community based centres and to make allowances in the budget for child care which would reassure the community of the Government's commitment to a "Family Friendly Workplace" (WEL, 1998). It also called for the "development of the National Planning Framework to address the need for sufficient child care places for both work and non-work related child care" (WEL, February 1998).

If women are denied the right to access affordable child care, then in effect they are being denied access to the workforce and to the wider community, which is in total opposition to Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action philosophies. Until women are afforded an equal position in society with men, which means that the whole structure of society as we know it must change, it is the Governments' responsibility to ensure that women are offered whatever assistance is necessary to allow them such access. Any other course of action, such as the removal of operational subsidies from child care centres, is a blatant act of discrimination.

Analysis

The two-day Seminar was a thought-provoking experience for me. Most of the speakers presented well prepared, articulate submissions that armed the Panel with much information for the Report Card. Many speakers provided the Panel with additional printed matter to reinforce their spoken presentations andwere well prepared for questions. The common thread of all submissions were issues of privatisation and the tendering process and the problems inherent in these processes when they are applied to the social and human services sector. Itseems that tendering out and privatising servics that directly impact on people's lives at the grass-roots level has caused immeasurable hardship and grief both for the public who use these services and the organisations who provide them. The PTP and the women's coalition will publish the findings of this Inquiry and take stock of the results to decide on further action, which will depend on availability of funding.

Opportunities such asthis Public Inquiry, which offer women the chance to get together to listen to other women's stories, to heart he problems faced by others and at first hand how Government policies and practices impact on women are essential and must continue to be organised on a regular basis. It is only by having accurate knowledge in these areas that women can hope to implement change. That said, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to see so few women in attendance at this Inquiry either as spectators and/or interested participants. Apart from the panel and the speakers, only a handful of women sat in to listen over the two-day period. This raises questions: did People Together promote the event effectively, given its budget restrictions, or were most women simply too busy to attend? It has been said that if women are kept busy enough, they will not have the energy to fight for equality. This seems an appropriate way of describing current structures, many of which keep women from being politically active.


References

Community Child Care Association of Victoria. Submission to the People. Together Project Public Community Inquiry, April 1998.

Healey, Kaye (1995). ed. The penal system. Issues for the nineties. V 44. Balmain: Spinny Press.

Moyle, Paul (1994). ed. Private prisons and police. Recent Australian trends. Leichhardt, NSW: Pluto Press.

National Network of Women's Legal Servics Submission (1998). On the impact of changes to the legal aid system that came into effect 1 July,1997.

National Women's Justice Coalition Briefing on the Legal Aid Cuts. Prepared: 20 November, 1996 (current: May 1997).

Office of the Status of Women (March 12, 1998) Media Release. Child care fee charging practices to be reviewed.

People Together Project (1998) Brief overview of Prople Together Activities. 1994-1998 (information sheet).


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