Speech to Parliament by Pru Goward: Domestic Violence Deaths Review Team Bill

Mr. Speaker I rise on behalf of the Opposition to address the Coroners Amendment (Domestic Violence Death Review Team) Bill 2010.

The Opposition does not oppose this bill but does so with great reluctance. Nothing would please the Opposition more, Mr. Speaker, than to throw this bill out and start again with one that can do the job.   It’s hard to recall a piece of legislation, even by this Government’s standards, that so clearly defies the spirit of the community debate that preceded it and the recommendations of its own hand picked advisory panel. If further evidence were needed of this Government’s arrogance and fear of being found out, then this is it.

The Coroners Amendment Bill before us is a terrible piece of legislation, a cruel distortion of an expert panel’s report concerning the options available to the Government. This Bill makes a mockery of the years of agitation by the domestic violence sector for a law that would enable the NSW government to examine the policies and systems that surround our management of domestic violence, looking for improvements that would save lives and reduce the incidence of violence that frequently precedes these deaths.

This bill is instead a travesty that is most unlikely to reduce deaths or to be effective in reducing the incidence of violence.

 This bill will do very little to improve the way NSW responds to incidents of domestic violence and it does so in a way that overwhelmingly demonstrates this government’s unfitness for office. It demonstrates that after almost sixteen years of failed administration the Keneally Government, like its predecessors, has never grasped the first lesson of government administration for democratically elected governments; these governments will only ever be as good as their accountability…..and accountability, Mr. Speaker, is always preceded by transparency.

Out there in the real world, when you can’t hide a problem you have to fix it. This government prefers to spin it away.

Governments who shun measures that provide for accountability, who hide behind confidential processes and secrecy, who think transparency is only a glazier’s term, who deliberately misinterpret the recommendations of panels they appoint for advice, are doomed to provide failed service.
Accountability and transparency drive change and reform Mr Speaker, exactly what this bill was intended to do. The Review Team Bill was supposed to inform the government of weaknesses in various procedures and policies of government so they could be fixed.

But a government that has, for 16 years, installed former staff members and their political cronies into senior positions in the public service who will cover up and keep their political masters out of trouble, a government that fails to see the importance of merit, is unlikely to understand the importance of transparency and accountability. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in this bill, where every recommendation by the government’s very own Advisory Panel that could make a difference has been ignored, twisted or misinterpreted. It has produced a bill that will not and cannot produce the reform needed.

I would like to acknowledge at this point the very sound work of the Advisory Panel appointed by the Government. Its chair, Julie Stubbs, is an acknowledged expert; Betty Green, convenor of the Domestic Violence Coalition is very familiar with best international practice in this area and there are senior officers from government departments, including that of the Attorney General who appears determined to have rejected all of their advice.

There are five particular sections where the Bill manifestly fails the people of this state and diverges from the very sensible recommendations put to it by its admirable advisory panel.
None of these departures makes any sense- they don’t save money or time- they just might save the Government’s, or a minister’s or a senior bureaucrat’s neck. That must be more important to this government than saving lives and is yet another reason why this government should go.
Let me say before proceeding to each of these concerns that the bill has been, on balance, welcomed by the sector- indeed it represents a victory for them and the Liberal Nationals who championed this a year or more ago and is a properly resourced government based mechanism. For this reason, and this alone, the Liberal Nationals will not oppose although we will seek to amend in the other place.

The Opposition has five key concerns with the legislation proposed:

1. The bill establishes the Team in the Coroner’s office. It will be convened by the Coroner’s Office with either the Coroner, Deputy Coroner or former coroner as convenor.
The Advisory Panel, for a number of very good and carefully developed reasons, preferred that the Team be established in the Ombudsman’s Office and that the Ombudsman be the convenor. The two options- coroner or ombudsman are of the same cost.

The location within the Coroner’s Office is not supported by many in the domestic violence sector, who have fought so hard for this legislation.

The Advisory Panel’s recommendation that it be placed with the Ombudsman obviously reflects their confidence that this Team would operate similarly to the Child Death Review Team and that the Ombudman’s record and experience in running this Team and the resultant knowledge in that office of government systems, would be of great benefit to the victims of domestic violence. That seems obvious to all of us and it is extraordinary that this government is prepared to throw away the opportunity to use that experience and knowledge.

By placing it in the Coroner’s office there is now the need to give the Coroner additional powers, reinvent processes and, significantly, not to review deaths until they have been reviewed by the Coroner as Coroner or have had any associated criminal proceedings exhausted.

2. Part 9A.3 Section 101H allows the Team to select cases for review. We will seek to have this amended in the other place since it is a significant weaking of the scope of the Team to recommend effective change.

It is the strong view of the Opposition that all deaths should be reviewed and that this should be stipulated in legislation. Difficulties in determining whether or not a death is related to domestic violence are mostly surmountable and the number of deaths is not large (BOCSAR’s analysis identifies 92 homicides between 2003-2008). The Domestic Violence Homicide Advisory Panel’s report clearly considered the Child Death Review Team would be the best model for the Team and the Child Death review Team is required to review all child deaths in NSW. In particular given the proposed membership of the Team, dominated as it is by public servants, it is essential that that there be no discretion as to which cases shall be reviewed. Inevitably in the lead up to elections or in very sensitive cases, there will be other considerations that may overwhelm the selection process.

3. The weighting of the Team is vastly in favour of government agencies; there are only four non government positions available. The following observation was made by one expert:

”Agency representatives, no matter how committed they are to the process, are always further removed from the reality of service provision and have understandable allegiances to their own agencies. There would be a benefit to having a more balanced team”. There are also no research bodies represented on the Team, despite this being one of the Team’s defined roles. Obviously NGO appointments should be from organizations with domestic violence expertise. Not that this bill even guarantees that domestic violence NGOs will be included and given this Government’s treatment of their own Panel’s recommendations, we have no confidence that relevant NGOs will always be appointed to the Team.

4. There is no identified process for implementing the Team’s recommendations and thus the absence of a proper accountability mechanism. In other words where does this all go? How does this become a mechanism for change? Does the Government even care or is it merely going through the motions, shutting up a troublesome sector by throwing them a bone.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, The review will never be able to make a recommendation that will be able to fix mistakes or inadequate procedures rapidly enough to avoid the risk that another death- a murder, suicide or accident- may result from those exact same short-comings. This is because Part 9A.3 Section 101F (1) (a) specifies that the Team may only review closed cases of domestic violence deaths. A closed death is interpreted to mean in Section 2101B subsection (2) a case that the Coroner has dispensed with, has completed an inquest concerning or where any criminal proceedings, including appeals, have been finally determined.

Now this is obviously meant to ensure the Coroner is not both investigating a case as Coroner and as part of a review team concurrently and harks back to the foolishness of making the Coroner responsible in the first place. In practice it means that cases may take three or four years before they are reviewable, depending on the clogging up of the courts including the Coroner’s Court. By the time a case is then reviewed and a report made to parliament, there could well have been another death in exactly the same circumstances and there will have been no opportunity, other than one taken individually by a department or minister, to change systems in order to prevent it recurring.
\It is outrageous Mr. Deputy Speaker that this could ever have been considered, let alone accepted, by the Government. I need to add that were this with the Ombudsman, this would not be the case.

The Bill also demonstrates a frequent observation of mine, that having more women in parliament or in office or in ministries does not necessarily mean better policies for women. How a government presided over by a so called feminist premier, with a Minister for Women and female ministers for Health and Education as well as a female minister for Community Services- also all calling themselves feminists- could have ever thought this bill was good enough to protect the victims of domestic violence is beyond me.

But I digress from the main concerns of the Opposition- that this bill has ignored the advice of its own specialists and will fail to achieve its stated intentions. It does nothing to save lives in the immediate future.

The Bill does allow for a review after three years. You can be sure that if we win government in 2011, that review will be immediate.

We will take a particular interest in the functioning of the Coroner’s office. It is our view, as it is of the DV sector, that the Ombudsman’s leadership and expertise is vital if we are to make a difference. By placing the Team under the leadership of the Ombudsman, deaths could also be reviewed in the year they occur.

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