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Law and Regulation

  • Family Violence: Victorian Laws/regulations

  • Gender Equity: Victoria

  • Discrimination

  • Medication Abortion

From local government to state government to federal government – all government policy, legislation and regulation impacts (positively or negatively) on the health and wellbeing of women in our region.

Key changes are discussed below.

Family Violence: Victorian Laws/regulations

Family Violence Reform Rolling Action Plan 2020-2023

In 2016, the Victorian Government announced a 10-year plan to rebuild Victoria’s family violence system. The government has committed to implementing all 227 recommendations from the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

The Family Violence Reform Rolling Action Plan 2020-2023 is an online portal that outlines the activities that will be implemented to 2023. The top priorities include:

  • Primary prevention: “Changing community attitudes at behaviours to help stop family violence before it starts” (State Government of Victoria, 2020). Primary prevention is at the core of our work at WHISE and we were pleased to see the 2021-22 State Budget will fund such initiatives including the promotion of gender equality and respectful relationships among young people as well as address the drivers of sexual and family violence. Click here for our gender analysis of the 2021-22 State Budget and what it means for women in our region.
  • Housing: “Improving access to safe and stable housing options”  (State Government of Victoria, 2020). This is critical because family violence is one of the biggest causal factors for homelessness among women.
  • Legal assistance: The 2021-22 State Budget announced funding to develop a Specialist Family Violence Court in Dandenong.

Specialist family violence courts (SFVCs)

The Royal Commission recommended that SFVCs be established at 14 courts in total. The 2021-22 State Budget announced funding to expand the network of SFVCs with another seven courts to be developed. Dandenong will receive one of the courts.

Remote hearings

A trial offering remote hearings commenced in July 2019 in Geelong which allowed victims to give their statement in a different and confidential location away from the court where the judge and perpetrator are located. The trial was deemed to be a success and as such, the 2021-22 State Budget will continue to fund the family violence remote hearing service.

This is a particularly useful model for our region. The Southern Metropolitan Region (SMR) is comprised of 10 municipal councils spread across an expansive area. The availability of remote hearings enables greater access and a safer environment for victims to give evidence. Remote hearings aim to reduce the risk of violence at court, minimise the trauma associated with face-to-face interactions and increase the choice available to victim survivors as to how they participate in the court process.

Online family violence intervention orders

In 2019, the Heidelberg and Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Courts provided the option of Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO) online applications for the first time in Victoria. This means that affected family members can apply for an FVIO online, reducing the stress and trauma of going into a court. The Neighbourhood Justice Centre also has an online FVIO application process which they implemented in 2015. Other courts across the state are also progressively moving towards online FVIO applications.

This initiative is very useful for victims in the SMR. As mentioned above, the SMR is a large area covering many local government areas. The ability to apply for an FVIO online allows for greater autonomy and greater access enabling more victims to seek protection.

Essential Services Commission

Following the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Essential Services Commission (2019) has developed a Better Practice in Responding to Family Violence Guide which explores ways that energy and water retailers can provide family violence assistance that is safe and effective. Furthermore, in January 2020, the Energy Retail Code was updated to strengthen protections for residential and small business customers of energy retailers affected by family violence. These protections form part of our implementation of recommendation 109 of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. This recommendation involves amending water and energy codes to ensure support for utility customers who may be facing family violence (Essential Services Commission, 2019).

Gender Equity: Victoria

Gender Equality Act 2020

The introduction of the Gender Equality Act 2020 legally mandates approximately 300 public sector employers, including local governments and defined entities, to promote gender equality and conduct gender impact assessments. This ground-breaking legislation will work to close the gender pay gap, increase the number of women in leadership positions and address sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The Act requires public sector organisations, universities and local councils to develop and implement Gender Equality Action Plans (GEAPs) every four years. GEAPs will include strategies for improving gender equality in the workplace. Organisations are expected to report publicly every two years on their progress.

The Act also means public organisations must establish monitoring systems to investigate performance in areas like flexible work, pregnancy, parental leave and superannuation in public organisations.

In certain circumstances, the Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner can take steps to ensure defined entities comply with their obligations under the Act.

Discrimination

The Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Federal)

Broadly, the Religious Discrimination Bill prohibits discrimination in certain areas of public life on the ground of religious belief or activity. Although the bill does not “define protected religious ‘activity’, the explanatory notes confirm it has a broad meaning including religious observance, dress and expression of religious belief” (Karp, 2019). Furthermore, “the bill prohibits both direct discrimination, treating another person less favourably based on religion, and indirect discrimination where an apparently neutral condition has the effect of disadvantaging people based on religion” (Karp, 2019).

While the bill prohibits discrimination based on religion, it also protects religious bodies. That is, religious organisations can “discriminate on the grounds of religion where their conduct is ‘in good faith, [and] may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their religion'” (Karp, 2019). This exception, in particular, has sparked wide-ranging criticism as proponents argue that this could, for example, prevent doctors or other professionals from undertaking specific procedures or duties based on religious belief. For example, a GP can conscientiously object to providing a service (like abortion) because of religious views that may prohibit this.

A submission from Family Planning Victoria (FPV) highlights the importance of providing family planning services free of discrimination:

“FPV is concerned that aspects of the second exposure draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 will constrain the effectiveness of sexual and reproductive health services in Victoria; impede our capacity to ensure all people have access to sexual health clinical care and relevant information; and result in groups of Victorians being discriminated against in relation to sexual and reproductive health care access, information, treatment, education and rights” (Family Planning Victoria, 2020).

Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019 (The Anti-Vilification Bill) (State)

In 2019, Fiona Patten sought to amend the Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill. The amendment was pursued to “attempt to target hate speech and trolling on social media, particularly against women” (Elphick, 2019).

The main purpose of this Amendment Bill is to amend the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 to include protections from vilification based on the eight following attributes: 1) race and religion; 2) gender and/or sex; 3) sexual orientation; 4) gender identity and/or gender expression; 5) sex characteristics and/or intersex status; 6) disability; 7) HIV/AIDS status; and 8) personal association (Parliament of Victoria, 2019).

In light of changes to Federal laws (as outlined in the Religious Discrimination Bill), tightening state laws that better protect against the vilification of vulnerable groups has been seen to be a necessary action by many, including MP Fiona Patten.

Medical Abortion

Despite the legal status of abortion in Victoria, few GPs provide early medical abortion for a pregnancy under nine week’s gestation. Indeed, it is estimated that in Australia, only about 4% of GPs are prescribers of MS-2 Step, the medication for an early medical abortion (Mazza, et al., 2020). This is a very small proportion of GPs and although they can access free online training to be able to provide medical abortion, it is clear that other barriers exist which make GPs hesitant to provide this service. Some of the barriers commonly reported by GPs include a feeling that medical abortion is not within their scope of practice, fear of stigma, and a lack of clear referral pathways (Mazza, et al., 2020; Dawson, et al., 2017; Deb, et al., 2020). 

Pharmacists are also required to complete the free online training to be able to dispense the medicine required to undertake a medication abortion.

Medical abortions are still dictated by factors outside of a woman’s or gender diverse person’s control; and access to services is often associated with high out-of-pocket costs. Indeed, several other barriers to safe and timely medical abortion have been reported and include lack of social support and a lack of policy and resources to ensure adequate service provision (Doran, 2015; Doran & Hornibrook, 2016) 

Unintended pregnancies occur at a higher rate among women who are socio-demographically disadvantaged and/or living in rural areas (Marie Stopes International Australia, 2008; Mazza, et al., 2020). Furthermore, the previously cited barriers to service access have been found to be more pronounced for women in rural areas with about two-thirds requiring financial assistance to exercise their reproductive choice (Family Planning Alliance Australia, 2016; Shankar, et al., 2017). Otherwise, “they must travel – often at great expense – to seek a medical or surgical abortion” (Tomnay, 2019). 

We know through anecdotal evidence that there is high need for medical abortion services. This would be of particular benefit in the Southern Metropolitan Region where there is a rich diversity of women including those of low socio-economic status and/or CALD backgrounds who may not be able to afford more costly abortion procedures. In addition to the costs associated with an abortion, the emotional strain, stress and fears of stigma and judgement make these procedures particularly stressful and, for some, inaccessible. To have access to a safe and less invasive option would overcome many of these barriers for women. 

Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces

In 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission was tasked with a National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. The Commission’s task was to review and report on workplace sexual harassment and make recommendations in relation to (note the following bullet points are quoted from The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020):

  • Its prevalence, nature and reporting in Australian workplaces;
  • The role of technology;
  • Its drivers, including risk factors for particular population groups or in different workplace settings;
  • The current legal framework;
  • Existing measures to address it and examples of good practice; and
  • Its impacts on individuals and businesses, including its economic impact.

The report Respect@Work (The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020) outlines the Commission’s findings and recommendations. It outlines the high prevalence of sexual harassment across many workplaces throughout Australia.

References

Dawson, A. J. et al., 2017. Medical termination of pregnancy in general practice in Australia: A descriptive-interpretive qualitative study. Reprod Health, 14(1), p. 39.

Deb, S., Subasinghe , A. K. & Mazza, D., 2020. Providing medical abortion in general practice: General practitioner insights and tips for future providers. Australian Journal of General Practice, 49(6).

Doran, F., 2015. Barriers and facilitators of access to first-trimester abortion services for women in the developed world: A systematic review. Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, 41(3), pp. 170-180.

Doran, F. & Hornibrook, J., 2016. Barriers around access to abortion experienced by rural women in New South Wales, Australia. Rural and Remote Health, 16(1), p. 3538.

Elphick, L., 2019. Victoria’s new anti-vilification bill strikes the right balance in targeting online abuse. [Online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/victorias-new-anti-vilification-bill-strikes-the-right-balance-in-targeting-online-abuse-123014
[Accessed 24 June 2021]

Essential Services Commission, 2019. Better practice in responding to family violence. [Online] Available at https://www.esc.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-08/pdf/better-practice-in-responding-to-family-violence-20190820.pdf
[Accessed 24 June 2021].

Family Planning Alliance Australia, 2016. Access to abortion services in Australia: Position statement. Manly, Qld: Family Planning Alliance Australia.

Family Planning Victoria, 2020. Everyone is welcome at Family Planning Victoria. [Online] Available at: https://www.fpv.org.au/blog/everyone-is-welcome-at-family-planning-victoria-our-submission-to-the-second-exposure-draft-of-the-religious-discrimination-bill
[Accessed 24 June 2021]

Karp, P., 2019. What is the religious discrimination bill and what will it do?. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/aug/29/what-is-the-religious-discrimination-bill-and-what-will-it-do
[Accessed 24 June 2021]

Marie Stopes International Australia, 2008. Real choices: Women, contraception and unplanned pregnancy. Melbourne: Marie Stopes International Australia.

Mazza, D. et al., 2020. Medical abortion. Australian Journal of General Practice, 49(6).

Parliament of Victoria, 2019. Inquiry into anti‑vilification protections. [Online] Available at: https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/lsic-LA/Inquiry_into_Anti-Vilification_Protections_/Report/Inquiry_into_Anti-vilification_Protections_002.pdf
[Accessed 24 June 2021]

Shankar, M. et al., 2017. Access, equity and costs of induced abortion services in Australia: a cross-sectional study. Aust N Z J Public Health, 41(3), pp. 309-314.

State Government of Victoria, 2020. Family Violence Reform Rolling Action Plan 2020-2023. [Online] Available at: https://www.vic.gov.au/family-violence-reform-rolling-action-plan-2020-2023
[Accessed 24 June 2021].

The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020. Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020). [Online] Available at https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/respectwork-sexual-harassment-national-inquiry-report-2020
[Accessed 24 June 2021]

Tomnay, J., 2019. Early medical abortion is legal across Australia but rural women often don’t have access to it. [Online} Available at: https://theconversation.com/early-medical-abortion-is-legal-across-australia-but-rural-women-often-dont-have-access-to-it-125300
[Accessed 24 June 2021]