Minister Ruston interview – ABC Radio National Breakfast

E&OE...

SALLY SARA:

A national conversation over sexual assault has spurred record numbers of women to take their allegations to police. In New South Wales complaints spiked by more than 60 per cent in March this year. Police have congratulated women for having the courage and say that the increases show the importance of keeping that conversation going. After being rocked by an allegation of rape made by former staff Brittany Higgins, the Federal Government has tried to show that it's listening with a national summit on women's safety to be held next month.

Anne Ruston is the Federal Minister for Social Services and Women's Safety and joins us now. Anne Ruston, welcome back to RN Breakfast.

MINISTER RUSTON

Thanks, Sally.

SALLY SARA:

What did you make of these figures from New South Wales? It was an extraordinary jump, but it's gone back down again. It's a spike rather than a trend.

MINISTER RUSTON

I mean I suppose in one sense, it's really good to see that women are feeling empowered to be able to come forward and make these sorts of statements. But equally I suppose it is very disappointing and Australia needs to take notice that this sort of thing is happening and that we need to do something about it.

I think we need to continue to work as a nation to have this national conversation that we're currently having. And we can't let it slip off the radar because we know that behind the scenes there are many women in Australia who are feeling that they are not safe in their workplaces, in their homes and in their community. I'm very keen to continue to work to make sure we continue these conversations so we actually can make some real change.

SALLY SARA:

Yesterday, the young activist Chanel Contos was talking about consent education and she was saying, particularly with the rise of pornography at a young age, kids getting access to it and young women in particular, some not even realising that they had been sexually assaulted because they didn't understand consent. How early is early enough for consent education?

MINISTER RUSTON

There are a number of academics who suggested that very early is early enough and that we should be teaching almost at kindergarten age the understanding of what is respectful behaviour. It's part of the programme that we've been running around the Stop It at The Start campaign. To show that respectful behaviour is learnt early and delivers ongoing respectful behaviour. And whilst not all disrespectful behaviour ends up in violence, you can be sure that every situation where we see violence is started with disrespectful behaviour. I don't think it's ever too young to teach our children how to be respectful to one another, to adults. And obviously, it's important for adults to understand to be respectful to each other and to children as well.

SALLY SARA:

These figures were quite extraordinary. But of course, many people in the sector were saying, look, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that most people who experience sexual assault don't report it. So many of those cases will still be in the background. What do we do to try and get those cases, those people to come forward?

MINISTER RUSTON

Well, I think it is about that national conversation. We've got to continue to say to people it is okay to come out and talk about it. But more importantly we need to get the rest of the population, everybody, to understand what violence is all about. It doesn't necessarily have to be a black eye or something that's visible because it's been physical harm. You know, it could be coercive control, it could be financial abuse. Tech-facilitated abuse, particularly against children, is on the rise.

What we need to do is to give Australians, all Australians the tools not just to know what domestic violence or violence looks like, but to give them the tools so they can call it out and do something about it. And so I think as I say, the national conversation is a great place to start but we actually do need to get, as all Australians engaged in stopping this scourge, because unless we do, it's going to be extremely difficult to change the dial. And I'm absolutely determined to change the dial and make Australian women feel safer and be safer.

SALLY SARA:

Minister, you've got a women's safety summit coming up. With the advice- I understand there's going to be an advisory group that will be announced. So that there are meaningful changes in the law, will specialist lawyers be part of that group?

MINISTER RUSTON

Family violence services, including specialist women's legal services are a very, very important part of making sure that women are properly treated and looked after when they come forward. Because as you said in your intro, when women make that really tough decision to leave a domestic violence situation, it's a really brave thing for them to be doing. And so we need to make sure the services that are available to them are specialised, they're understanding, they're informed, because quite often there's a lot of trauma and stress involved in the situation. So, certainly through attorneys general we're looking at making sure that we've got appropriate laws in place. I mean, sexual assault courts are something that we are looking at; national consistency in in laws so that that women in every state can know that no matter where they are, they'll be treated the same way.

So there are lots and lots of things that we can do with Government but we'll only do it in conjunction with the general population, with business, with the community, with our schools to make sure. But yes, certainly our court system is one place that we could make some quite significant improvements.

SALLY SARA:

Minister, a specific story which is in the headlines today - one of Australia's top athletes, Maddie Groves has quite the women's Olympic swimming trials, hitting out at what she's called misogynistic perverts in the sport. And saying, and I quote, “you can no longer exploit young women and girls. She's a dual silver medallist.” Swimming Australia says it takes those allegations seriously and has reached out to her. Are you concerned by those allegations?

MINISTER RUSTON

Certainly in reading the story, I was tremendously disappointed to see what Maddie had to say. I mean obviously, I'm not aware of the details that sit behind the story. And obviously, that's something in a workplace, they need to be taken seriously and I'm glad that Swimming Australia is taking it seriously because, you know, every single one of us needs to be respected in our workplace. And this is Maddie's workplace. And so she has the right to be respected. So- but, you know, obviously in the absence of knowing the details behind the actual allegations, I'm not going to make any public comment on it, specifically. But generally, I can say every woman has the right to feel respected. Every person has the right to feel respected in their workplace. And we have a responsibility, as employers, to make sure that's the case.

SALLY SARA:

What's your message to Maddie Groves?

MINISTER RUSTON

Well, I mean, as I said, I don't know the background behind it, but, I mean, I was terribly disappointed for her. I mean, she's obviously worked very hard to be able to be part of the swim team. I mean, being an Olympic athlete would be an extraordinary thing to be able to achieve in one's life. But clearly she feels strongly enough about the allegations that she's made to take a stance on this. And you know, that is her right and I respect her right.

SALLY SARA:

How important is it for Swimming Australia to fully investigate this issue?

MINISTER RUSTON

It's very important for any workplace to fully investigate any allegation of the nature that Maddie has made. And that is part of this process of making sure that Australians feel safe in their workplaces, to know that their employers are taking their responsibilities seriously about allegations that are made. Because it is a very serious allegation that she's made. But as I said Swimming Australia have made a comment that they take it very seriously and we would expect them, like any other employer, to make sure that her allegation's fully investigated and hopefully is resolved to everybody's satisfaction.

SALLY SARA:

Minister, another issue that's been in the headlines, the Biloela family. Three-year-old Tharunicaa remains in hospital in Perth where she was medevacked earlier this week. Friends say the conditions on Christmas Island may have contributed to her illness. Should the Immigration Minister Alex Hawke allow that family to live in the community, to return to Biloela?

MINISTER RUSTON

Obviously, this is a matter for the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Immigration. But the Australian Government takes our responsibility for the care of anybody that is in our care, very, very seriously. But we equally take the security of our border very seriously. And so in relation to the disgusting sights that we saw with people smugglers, we take it very seriously that we continue to keep our borders safe. But equally, when we find somebody in our care, we take that very seriously as well.

SALLY SARA:

What was your personal reaction seeing that medical evacuation?

MINISTER RUSTON

Obviously, as I said, we take it seriously. The decision was made, that the medical evacuation was necessary. And that's the appropriate course of action on the basis of medical advice.

SALLY SARA:

We've seen some surveys through Australia Talks that the ABC has run, looking at allegations of sexual assault, asking whether people believe that allegations of sexual assault are almost always true. That was showing that 69 per cent of women share that view and only 40 per cent of men. Your own public input on your online survey on women and safety; what's that revealed? Are you getting any information from that as yet?

MINISTER RUSTON

We haven't actually extrapolated the information from the online survey. What I would say more generally about the comment is that everybody has the right to be believed when they come forward with an allegation. There are appropriate processes that can be put in place, whether they be in the workplace, whether they be in the courts or through appropriate mediation and counselling, to identify the validity of the complaint. And so I think everybody has the right to be believed when they come forward because I don't think we want a situation where people are discouraged from coming forward on the fear that they won’t be believed.

SALLY SARA:

Just briefly on another matter with social security changes. A parliamentary inquiry will take a look today at a bill that pushes more people on unemployment payments to look for work online instead of in-person consultation with a job agency. The Australian Council of Social Service says it will see 144,000 people have their payments effectively cut. Will some unemployed people be worse-off if this change gets through?

MINISTER RUSTON

Well no, we think that a lot of Australians who find themselves on unemployment benefits will be better of by being able to access this online. It will obviously be a much easier and more streamlined process by which they can engage with the jobs market. We've seen the highest number of job ads in many, many years at the moment. And so being able to give people a simple way to engage with the job market without actually having to go in and do face to face engagements, gives people who don't have any barriers to work really easy access and frees up our job service providers to make sure they've got more time to spend on people who may be finding it more difficult to get a job. I think it's absolutely the opposite that's true. I think these changes are going to be really beneficial to Australians who are getting back into work.

SALLY SARA:

Anne Ruston, thanks for joining us again on RN Breakfast.

MINISTER RUSTON

Thank you very much, Sally.

SALLY SARA:

That's Anne Ruston, the Federal Minister for Social Services and Women's Safety on RN Breakfast.

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