In early 2020 I got stuck in New York as the world came to grips with the COVID pandemic. I had been supporting a group of Aboriginal and Pacific First Nations women who went there to tell their story and build relationships internationally, in their work to end violence against First Nations women. Over the month, I watched the city go from business as usual to what looked like the beginning of the apocalypse.
I was unemployed and sleeping on a friend’s sofa bed in Brooklyn and then in a borrowed Hell’s Kitchen hotel room, eating dollar pizza slices and staying up til midnight to reassure my partner and kids back home in Canberra that everything was fine, even though my flights had been cancelled and I didn’t know if or when I would ever get out. I had the privilege of choosing to live with insecurity. I had identified my exits and worked out where to find safety as each of my plans failed, and I finally made it home at the end of March.
Back home in Canberra, I saw news photos of a thousand bed US Navy hospital ship docked at the pier a few blocks from the Hell’s Kitchen hotel where I had stayed two weeks earlier. In May, I watched video footage of Black Lives Matter protests, a burning police car in Union Square outside the Best Buy where I had picked up cheap headphones to make calls for the Bernie Sanders campaign. But while I was comfortable in my warm house with food in the cupboard and my family safe, many in my own community were dealing with insecurity inside their own homes.
For most of us, security during the early days of the pandemic was about health security: preventing exposure to the virus, and protecting those most at risk. Lockdown aimed to reduce those risks. But it came with increased seclusion and control for people experiencing domestic and family violence, mostly women. Local services said they experienced a drop in calls during that period, as women couldn’t safely call for help when their abuser was in the house with them constantly. It doesn’t mean the abuse stopped – just the time and space to seek help. As restrictions eased and services found other ways to make themselves accessible to people such as text messaging, they reported massive increases in requests for help.
Loss of work hours impacted women more than men. Casual jobs in retail, hospitality, tourism, and the arts had their hours cut, with more women in those jobs than men. But JobKeeper rules required that a person must be in a job for a 12 month period to be an eligible employee. For industries with low pay and high staff turnover, employing more women than men as casuals, this means many thousands of women were left completely dependent on their partner for financial support. In a relationship where abuse occurs, financial stress can trigger a cycle of violence. While JobKeeper was intended to reduce income loss due to unemployment or lack of casual shifts, there was an undeniable gender gap in who was eligible. As at the end of January 2021, more than 10,000 workers in my city of Canberra were still receiving JobKeeper, around a quarter of the number who received the payment in April to September 2020. Most of those workers will now be unemployed, with the scheme having ended on 28 March 2021. As a result of the pandemic and inadequate government support, more women have found themselves financially dependent on their partner, increasing the danger if they also experience domestic violence.
As restrictions eased and we emerged from our homes last May, governments sought ways to make contact tracing quicker and more reliable. The COVIDSafe App was released by the Australian Government, based on Singapore’s open source TraceTogether app. The idea was supposed to be that we could all safely use this app, with encrypted data sent between the Government server and our phones, to enable faster contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. But again, the model of security that was being considered was narrowly focused on public health, and failed to take into account what really happens in private homes. An app that can trace and log all your contacts has the potential to be a useful tool for someone engaging in coercive control behaviour, increasing their ability to keep their partner or family member under surveillance. If a perpetrator knows who their victim has been in contact with, and when, it can be used to harass and intimidate them, know where and when they can find the person they are abusing, or know in advance that their victim may be making plans to escape.
Being unemployed, I had plenty of time to download code and read the analysis of data security experts before deciding whether to download COVIDSafe. One of the flaws in the app was that the phone kept a plain text database log of its own contacts, showing the make and model of every phone it had been in contact with but no other identifiers. In a domestic abuse situation, it would not be hard for an abuser to either force their victim to hand over an unlocked phone and check logs, or have pre-installed spyware to enable them to check the logs whenever they like. If the abuser knows that their victim’s sister has an iPhone 6, and they can see that there has been a series of contacts between the victim’s phone and an iPhone 6, the abuser could easily work out where and when the victim might be meeting up with someone who could support them in escaping violence. For this reason, WESNET – Australia’s peak body for specialist women’s domestic and family violence services – recommended that women experiencing abuse need to think carefully about the safety implications before using COVIDSafe. Once again, in the government’s rush to protect public health security, they had failed to consider personal security for women experiencing violence at home.
The personal security impacts of the decisions made by the Federal Government were not unpredictable. A wealth of research and recommendations exist on the Gender and Disaster Australia website, run by two Victorian women’s health organisations and Monash University, and originally funded in response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The scale of the impacts on women in my own city as a result of the economic effects could have been quantified using Women’s Centre for Health Matters research from 2019 on women at risk of poverty in Canberra.
As I write this, people in Victoria are experiencing a seven day lockdown, called at short notice in response to another COVID outbreak. There will be thousands of women who experience abuse at home stood down from casual work and in financial stress, or required to work from home with their abuser there with them. What are the responsibilities of government in mitigating the risk to their personal safety? Do governments have a formula to calculate an acceptable trade-off between public health security and security in the home, or have they just not thought it through?
Having been elected to the ACT Government on 17 October 2020, and appointed as a Minister the day after being sworn in, I can tell you there is no formula. It is far more likely that the way in which governments think about security is still impacted by the internalised biases we all have in our understanding of leadership.
We still think of good leaders as demonstrating strength, being in control, and exercising particular kinds of power. The new public health threats we face now are not easily understood, and many of our leaders have not yet demonstrated that they understand the long-known personal safety threats experienced mostly by women at the hands of men they know and trust. The centralisation of power into a one-man cabinet office policy committee, consisting only of the Prime Minister, and declaration of the national cabinet as a version of the same committee, means decision-making is less likely than ever before to be inclusive of a diversity of perspectives.
The awareness and education work undertaken over many years means that many in our community now understand that domestic violence is a public health issue. In this rapidly changing world, we need a model of government leadership that encompasses life experiences and perspectives from those most at risk, in order to find public health solutions that also consider the impacts on personal safety. This is the case not only for lockdowns and contact tracing in a pandemic, but also for the impacts of natural disasters like bushfire and drought, and displacement and economic disruption due to climate change. Research shows that domestic violence increases following the destruction of homes and communities in a bushfire, but that community resilience is best supported when women are included in decision-making about community rebuilding. What we are seeing at a national level in 2021 is that those most likely to experience the personal security impacts of loss of home, income, or safety from violence, are the same people least likely to end up at a cabinet table.
The Federal Government has played a role in enabling seclusion and control, and increasing financial stress, throughout the past eighteen months. Some of our most accessible mainstream media outlets, fuelled by output from the Morrison government, have taken advantage of our existential distress to pick up clicks on stories that address only the public security elements of what we have collectively experienced. But they have not said much about the outpouring of kindness and support that communities themselves generated and enabled through mutual aid and mostly informal volunteer groups.
It is the responsibility of governments to empower individuals to protect themselves, understanding that simply asking people to stay home does not render everyone safe. Instead, we must resource our community to support each other and stay connected, leaving none of us isolated or unable to access help if needed. Good leadership must include working with the media to share a narrative of collective kindness and support, rather than power and control, in response to existential anxiety.
These are uncomfortable ideas for people working within a traditional model of leadership, where power is concentrated and exerted rather than distributed and collaborative. But it is when we embrace the uncomfortable that we are able to grow. Every week, another woman in Australia dies at the hands of someone she knows. Surviving the pandemic only to die in your own home is not society making progress. It is just the same old problem, failing to be solved by the same old power structures.
One year after I returned from New York, trying to build international relationships to help solve gendered violence experienced disproportionately by First Nations women, I attended March 4 Justice, along with thousands of women and their allies, in front of Parliament House in my home city of Canberra. Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the protest a “triumph of democracy” that we were not “met with bullets”. His words reminded me of the way in which former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was called a witch and threatened with all manner of violence for daring to be a woman in a position of power, and the way in which Senators Mehreen Faruqi and Lidia Thorpe and Penny Wong and others are still treated today.
If being branded as witches is what it takes for women in progressive politics to change a system that has failed us since the very beginning of European colonisation in this country, then light me up. I’m ready to burn it all down. I see the green shoots in our forests one year on from the fires that raged up and down the east coast in the summer of 2019-2020, and I know that life finds a way. I have hope that whatever is coming our way will lead to throwing aside our fears about sharing power, and regrowth for our community.