Family Matters No. 91 - December 2012

Institute seminars

Lives on hold: Unlocking the potential of Australia's workforce

Rev. the Hon. Professor Brian Howe AO

Seminar held at the Institute on 14 August 2012

Report by Ken Knight

Following the release of Lives on Hold: Unlocking the Potential of Australia's Workforce, the report of the ACTU-sponsored Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work, Professor Brian Howe - who chaired the inquiry - gave an eloquently passionate and insightful presentation at the Institute.

Professor Howe highlighted the increasing polarisation, over recent decades, of the Australian workforce, between those who are part of the core, and those who are at the periphery. The data suggest that casualisation and fixed-term employment are affecting millions of Australian workers and families, most often with adverse consequences. Despite significant academic research in this area, known as "insecure work", there has not been sufficient public recognition of the extent to which Australian workplaces have changed, and the implications of those changes for the people most affected.

Our society has changed significantly in the last 50 years. Technological and communications revolutions have shrunk the world, and the transfer of manufacturing to developing countries and the internationalisation of banking and finance have transformed national economies. The gender revolution, momentous changes in living patterns, and the rapid ageing of populations in developed countries have similarly reshaped social structures. These changes have had far-reaching implications for the way in which people live and work.

Professor Howe argued that these implications represent a serious challenge to the values of fairness and social equality in Australia.

In October 2011 the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) initiated an independent inquiry to help understand the impact of these changes on the nature and distribution of work.

The terms of reference required the inquiry to consider:

  • the extent and causes of insecure work in Australia;
  • who is most at risk;
  • the levels of compliance with applicable labour laws;
  • the effects on workers, their families and communities;
  • the social and economic costs of insecure work; and
  • protections that could be more effective if improved or better enforced.

Over 550 submissions were received, including 458 from individual workers. The inquiry also held 6 weeks of public hearings, visiting every capital city, every state and territory, and a number of major regional centres.

The inquiry described insecure work as "poor quality work" that provides people with little economic security and a lack of control over their working lives.

Characteristics of insecure work include:

  • unpredictable or fluctuating pay;
  • inferior rights and entitlements;
  • limited or no paid leave;
  • no certainty over job tenure; and
  • a lack of a say in the workplace.

These characteristics are most often associated with:

  • casual work;
  • fixed-term contracts;
  • independent contracting; and
  • labour hire.

Professor Howe contrasted this trend with the International Labour Organization's definition of "decent work":

Work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all men and women.

The harsh reality is that insecure work is growing in Australia. The steady trend in casualisation, short-term or fixed-term contracts, the reduction of hours worked per week, combined with an increase in participation, has resulted in a wave of under-employment, especially for younger people (up to 18% of 15-24 year olds).

While many employers argue that insecure work has many benefits, including flexibility - especially in the face of economic downturn - many part-time workers would like more hours, and few casual employees enjoy any control or security over their working hours.

This trend has resulted in significant financial and emotional consequences for many individuals and families.

The inquiry report offered a range of recommendations, including:

  • a broader focus on work-life transitions, rather than the narrow preoccupation with the transition between employment and unemployment that has led to an emphasis on "welfare-to-work" initiatives;
  • a commitment to lifelong learning, including a call for the ACTU to investigate learning accounts as a model for investing in the capability of workers over the lifetime;
  • reforming Australia's tax and transfers system to provide a stronger safety net by:
  • addressing the inadequacy of the Newstart Allowance;
  • simplifying income declaration systems; and
  • abolishing the Liquid Assets Waiting Period; and
  • changing the way Job Services Australia interacts with forms of insecure work, such as labour hire.

Professor Howe concluded philosophically, stating that his firm belief is that people should be able to find dignity and meaning in their work - to realise their potential and contribute something meaningful. In this sense, he thinks that we have "lost the plot" when it comes to thinking about work, and that the time is ripe for further reflection on the fundamental principles outlined so elegantly by the International Labour Organization.

A copy of the report is available from the ACTU: <www.actu.org.au/Publications/Other/LivesonHoldUnlockingthepotentialofAustraliasworkforce.aspx>.

Reducing child abuse and neglect: Reviews, reforms and reflections

Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott OAM

Seminar held at the Institute on 6 September 2012

Report by Lalitha Nair

Coinciding with National Child Protection Week 2012, Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott's presentation was a timely and insightful analysis of the challenges and avenues for reform in the child protection sector in Australia. The presentation followed on from the numerous inquiries and reviews that Professor Scott has conducted, including the recent Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry in 2011 that investigated the child protection system in Victoria.

Professor Scott outlined a number of compelling reasons for immediate reforms in the child protection sector:

  • The prevalence estimates of child physical abuse, penetrative sexual abuse and children witnessing domestic violence are very alarming. This may be the case in other forms of child maltreatment as well, where we do not have data available.
  • The long-term effects of child abuse can be devastating and very serious in terms of the life chances of children.
  • Demand has outstripped the capacity of statutory child protection systems. The large numbers of children coming into contact with the child protection system make it difficult for the system to respond effectively to that small minority of children who are in greatest need. There is a similar demand pressure on the out-of-home care system.
  • Removing children from home has serious long-term risks to their wellbeing.

The presentation raised pertinent questions that the sector will need to consider time and again to be able to respond effectively.

The co-occurrence and frequency of parental factors such as family violence, substance misuse and mental illness - the unholy trinity as Professor Scott calls them - point to the multiple and complex needs of families that enter the child protection system.

The strong association between child protection involvement and the complex needs of families in turn highlights a major challenge in child protection - the challenge of breaking the link between adults' problems and children's pain. This would mean enhancing the capabilities of specialist adult services to take a wider role of responding to the needs of any children of the parents being treated.

Professor Scott pointed out the present misalignment that exists in the service response to the needs of families, with the current system organised almost exclusively around single-input services. This compels families with multiple needs to connect with a large number of organisations and to end up in a revolving door of referrals and fragmented care.

Moving to a child- and family-inclusive practice needs service reforms at three levels:

  • workforce development in terms of values, knowledge and skills;
  • organisational setting; and
  • the policy context that mandates the practice.

The initial step in the process of reform would be an audit of current practice, to be followed by widespread workforce development in terms of knowledge and skills relating to alcohol and drugs, mental health, family violence and parental intellectual disability. Effective collaboration between adult specialist services and the child and family services sector would be another vital step to enhance the capacity of services to respond to both child protection and parental needs.

Professor Scott argued that the type of reform that child protection needs is one that would restrict the Statutory Child Protection Service to only those children who are in need of a forensic investigation and possible placement in out-of-home care.

While there are isolated exemplars of best practice in the sector, Professor Scott emphasised that the problem of child abuse and neglect will not be solved by service solutions alone. There is an urgent need for population-level approaches to tackle identified risk factors, such as alcohol abuse by parents, and to promote protective factors, such as parent-child attachment and social support.

In conclusion, Professor Scott raised the vision of a 21st century child protection movement built on a population-based whole-of-government approach that will address the key social determinants of child abuse and neglect based on sound research and workforce development. This system will also have the capacity to respond to children who have already been abused in ways that reduce and do not increase the risk of further harm.

He hits, she hits: Assessing debates regarding men's and women's experiences of domestic violence

Dr Michael Flood

Seminar held at the Institute on 9 October 2012

Summary provided by Dr Michael Flood

The debate over men's versus women's domestic violence is becoming increasingly prominent, both in academic scholarship and in popular culture. There is no doubt that both women and men can be victims of violence by a partner or ex-partner, and that both can be perpetrators. At the same time, Dr Flood emphasised that there is no "gender symmetry" in domestic violence. There are important differences between men's and women's typical patterns of victimisation and perpetration.

The term "domestic violence" long has been understood to refer to a systematic pattern of power and control being exerted by one person against another, involving a variety of physical and non-physical tactics of abuse and coercion, in the context of a current or former intimate relationship. Much of the existing data on domestic violence, however, focuses only on physically violent acts. Claims that men are half or one-quarter of domestic violence victims only are possible if we draw on studies that focus on "counting the blows".

The Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), a popular tool for measuring domestic violence, which typically finds gender symmetries in its perpetration, is widely criticised for not gathering information about the intensity, context, consequences or meaning of violent behaviours. It typically neglects issues of injury and fear, omits sexual violence, ignores the history or context for the violence, relies on reports by either husbands or wives despite evidence of lack of agreement between them, and draws on samples shaped by high rates of refusal, particularly among individuals either practising or suffering severe and controlling forms of violence.

Both Australian and international data suggest that the problem of intimate partner violence continues to be one largely of men's violence against women. Dr Flood highlighted a series of contrasts in women's and men's patterns of victimisation and perpetration, drawing on both unpublished data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and a review of contemporary scholarship.

Among adult victims of intimate partner violence, women are more likely than men to be subjected to frequent, prolonged and extreme violence. Women are far more likely than men to be sexually assaulted by an intimate partner or ex-partner. Women are far more likely than men to sustain injuries, to fear for their lives, and to experience other negative consequences, such as psychological harms. In short, women are far more likely than men to live with what Johnson calls "intimate terrorism" or "coercive controlling violence".

Gender contrasts in women's and men's levels of fear are not the result of reporting biases. Women don't show higher levels of fear in the context of domestic violence because they are more willing than men to report fear, but because the violence they experience is worse.

Dr Flood argued that there are also contrasts in the intentions, motivations and nature of men's and women's uses of domestic violence. Women's physical violence towards intimate male partners is more likely than men's to be in self-defense. When a woman is violent to her male partner, it is often in the context of his violence to her. Male perpetrators are more likely than female perpetrators to identify instrumental reasons for their aggression, with their violence directed towards particular goals. Male perpetrators are more likely, and more able, to use non-physical tactics to maintain control over their partners. At the same time, women are not immune from using violence to gain or maintain power in relationships.

Men are less likely to report their own perpetration of violence, especially severe violence, than women are to report theirs. Most past findings point to a tendency for men to under-report. Both male and female victims under-report their own victimisation. There is mixed evidence regarding whether male victims of domestic violence are more or less likely than female victims to report their experience. In some studies, there is evidence that men were less likely than women to report their experiences of partner violence because they did not find them serious or threatening.

Presentation slides, audio and transcripts of most AIFS seminar presentations are available on the Seminar series webpage.