opinion

Why have we let Australia's most important helpline slip into money-making hands?

Sometimes our politicians get it wrong. Sometimes it’s as a result of misinformation, sometimes ignorance. Other times it’s due to cost saving mechanisms, and sometimes it’s in an effort to stimulate the economy.

The ramifications of getting it significantly wrong are often tragic. One dramatic example would have to be the pink batts fiasco, where in an effort to promote economic stimulus – common sense failed. Despite good intentions, we saw that in an effort to create profits, corners were cut and lives were endangered.

In what can only be described as another tragic scenario, the government made the decision to outsource the administration of the 1800RESPECT service to a private health insurer. I suspect this decision was also based on some kind of sound financial principle, but it is yet another decision which lacks common sense.

Lives again have been endangered, for the sake of making a buck. It is another decision based on paper and profit, and not on people.

The government effectively introduced a ‘middle-man’ to administer the 1800RESPECT counselling service. It came about because Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, who have historically run the service, had the audacity to ask for more funding, so they could respond to the thousands of calls a year that were still going unanswered. They asked for funding to help more survivors of rape and domestic violence in their time of need.

Instead of supporting a long-standing service to expand and meet a desperate need – some ‘genius’, (likely some ministerial staffer who’d read a few briefing papers) came up with the idea to provide the funding to a private health insurance company, that needs to turn profits.

The government thereby empowered the MHS to review every call, and created a call centre to act as a triage to decide which women calling the centre deserved to have access to the experienced counsellors manning the phones at the RDVSA.

Imagine for a moment what it must be like to be in the position that you need the support of 1800RESPECT, and that actually, you had been working up the courage to make this call for months, or possibly years. Instead of getting a highly experienced and specially trained counsellor on the other end of the line, you instead get someone whose job is to basically screen calls.

Over the past 10 years I have got to know both the staff of RDVSA and the services they provide very well, and I believe they are a national treasure. How on earth did a middle aged, male solicitor from regional Queensland become a champion for an organisation set up in inner-city Sydney in the 1970’s by first wave feminists, you may ask? Let me tell you the story.

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Around 2007 I was contacted by the National Rugby League to ask whether I would be interested in a collaboration to develop educational resources for their players along the lines of those I had developed for teenagers and young adults around the issues of consent. As a mad keen league fan, I was delighted to be asked.

However, there was one hurdle I needed to jump over first and that was to meet the indomitable Karen Willis who was then the Director of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.  I did my research and it was hard not to be impressed.  A Churchill Fellowship winner who had dedicated the majority of her life to developing a world class service to assist survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

I arranged to meet Karen at the centre, which was then located in inner Sydney.  I found myself wandering around a suburban Sydney street, wondering where the hell I was and whether I had written down the number incorrectly.  The street I was in was largely residential and the address that they had given me was a non-descript terrace house that looked as if it had seen better days.  I called through to the centre and they confirmed I was in the right spot. Surprised, I walked up to the door.

Karen Willis has dedicated her life to combating the frightening sexual and domestic violence statistics in Australia. (Image: Getty)

The only sign that this building was different to any other of the terrace houses on this street, was the additional security.  I was buzzed in to find a hive of activity.  A place where a group of women were crammed into rooms answering telephone calls from traumatised survivors.  To man one of those phones, meant that these women not only had a tertiary qualification but they also had a minimum of three years counselling experience.

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There was someone there to take those calls, 24 hours a day 365 days a year.  The person who had moulded this team (with the support of a lot of other incredible women) was Karen Willis.

I was impressed, humbled and intimidated all at once. There I was about to meet with Karen Willis, the woman who had dedicated her life to combating the frightening statistics that in Australia one in four women aged over the age of 15 will be subjected to at least one episode of sexual or physical violence.  Yes, one in four.

I felt a fraud, and I don’t know why it was that Karen gave up her time for me that day, but she did and I have given up time ever since to do whatever I could to help her and that team of women, who remained at the forefront providing the best possible care and support to survivors of rape and abuse.  So that when a survivor, or a member of their family, finds the courage to ring that counselling service, they are immediately going to have someone on the phone that will help listen and guide them toward help.

Since 2007, the RDVSA has morphed into a formidable service that has handled 64,000 calls a year from, predominantly women, all over Australia.  They have saved countless lives.  They are not there to be mere collectors of information, or to be used as an extension of our police service.  They are there to work with others tirelessly to make the survivors plight just a little bit smoother.

Since 2007, I have referred countless survivors as my own legal clients, to this service.  On one occasion, I remember referring a 46-year-old man who had just disclosed to me for the first time in his life, that he had survived child abuse.  I know that the empathy and support he received on the phone from the RDVSA was critical to him moving through the process of dealing with the abuse.

As the number of calls grew, so too did the operation where today it employs 70 full time counsellors. They are all available on that phone 24 hours a day.  To give you an idea of how proud as a nation we should be of this service, I was in the UK on business a few years ago and I was asked by the Director of Arch North East (a rape and domestic violence Service in Middlesbrough) if I could visit them and share with them our experiences in Australia.  It was déjà vu in some ways because again, I found myself in a predominantly residential area facing a non-descript building.  Again, what this service had in common with RDVSA was it was manned by more incredible women providing incredible support.

However, due to funding restrictions it was only open five days a week between 9am and 7pm.  The feedback I received was that the RDVSA provided the gold standard for how support services around the world should operate for survivors.  I cannot tell you how proud I was.

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Contrast this with a recent media statement by a MHS Director who said that a strategic direction of MHS is to double its profit from sexual assault and domestic violence over the next five years and hopefully you can understand why we should all be up in arms about the decision that has been made by this government.

The sad conclusion to the government’s actions is that last week, RDVSA has announced it can no longer run 1800RESPECT for MHS. RDVSA felt the new service model MHS was imposing would further compromise, to the point of no return, the values, ethics and the quality counselling services their organisation stood for.

So yes, sometimes our politicians get it wrong. Sometimes it’s as a result of poor advice. Sometimes it’s as a result of pig-headedness. Sometimes it’s the desire to put profit ahead of people.

And sometimes, just sometimes. Politicians can get it right. Governments can decide that the wrong decision was made. Politicians can step up and say, “we screwed up, so let’s fix it”.

Or maybe, just maybe the Minister might see what I have seen, an organisation that has provided a world class service for some of our country’s most vulnerable without any fuss or fanfare and often on the smell of an oily rag, a true national treasure and understand that sometimes, some things, can’t just be about making a buck.

Adair Donaldson is an ambassador of the Fullstop Foundation and the director of Donaldson Law who help survivors of sexual abuse to seek justice and bring about institutional change.

Adair has represented hundreds of survivors subjected to abuse within institutions such as the Australian Defence Force, religious institutions and schools. After twenty years’ experience in the law, Adair founded Donaldson Law to focus on a non-adversarial approach to achieving holistic legal solutions for his clients following a growing realisation that aggressive litigation was not serving his clients best.

If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual or domestic abuse, please seek help and call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800 RESPECT. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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