She spent 13 years in the upper house, including nearly four years as the party’s deputy leader and a turbulent 18 months at its helm. In Parliament she championed a range of causes including paid maternity leave, same-sex marriage, an Australian republic, genetic privacy and stem cell research.
What does she do?
In her post-politics career, Stott Despoja has championed women’s rights and gender equality. She served as Australia’s ambassador for women and girls from 2013 to 2016 and is currently campaigning for a spot in the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. It’s the first time in almost 30 years Australia has backed a candidate for the committee – but she doesn’t know when she’ll find out if the bid is successful, with the June 29 vote postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She’s also the inaugural chair of Our Watch, a government-backed organisation formed in 2013 to push for change in Australian culture and attitudes that lead to violence against women and children.
What did she do this week?
It was in her capacity as Our Watch chair that Stott Despoja stood up at the National Press Club on Wednesday to deliver a grim but impassioned speech about domestic violence.
The statistics she reeled off about that violence’s escalation during the COVID-19 lockdowns were devastating. A 600 per cent increase in reports of revenge porn just on the Easter weekend. Nearly one in 20 women were assaulted sexually or physically by a current or former partner between March and May – two-thirds of them for the first time. A two-thirds jump in demand for emergency accommodation in South Australia. A 130 per cent rise in new family violence matters in Canberra.
“There has been more violence in more Australian homes. The severity of violence has increased and COVID is actually being weaponised within the home as a tool of abuse,” Stott Despoja said. “How could we not be haunted by this violence, Australia?”
Why is this important?
There have been small but vital gains made on equality and attitudes to women and Stott Despoja fears they could be wiped out by COVID-19. That said, she’s also hopeful governments, business and society will seize the opportunity for change.
“I know that many of you are sickened by the stories, the statistics, the body count, the slaughter in the suburbs and I know we can’t go on like this, so does this awful crisis bring an opportunity for change? I hope so,” she said.
A starting point would be for the government to use a “gender lens” when examining its budget – thinking about whether its economic recovery actually targets the female workforce and those industries that have been hit hardest.
Stott Despoja points out that over the years Australia has been a world leader in primary prevention on things like smoking, safe driving and sun safety, so we know how to do this. She’s impatient for change but also knows cultural shifts take generations. Changing attitudes – like those of one in five young men who think domestic violence is a normal reaction to everyday stress or frustration – needs buy-in from everyone.
And it needs better messaging. From Bachelor in Paradise star Ciarran Stott (who is no relation) saying another suitor can’t date his ex-girlfriend without first getting permission, to AMP promoting executive Boe Pahari despite having penalised him $500,000 for settling a sexual harassment claim – Stott Despoja says there is still a long way to go.
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Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.