The recent shooting in Las Vegas is a reminder that massacres are not the preserve of international terrorists. While the US Ambassador in Canberra has suggested Australia’s firearms laws could be a useful model for the USA, we cannot feel complacent while we tolerate domestic violence. Yet, politicians seem not to appreciate that cultural change is needed to address this scourge.
Since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the west has been obsessed with external terrorism. Responses have however been so predictable that they have been counter-productive. When media call on terrorism experts for comment on incidents, the experts are able to comment on government responses much more effectively than they can predict the next action by terrorists.
When Australia committed troops to Afghanistan, then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson gave an interesting, if largely unchallenged, explanation: this was where the Bali bombers trained before murdering over 80 Australians. This explanation is problematical in that the Bali connection will remain forever, giving a clear warning that Australia was adopting a permanent war footing. It has now become a garrison state and a feature of such states is a cultural bias towards the warrior hero, the model for which is male. More specifically the warrior stereotype exalts one form of masculinism and devalues the female.
The Turnbull Government advertises its security policies proudly and largely has bipartisan support. The Labor Opposition criticise details of the general approach to international security but is mindful of polling on the issue which advises support for strong defence. Labor condemns the Government for usurping parliament’s power to wage war by pledging support for the USA should President Trump decide that he needs to engage North Korea, but generally expresses support for the US alliance.
In a shocking revelation, one law official pointed out that the USA has experienced a mass shooting on average every day of 2017. The stark figures on deaths in domestic violence in Australia suggest that one woman is killed each week by a partner or ex-partner. To put this into broader perspective, some 50 people are killed violently every year, mainly in their own homes. The White Ribbon website (https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/understand-domestic-violence/facts-violence-women/domestic-violence-statistics/) lists numerous other appalling figures. While some Americans think our firearms restrictions exemplary, guns are implicated in many domestic murders.
In the 2017-18 budget, billions of dollars were allocated to protecting us against international terrorism at home and abroad. The Australian Federal police received a significant boost in funding and while the defence budget did not rise, apparently previous budgets have been so generous that defence cannot spend its allocation. The specific allocation for addressing domestic violence was a fraction of this. While other budgetary measures could be relevant to campaigns to reduce domestic violence – such as legal assistance and help for the homeless – current policies reducing access to welfare might have a negative impact. Financial stresses place pressure on families who struggle to survive and funding of refuges for women and children has become restrictive and access more difficult. While the Victorian Government has been praised for allocating $1.9 billion to the campaign, experts suggest that an immediate injection of $4 billion by the federal government is required to mount an effective campaign against domestic violence.
One measure of the priority given to addressing international terrorism is the Government’s willingness to restrict civil liberties. While such restrictions might well be an outcome desired by terrorists, police powers to search and detain suspects have been extended, new offences of association have been created and security services are now able to routinely monitor electronic communications. Most recently the Prime Minister mooted a national ‘face recognition’ database which will begin by collecting photographs on drivers’ licences. With the stark exception of Indigenous men, there is no indication that measures to address domestic violence might trespass into areas still deemed private.
Major sporting codes voice support for the White Ribbon campaign but some sporting cultures encourage broad acceptance of violence. In the AFL for example, off the ball violence should be stamped out. Instead, ‘shirt fronting’ is an accepted part of the game. In cricket, alcohol promotion is accepted and alcohol is implicated in many instances of domestic violence.
The personal demeanour of parliamentarians needs to be audited objectively for relevance to domestic violence. The question time swagger of ministers and the lack of respect shown across the chambers provide a nasty example for society to follow. Domestic violence often arises from an escalation – personal criticism, derision, verbal and mental abuse, shouting, pushing and striking.
While the juxtaposition of statistics on victims of international terrorism and domestic violence provoke some uncomfortable questions for Australian policymakers, the connection might well be stronger than mere correlation. Pre-occupation with any kind of war whether of the more traditional kind against a foreign state, a cold war involving a wasteful arms race, or a war on drugs, terror or any other perceived threat, can hamper strategies to address sex discrimination generally and domestic violence specifically. We need a radical rethink of policies on terrorism.
Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics.
He writes “Terrorist attacks in Australia have claimed the lives of only three victims in the last two decades”