When a society seems unable to ameliorate its social problems, something is obviously amiss. People in the USA might despair of ever breaking free of the pervasive firearms culture which is implicated in frequent mass shootings. In Australia, we have at least two persistent catastrophes: horrific road tolls and the scourge of domestic violence which leaves a woman dead every week and creates lives of misery for survivors.
Last week a father murdered his two teenage children and then suicided. The incidence of murder suicide events; often involving firearms is appallingly high. Campaigners have since noted that in this particular case, the man eventually acquired a weapon as a sporting shooter. They have called for tougher restrictions on gun ownership and note that in Canada and New Zealand former partners are consulted about the psychological suitability of every applicant. No-one with an official record of domestic violence should be able to access firearms and as this crime is seriously under reported, giving a former partner a veto over firearms seems a good idea. Australian research suggests that murders of partners and ex-partners is likely preceded by patterns of domestic violence. It seems that these children lived in terror of their father since their mother removed them from his house.
When hostages were taken by a gunman at the Lindt cafe in Sydney in 2014, the Australian Government had recently announced increased expenditure for fighting terrorism abroad, on border security, the Afghanistan campaign and better intelligence gathering here. The media inevitably found the ethnicity and religious affiliation of the perpetrator of most interest but immediate responses fell into the ‘Lone Wolf’ pattern used to explain away US gun massacres as aberrations. Inquiries into the handling of the siege which left two hostages and the gunman dead focussed on police response to the incident rather than any wider implications.
At the time, there was an obvious contrast to be found between our policy of being tough on terror abroad and our puny attempts to eliminate domestic terror. Indeed, the sanctioning of military violence might well create a milieu in which domestic violence is more likely. Certainly funds were being committed to some tangible necessities such as women’s refuges but moral leadership was lacking. In particular it seemed obvious enough that the way male MPs adopt a swaggering, disrespectful demeanour in the chamber sets a poor example for males in general.
While females do commit acts of domestic violence, some 75% of the murder victims are women. It is easy enough for critics of feminism and defenders of poor men to overlook the fact that deeper analysis of domestic violence identifies the problem as arising not from the existence of men per se but from specific types of masculinity. The biological condition of maleness does not inevitably make one likely to use violence. Certain masculinities can.
A Geoff Goodfellow poem ‘What Chance Has A Bloke Got’, quoted here inter alia, evokes the sense of masculine entitlement at the heart of our problem.
Listen he says You’ve heard I’ve lost me cook Haven’t y’
I says y’see that blue heeler pup over there she says yeah and I said that’s mine
& I says now get over there and look in that bloody mirror
Cos that’s mine too you’re going nowhere
& she’e up and hoofed it women y’ just can’t work ‘em out
I’ve given her everything given her the bloody lot
Yeah I said you sure have
As the deciding match in the State of Origin rugby league series between Queensland and New South Wales approached, data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics revealed that in recent years the evenings on which matches were held produced a 40% increase in reported incidents of domestic violence. It is possible that the football code’s identification with alcohol sponsorship means that fans use the evening to over indulge in alcohol and excessive drinking is a factor implicated in violence.
It is likely that the State of origin event encourages some males to adopt the macho swagger of their brutal but not particularly skilful media heroes. If their team wins, these males might well expect the adulation given to their heroes and should it fail to appear, then they lash out at those who fail to recognise their heroic status. If their team loses, then watch out those nearest and most vulnerable as they vent their anger and frustration. Knowing or even suspecting that a sporting event would lead to incidents of domestic violence should cause our political leaders to call for its abolition, but there has been silence on the issue.
Parliamentarians have something in common with footballers. By convention the onfield thuggery stays on the field and the idea of one footballer suing another for assault is not countenanced. Similarly, MPs hide behind parliamentary privilege. It is interesting that at a time when the Human Rights Commission is beginning an inquiry into workplace harassment, Senator Hanson-Young drew attention to comments to her by Senator David Leyonhjelm. Leyonhjelm has been almost universally condemned for his comments and his refusal to apologise and attention has been drawn to the wider issue of disrespect towards women. There are males who need little encouragement as the desecration of a memorial to a murdered Melbourne comedian suggests.
In all areas of masculine privilege huge cultural changes are required. It is important to remember that being born male is not equivalent to adopting masculinist values of force, violence and entitlement. When I interviewed state MPs two decades ago, many – especially males – re-interpreted my title ‘Gender in Parliament’ as ‘Female MPs’. Often men assume that they have no gender and believing that their behaviours are natural rather than learned, have little incentive to change. The insult to Hanson-Young will surprise few observers of parliament who see the swaggering, strutting and posturing of MPs highlighted by media whose priority is entertainment.
Much has been written in recent times about the erosion of trust in the political system. As inquiries into banking rorts and child abuse in religious institutions show, the crisis in trust is not confined to politics, There are however strong links between the supposed leadership that politicians provide and social outcomes. Domestic violence destroys trust in the basic social unit of the family.
Anyone genuinely interested in what the Australian Government describes as ‘Keeping Australians Safe’ should give priority to addressing domestic violence ahead of international terrorism. They should ensure that families are not placed under unnecessary economic pressures and should shun political ‘one-upmanship’, treat opponents with respect and not regard their offices as entitlements.
Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. His writings can also be found at www.thecud.com.au.