TONY SMITH. Time for real leadership on domestic violence.

Feb 24, 2020

The latest horrific episode of domestic violence involving multiple murders and suicide in Brisbane has elicited expressions of disgust and dismay across the country. Given that such atrocities occur frequently, it is obvious that something is lacking in society’s attempts to address this appalling problem.

Plenty of sincere and incisive words have been spoken and written on this complex subject. John Menadue has noted the stark statistics. In its intransigence domestic violence’ has become almost a euphemism for a catastrophic situation in which men are killing women and children.

Perhaps discussions have improved somewhat. A couple of generations ago, domestic violence was considered taboo. The confinement of women mostly to the ‘domestic’ sphere meant that their voices were not heard in the male – and masculinist – bastions of parliaments, courts, police forces and in those failed guardians of morality, the churches. Thankfully, there is today no flippant talk of a ‘few rounds of the kitchen table’ and respect for women generally has improved, if only as a result of a rise in their socio-economic status and political clout.

It seems patronising to be even thinking as though ‘women’ were so ‘other and apart that their condition must be legislated distinct from all us humans. To an extent the taboo has been reversed. Disrespectful and abusive references to women are now called out and exposed for their ignorance and hateful basis. But if there has been improvement, this is no consolation to those who die weekly. Clearly, only zero violence is acceptable.

We should not seek to downplay the culpability of perpetrators of violence against women and children. It is important however to ask whether some aspects of our society assists individuals to escape the usual rules against killing other human beings. Women are still treated discriminately for commercial and political purposes. The same media organisations which condemn extreme acts of domestic terror exploit women in advertisements and run television programs which depict women as weak, vulnerable, unpredictable and irrational. Women are presented as passive, weak, superficial and essentially dependent on males for health, wealth and happiness. They are stereotyped as having primary responsibilities of sexually gratifying men and raising beautiful children. Should they fail to meet these standards, they are seen as failures in need of correction. The claim that women are different but equally valued – as in arguments used to justify an exclusive male priesthood in some churches – must be exposed as spurious.

Men also are subjected to dangerous stereotyping. Not much has changed in generations as they are judged largely according to their ‘bread winning’ ability. In other areas too, masculinity remains largely unreconstructed. Despite growing diversity in identities and acceptance of difference, recent revelations about bullying and misogyny at a prestigious Catholic school show that boys are still acculturated into problematic ideologies.

Part of the problem in addressing the issue, and so in saving innocent women and children, is that some men in charge of the response tiptoe around the deeper problem. Perhaps they sincerely want to treat each case on its merits and to avoid rushing to pre-judgment. Unfortunately, the police spokesperson on the terrible incident in Brisbane was stood down following complaints that his comments implied that the victims were partly responsible and that the perpetrator bore diminished responsibility. The murdered woman Hannah Clarke did everything that she could. It was not she who failed.

In the wake of the Lindt cafe tragedy, politicians wrung their hands about ‘domestic terror’. Terrorism abroad, international terror visiting Australia and ‘home grown’ terrorism allow politicians to strut their stuff on the world stage. Billions of dollars are available to address these problems and legislation is introduced with no qualms about threatening civil liberties. While there may be some funds available for addressing male violence against their partners and even against strangers, the allocation is tiny when comparisons are made between the numbers of deaths in each sphere.

Politicians continually ignore the way that terrorists aim to elicit responses which undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Politicians exploit public fears to make Australia a more militaristic society. While the armed forces are now less exclusively male, masculine values are emphasised in the warrior psychology. The sufferings of veterans is partly attributable to the prevalence of this myth.

In the short term, women need to know that safe havens are available. Unfortunately, state and federal governments lack generosity in providing funds to enable refuges and rescue services to operate. The Djirra organisation for example has struggled for resources.

Jenna Price notes that the head of the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Heather Nancarrow, argues that the most dangerous time is when women finally leave violent partners. More must be done at this stage to protect women and to take more seriously the need to monitor the behaviour of their former partners.

In the long term, stronger leadership is needed. During the bush fire crisis, the prime minister suggested that fire fighters did not want to see him with a hose in his hand. He was widely condemned for failing in leadership. Perhaps he should go on weekend patrols with police officers responding to domestic incidents.

As well as wearing white ribbons, parliamentarians must stop speaking sarcastically about opponents. They should not legitimise verbal behaviour which demeans and belittles people. Those in government should set an example for behaving responsibly and owning their actions. Interestingly of two cabinet ministers under pressure recently for poor conduct in their offices, the female accepted responsibility and resigned. The male denied responsibility for using falsified information about Sydney’s female Lord Mayor.

Statements of shock are not enough. Institutions charged with protecting vulnerable Australians are failing. We cannot provide justice for our Indigenous peoples or homes for the needy. We shut the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill out. Market forces do not care. Deep social and political reform is needed – urgently.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interest in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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