Tony Smith. Wasting money on domestic violence?

Jul 21, 2015

The implementation of most Government policies requires some kind of expenditure. One of the laziest approaches an Opposition can adopt is to cite slogans about cost. This sloganeering is at its most shallow when arguing that the Government is just ‘throwing money at the problem’. Needless to say, there are occasions when this criticism is true. Governments can decide that by giving an issue some funding, it can silence the demands of groups pressuring for action.

There are times when Governments decide to fund a campaign, but then undermine the campaign by their actions in other areas. There is no doubt at all that domestic violence is a terrible problem for Australian society. The Abbott Government recently announced that it would spend millions of dollars on a publicity campaign alerting people to the problem and the unacceptability of domestic violence, particularly against women and children. Unfortunately, there are indications that the campaign might be undermined.

While the Government is right to condemn physical violence in domestic relationships, it has not given enough credence to lower levels of abuse. Physical violence might erupt spontaneously but it seems much more likely that it will be preceded by other forms of disrespect. In particular, verbal abuse is likely to occur before physical assault. This means that a campaign which focuses exclusively on physical violence will not address the problem adequately. A holistic approach to domestic violence should make it clear that any behaviour which demeans people or removes their dignity is unacceptable.

Perhaps one reason that governments might not be inclined to fund such a broad campaign is that verbal abuse and demeaning behaviour are endemic to politics. When members of the Government, particularly Ministers, attack women inside and outside parliament, they make such abusive attitudes seem legitimate. The Immigration Minister has recently attacked Human Rights Commissioner Professor Gillian Triggs in terms which were personal and insulting. Earlier this year when Prime Minister Abbott survived a challenge to his leadership, he emerged with a promise that he was about to start ‘listening’. Interestingly, Abbott responded to some criticisms of his leadership style with a suggestion that attacks on his protective Chief of Staff were worse because she was a woman.

But within days of making his promise about listening, Abbott refused to hear what the Human Rights Commission had found in its inquiry into children in immigration detention. Not only did he refuse to listen but he did it in such a way that sought to undermine the credibility of Professor Triggs. He made statements about Professor Triggs which were demeaning, and precisely the kind of personal attack which is a likely forerunner of violence.

The Immigration Minister also found it convenient to attack Greens Senator Hanson-Young. Hanson-Young was told by an insider at an asylum seeker detention camp that she had been under constant surveillance during a fact-finding trip to an ‘offshore’ centre. It might be argued that such surveillance is in itself a form of abuse but the Minister seems to believe that the Senator has no right to complain. This attitude is highly informative about the Government’s understanding of the importance of personal dignity and the ways in which it can easily be damaged.

Anyone who watches Question Time in Parliament must also wonder about the Government’s understanding of the processes of domestic violence. Whether the question comes from a male or female member, Ministers use the opportunity to make personal criticisms of their opponents. This legitimates for those who look for such examples in our political leaders, sneering, ridicule and demeaning language.

Politicians sometimes argue that in a representative democracy, parliament should reflect society in all its variety. They use this argument not to attempt to make parliament more inclusive, but in order to justify conflict. They argue that people actually expect their representatives to argue vigorously on their behalf, and that it is better to have such conflicts contained within the arena of parliament rather than outside in broader society where conflict can erupt into violence.

This argument denies the possibility of leadership. It holds that parliament can only ever respond to social demands, and never lead social trends and individual behaviours. This argument is clearly incompatible with an expectation that parliament – and government particularly – should show some leadership in addressing domestic violence.

Until the Prime Minister and other Ministers model some dignified behaviour in their comments both within and outside parliament, there will be little progress on any campaign that aims to address domestic violence. Unless the expenditure is backed up by personal changes, the money is likely to be wasted.


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