Polity Magazine Op-ED – “Beyond Sensationalism and Tokenism: Taking Domestic Violence Seriously”

1 August 2015

There is perhaps no more harrowing and frustrating time for a police officer than when they arrive at the scene of a domestic dispute that has turned violent.

In nearly all cases, the male is the perpetrator, using his natural strength to overpower and intimidate his family.

When the police walk through the front door, they are often confronted with the female partner, who is frequently confused, frightened and angry.

If there are children at the scene, they often possess a world weariness that is well beyond their years.

The male is sometimes arrested. Sometimes he is charged and convicted.

But all too often the female, not accepting the terms of a respectful relationship, will eventually allow the male back into her home.

In a matter of time, the whole wretched cycle starts over until the police arrive again.

I write these words from my own memory. As a young police officer in Queensland, I lost count of the number of times I attended the scene of domestic violence.

These events had a permanent impact on my sense of justice and, when I entered the Senate last year, I vowed to make addressing the scourge of domestic violence among my highest priorities.

We know that domestic violence is an ongoing social and economic problem across the globe.

Even nations such as Australia, where there is greater gender equality and lower levels of violence, still confronts this terrible blight in the society on a daily basis.

In fact, research by the ABS indicates Australian women are most likely to experience physical and sexual violence in their home, at the hands of a male current or ex-partner.

About 36 per cent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence from someone they knew.

Of these women, about 73 per cent had experienced more than one incident of violence.

In 2015, almost two women each week are being killed as a result of gender violence.

There is little doubt the Federal Government is taking serious measures to make addressing domestic violence a national priority.

A domestic violence advisory panel has been created and has held its first meeting, led by former Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay, Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and Heather Nancarrow, who brings over 30 years’ experience on the prevention of violence against women.

The purpose of the panel is to advise the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on where current gaps in dealing with this insidious issue exist and make recommendations on how Governments can best respond.

The Advisory Panel’s formation follows the Commonwealth Government’s decision to elevate the issue of violence against women and their children to a national level at COAG.

These are significant opportunities for the Federal Government to improve coordination with state and territory governments to increase the level of meaningful public policy responses.

But, to be effective, we must avoid the pitfalls of sensationalism and tokenism as we strive for appropriate policy responses.

We must stop the debate and analysis of the problem of domestic violence at summits, royal commissions or within the pages of action plans, strategies and campaigns.

There is enough evidence and statistics to justify a strong response by government.

The community should not, and is not, satisfied with short-term solutions.

It’s time we take meaningful action.

I am confident every Member of Parliament possesses a desire to address this issue.

Therefore, we must commit to bi-partisanship to end this purge on our communities.

And we must be the side of politics that shows true leadership and negotiates for long-term policy change where, no matter which party is in government, there is a clear and unanimous strategy to tackle family violence.

The time has come to test the effectiveness of different policy combinations.

Whether it is drought, manufacturing downturn or rising cost of living pressures, public policy makers must accept that regional economic and social conditions are believed to be contributing factors to violence against women.

While nothing could ever excuse violence against women and children, there is a some academic argument that suggests in order to tackle domestic violence the problem should be viewed from the perspective of the daily lives of men and women who have experienced an erosion of their sense of economic and social well-being and instead confront diminishing prospects.

While some of these economic and social indicators are experienced nationwide, they can also often be zoned into a specific region.

It is these areas that should be selected for a test pilot program to examine the effectiveness of different public policy response combinations in the effort to curb family violence.

These could include initial team responses, follow-up responses for victims alongside prosecution policies and sentencing options. Justice responses could be coordinated with social services and family and/or civil courts.

These regional pilot experiments would enable practitioners and administrators to gain experience and understand how different response combinations would suit local circumstances and any special conditions.

It would then enable policy makers to develop better responses to which combinations are most effective under which set of circumstances.

And with domestic violence now on the agenda at COAG, there is a forum at the highest levels of government that can commit to adequately resourcing a test program to seek the best ways to combat family violence.

Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting public policy lawmakers is that a significant reduction in the rates of domestic violence across Australia will require a major change in our culture, not simply in our laws.

We need to teach our young men that violence is never okay, we need to teach our young women about respectful relationships, we need to target those at risk with prevention and we need to ensure support is available when women have the courage to leave a violent relationship.

The only way forward is a comprehensive approach that changes the attitudes that keep domestic and family violence hidden.

By taking meaningful action that translates the significant existing body of research into domestic violence into a region-specific test pilot program that examines the effectiveness of different policy settings, public policy makers will gain a greater understanding of how to effectively tackle incidents of domestic violence.

These important steps could prove the difference in saving the lives of untold women and children across Australia.