In Looking for Alibrandi, Matthew Newton, playing John Barton, the gifted schoolboy who wins Josie Alibrandi’s heart but dies young, showed his brilliance as an actor.

In pleading guilty to assaulting his former live-in partner Brooke Satchwell, Newton showed contrition and acceptance of fault for his offense. In appealing against his conviction and 12-month good behaviour bond, he exercised his right to have the sentence imposed by the Local Court revisited in the District Court.

In the rationale for upholding the appeal and setting aside the conviction, the District Court highlighted the way in which traditional thinking about crimes of violence against women remains an impediment to women’s equality and, ultimately, to the affirmation of male responsibility.

When the matter first came before the Local Court, Newton’s lawyer contended against its seriousness by contrasting it against the mounting death toll in Iraq. In sentencing Newton, the Magistrate held that the assault was sufficiently serious to warrant a conviction along with the 12-month bond. In the District Court, the Acting Judge relied upon a number of grounds to quash the conviction.

None of them appear to have convinced women working in the field of home-based criminal assault and other forms of domestic violence or those working with victims of crime. The consensus appears to be that the District Court decision will make women reluctant to come forward to report assaults against them by family members or partners, and confirm their too-often held view that going to court is ”useless”, or at least not worth the additional trauma the court proceedings adds to the initial shock of the assault.

The appeal was not upheld, said his Honour, because of Newton’s talent as an entertainer or because his parents were Australian icons. Rather, his ”mental illness” at the time, ”punishment” by the media and the ”extraordinary personal references”, along with the impact upon his career, warranted quashing the conviction.

What sort of message does this send to the community, to women at risk or assaulted by their partners, to men who engage in assault against their partners, and to men who may be tempted to do so? What message does it send to Satchwell and to Newton himself? What message does it send to police and magistrates?

From the 1970s through to the 1990s, huge efforts were made by activist women to ensure that police had training to ensure that crimes of violence against women would be taken seriously. Women also lobbied for education of magistrates so that arguments such as “he did it because he loved her”, or the “kiss and make up” syndrome would no longer hold sway with the bench.

This activism had results. Today these crimes are more likely to be prosecuted, and as the Newton case shows, taken seriously by magistrates. Yet the District Court outcome shows that the need for activism is not over.

In 1977, the WEL Draft Bill on offences against women saw education of the judiciary as a linchpin. At that time, judicial education was resisted by the judiciary in a monumental manner. Today, judicial education is more accepted and the Victorian Attorney-General is legislating to make it compulsory. This initiative needs to be adopted Australia-wide.

Although it is women who are protesting against the quashing of the conviction here, ultimately it is men who should be speaking out and speaking up. Matthew Newton himself is not helped by a decision that in a sense contradicts his determination to accept responsibility and confront his own wrongdoing. Men should be supporting him in that, and working to ensure that others do not engage in the conduct which by his plea of guilty he acknowledges as wrong.

The legal system, that haven of masculine rules, roles and expression, needs to accept and abide by an important principle — that not only do women have a right not to be assaulted and to have such crimes acknowledged for their seriousness, but that men have a right to have the crimes they commit treated in that way too.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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