The horrendous tragedy in the small Riverina town of Lockhart should serve as grim, nauseating context for the way we prioritise safety and life in Australia.
There’s no easy way to say this, no way to explain it without someone, somewhere, taking deep offence, but the costs in terms of the lives of Australians is too great to continue to let the profound disparity between what policymakers say, and what they do, continue.
A wife and three children are dead at the hands of a husband and father, driven by who-knows-what mental state or perceived pressures to murder his family and then take his own life. This is not an isolated event — dozens of partners and children are killed every year by the men in their lives. And it is merely the most tragic and painful end of a spectrum of domestic violence that stretches from emotional and verbal abuse to physical assault, sexual abuse and murder. The victims are both male and female, but predominantly women; perhaps a quarter of women will experience the terror of some form of domestic violence during their lives.
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Meantime, the focus of the government is on terrorism, with the terror threat level purportedly to be elevated — scuttlebutt from spies elevated into alleged Islamic militant plots, planning for a return to Iraq well under way while, in the name of fighting terrorism, we send support to one of the groups already banned as a terrorist group in Australia.
A month ago, the government announced a $670 million increase in anti-terrorism funding, declaring that the fiscal emergency had to make way for keeping Australians safe. Note that this was merely an increase, on top of the existing funding for ASIO (annual operational budget before capital, $450 million) and the Australian Federal Police (annual budget, around $1.4 billion) and our defence budget, which is likely to have to increase to support our return to Iraq, where we spent $2-3 billion in support of the last Iraq war. Not all of that ASIO and AFP money of course goes to fighting terrorism, but each state government operates its own counter-terrorism police and intelligence activities as well.
To provide some perspective, in June the Prime Minister announced that the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children would see an extra $100 million directed to addressing domestic violence over four years. That would bring the total spending in the campaign to $200 million — but over eight years, from 2009-17, so around $25 million a year.
“Politicians and the media hysterically react to terrorism as though it is a major cause of loss of life in Australia. But the murder of women and children is normalised … “
That of course is in addition to state and territory funding for domestic violence programs, including police funding given the workload domestic violence can place on frontline officers. And it’s not to criticise the federal government — the extra funding announced by Abbott should be welcomed — but to contrast the level of resources we devote to terrorism, which has killed just over 100 Australians since the 1970s, with domestic violence, which has killed perhaps a thousand women and children over the last decade and injured hundreds of thousands more, in a social problem that is estimated, in the way of these things, to cost the economy $15 billion a year.
Nor is domestic violence the sort of issue that takes priority over fiscal emergencies. In New South Wales, refuges for women and children are being shut down as the state government cuts funding in an efficiency overhaul intended to replace more expensive specialist services such as women-only shelters with generic services that experts say are less likely to be used by victims of domestic violence. As with pretty much everything else, shelter services in regional communities and indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable. Women and children in regional and rural communities, indigenous women and children and disabled people are much more exposed to the risk of domestic violence compared to the rest of us.
The NSW closures come at a time when reported rates of domestic violence are on the increase. In NSW in 2013-14, for example, domestic violence-related assaults reached their highest level ever, one of the few categories of crime to not be decreasing consistently in that state. As with another crime showing consistent increases, sexual assaults, hopefully the increase reflects not an actual rise in violence but victims, including men, being more confident and prepared to report assaults to police. Nonetheless, the strong evidentiary basis for the prevalence of domestic violence stands in fairly stark contrast to the lack of evidence of any increase in the terrorism threat to Australians.
Critics of such analysis offer two complaints. One is that this somehow dishonours Australian victims of terrorism. It does nothing of the sort — terrorism is a real threat to Australians that has killed scores of us in recent decades. What it seeks to do is place the threat of terrorism in proper context as a cause of death and injury to Australians — and that context is that it ranks very low as a threat compared to other challenges like domestic violence, the road toll or preventable diseases.
The other complaint is “why can’t we address both?” Well, indeed. Clearly, given the death toll from domestic violence, we are not currently addressing both. Politicians and the media hysterically react to terrorism as though it is a major cause of loss of life in Australia. But the murder of women and children is normalised, absorbed into our world view and accepted as though it doesn’t matter in the way that the external threat of terrorism isn’t.
Addressing this is a complex policy challenge, one that covers multiple portfolios, involves difficult decisions, needs the co-operation of the community, costs a lot of money and will take years to properly deal with, if we ever can. Of course, those words apply equally to dealing with domestic violence and terrorism. At the moment, our focus is on the one that doesn’t regularly kill Australians.