It’s heartening to see Commonwealth, state and territory leaders devoting a COAG meeting today primarily to domestic violence; there’s much to be done.
Today’s meeting suggests we’ve completed the first stage of a long process of dealing with domestic violence in Australia: getting politicians and policymakers to take it seriously as a policy challenge deserving of their time and taxpayers’ money. The Gillard government provided funding for a national domestic violence plan, Tony Abbott provided additional funding for the plan, and Malcolm Turnbull, taking over a decision by Abbott, provided yet further funding in the days immediately after he ousted Abbott. Parliament has debated the issue, with surprisingly nuanced contributions from politicians on all sides — many identifying the critical role of economics and women’s income in the issue; there’s a royal commission into family violence underway in Victoria.
This may not seem like much, but it’s been a struggle simply to get domestic violence recognised as a serious cross-jurisdictional policy challenge, rather than merely an issue for state police forces to deal with, or fail to deal with. We’ve come a long way even since I asked George Brandis why domestic violence wasn’t receiving the same attention as terrorism from the government in 2014 and he became furious at my impertinence.
There’s much to be done because domestic violence reporting in NSW continues to climb. In that state, which keeps the most accessible and useful crime statistics, at the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, reports of domestic violence assaults and sexual assaults have increased over 3% and over 2% per annum respectively over the last 18 years. Much of that growth is down to population increase, but those are the only two violent crimes in NSW that haven’t fallen, and fallen substantially, in recent years. In comparison, non-domestic violence assaults — the kind that obsess the hysterical Sydney media — have fallen, year in and year out, over 1% per annum over that period and over the last six years have fallen over 4% a year.
With any luck the increase is because more victims of domestic violence are feeling confident enough to report it, rather than an actual increase, but that’s a challenge of evidence. I focus on NSW partly because it already has high-quality statistics on domestic violence, but also because it has invested considerable funding, under Pru Goward, in trying to improve the evidence base around existing domestic violence programs to identify what’s working and what’s not. There’s a similar national effort needed to put our understanding of domestic violence — especially in indigenous communities and among disabled and non-English-speaking women — on a sounder footing.
At the moment, for example, it’s very difficult to tell how many Australian women, children and men are dying at the hands of parents, partners or ex-partners, because we don’t have a coordinated national approach to data collection — something we have for, say, workplace safety via Safe Work Australia, which collects data on workplace injuries and fatalities.
Collecting better data won’t immediately save a single life, but it will help in shifting what is “normal” about domestic violence and how governments respond to it. For most of recorded history, right up until recent years, domestic violence has been normalised as part of the fabric of society, even a private matter that the state had no interest in, and not worthy of expensive intervention. Just knowing about the extent of the problem changes this: it becomes harder for politicians and policymakers to avoid the problem if, for example, every quarter we get an update on how many Australians have died or been injured due to domestic violence. It’s an inapt analogy, but that’s how policymakers in the 1970s prepared the way for Australia’s shift away from protectionism — by assembling and publicising the evidence of the cost to Australia of maintaining tariff barriers, making it harder for the issue to be ignored. Evidence becomes a ceaseless drip that can shame policymakers into action.
Such efforts are necessary despite the summits and royal commissions and parliamentary debates, because political momentum can stall, and there is an active lobby seeking to undermine action on domestic violence, a peculiar combination of left and right that sees the issue in culture war terms. For this group, any increased focus on domestic violence is seen as a victory for stereotyped “middle-class feminists” and must be fought tooth and nail, preferably by portraying it as a kind of war against men (and especially working-class men, who are merely themselves victims of international capitalism yada yada), despite the casualties being overwhelmingly women and children.
By continuing the process of shifting domestic violence to being a policy challenge amenable to analysis and evidence-based policy rather than the kind of culture war battleground some want to shape it as, today’s summit helps relocate domestic violence into the more boring and mundane world of policy development. It sounds bureaucratic and slow when action is needed immediately, when women and children are dying and being injured right now, but it’s how Australian governments handle serious policy issues; it’s how other long-ignored problems like mental health and suicide have started to be addressed properly by governments. And for so long, domestic violence hasn’t even been accepted as an issue meriting serious attention.