violence against women setka
CFMMEU Victorian secretary John Sekta (left) and wife Emma Walters arrive at the Melbourne Magistrates Court (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

Well it’s pretty safe to say that there’s not much left of Victorian Labor’s violence-against-women image and politics after the latest twists and turns in the Setka saga.

John Setka’s wife — high-powered labour lawyer Emma Walters — has revealed that she was the woman Setka had been convicted of harassing in an evening of calls and texts. The subsequent interview managed to undo just about everything Labor and violence-against-women activists have been trying to insist upon for years.

Walters insisted that Setka was not a violent man. She said he hadn’t thrown an iPad at her — he had thrown an iPad, and it had skimmed past her head — and that she had feared him, but that was a product of “being unwell” at the time. The push to expel Setka from the ALP was apparently a scapegoating of Setka in the wake of an election loss.

What was one to make of this amid everything else going on?

First of all it’s got nothing to do with factional politics, not at all. They’re not clenching their teeth and keeping it together, in order to keep the Industrial Left faction on the road. Anthony Albanese’s determination to have Setka expelled from the ALP is utterly unconnected from the ALP national Left trying to head off what remains of the Industrial Left-Centre Alliance, which tried to lock them out of power, no sirree.

But what it has put front and centre is the gap between the official position on violence against women (VAW), and real negotiations between two people in a relationship, whatever the mix of motives may be. For years, several things have been insisted upon. Firstly that VAW arises from gender inequality and a lack of respect. Secondly, that any action other than a woman departing the relationship arises from psychological domination and finally, above all, that the concept of “violence” must be extended from physical exchange and intimidation to a wider set of behaviours.

These have become “givens” among the policy and activism networks around VAW, and spread widely among a section of the knowledge classes. But they’ve never become general among a wider section of the community, who tend to see violence as having multiple causes, and who seem less than convinced by the notion that non-physical acts (other than explicit threats) constitute violence per se. Setka was convicted of harassment which is not, at least in legal terms, a violent act and Walters accepted that. With that, the single ideal of what violence is has been complexified somewhat.

That definition has been expanding for some years now in social policy and on the cultural left, becoming a catch-all term for bad or oppressive behaviour. There’s “emotional violence”, “verbal violence”, “financial violence” — controlling family money — and so on. The variants have proliferated as VAW became a major public issue. Victoria has been a powerhouse for this, its social policy guidelines going so far as to define “hurt feelings” as a form of violence, and running a major youth campaign against vicious texting and social media bullying as a form of violence.

The problem with such a proliferation of “violences” in the context of gender is that it gets away from the core inequality at the heart of physical violence, which is the different embodiment of men and women, and the particular wire-up of muscles, the endocrine system and other factors. This is surely at the heart of why we see male-on-female violence as more unjust than male-on-male violence.

Yet what was commonsensical until quite recently becomes harder to acknowledge within social policy, as a “social constructionist” idea of gender takes over social policy, and the beliefs of the knowledge class. The expansion of the idea of violence to cover a range of disembodied social exchanges then becomes a new Victorianism: men are uniquely aggressive, women uniquely passive recipients. Victimhood and lack of agency become the essence of womanhood.

But in disembodied social exchange, this simply isn’t true. The texts Setka sent are nasty and shameful, but they’re slurs and insults not threats — if there were threats, they haven’t been aired — and of a sort that women can as easily throw at men as vice versa. Despite this, the notion that all nastiness is maleness dies hard. The Victorian government’s poster/social media campaign at the same time as the “Respectful Relationships” campaign constructed boys as the unique perpetrators even though it’s clear that a lot of online bullying, up to inducing self-harm and suicidal behaviours, is done by girls to other girls.

So the whole thing is now an absolute tangle. The social policy complex around these matters — Big Violence — wants to simultaneously define violence as male, deny the biological substratum of “violence inequality”, and expand the notion of violence until the term ceases to have any distinctive and useful meaning.

The pole star leading that journey is the fantasy idea that “violence” could be abolished, which then licenses social agencies to reach into every aspect of intimate social relations. The Setka-Walters melodrama, or what we can see of it, puts that paradox front and centre. If Emma Walters doesn’t have power and agency, no-one does. The key inequality she faces can be seen in “that” photo, which could be a poster for another reboot of King Kong: The Musical. 

The more wide-ranging the attempts to control social behaviour become — and we are now closing in on a decade of failure on dealing with VAW — the more they will fail. The focus needs to return to violence itself, and the distinctive, and irreducible, inequality at the heart of it.