A public vigil after the murder of Eurydice Dixon (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

The politics of violence in Australia has been a bizarre public issue for the past decade or so. With the recent release of the fourth action plan into “prevention of violence against women and their children” it shows no sign of becoming any less so.

The latest document is an update on the 10-year federal strategy auspices by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2010. It’s designed to take the policy into the 2020s. To judge by the report in the The Sydney Morning Herald, you’d wonder why they would, since it suggests that the strategy has conceded defeat, with the melancholy observation that the rates of violence against women and children (VAWC) are unlikely to be further changed by social policy per se. Rather, they will be reduced simply by wider social change such as increased education levels and greater financial independence for women. This, the thinking goes, will gradually winnow away the legitimation of inequality held to be at the root of VAWC.

That’s not quite what the report says.

Instead it suggests that 12-month incidence (a violent incident in the past year) might change in the short-mid term (six to 10 years), but very slightly. The lifetime incidence rate is not expected to change for two or more decades. 

The figures are imprecise because the report is imprecise, heavy on illustrations and light on stats. When the stats are examined, they show the figures that are both encouraging and disconcerting for some: since the Australian Bureau of Statistics began using its “incidence of violence” frame in 1996, violence has fallen: in 1996 10.8% of men and 5.8% of women were subject to violence in the past 12 months. By 2005, for women, that had fallen to 4.7%. By 2016, to 3.5%.

On the surface that’s good news, but the slowing rate of reduction is no great endorsement of the social policy settings that have been in place in recent years. The near-absolute focus on gender inequality and “lack of respect” has only come to the fore in recent years, yet the fall in VWAC in the 1996-2005 period, when such a monocausal approach was yet to become dominant, was the same as the more recent period. That suggests — no stronger than that — that the approach focusing on gender inequality as a root cause may be misconceived.

That is put further into focus by the increasing awareness that the “gender inequality” thesis is unable to explain growing anomalies in comparative rates of violence. This has become known as the “Nordic paradox“: the fact that Sweden, unquestionably one of the least gender unequal societies in Europe appears to have one of the higher rates of gendered violence.

Various ways of dealing with the paradox have been proposed, most particularly the idea that while Sweden has achieved institutional equality (or lowered inequality), cultural inequality persists. To anyone who knows Swedish life, where the generalisation of once-specific gender roles in parenting etc, appears to have gone further than anywhere else, that seems unlikely. It’s also contradicted by other evidence, such as the comparative European rate of murder of women. Spain, which retains greater gender inequality –institutional and cultural — has a lower rate than more modernised states such as Germany.

The more likely possibility is that there is a strong relation between lessening gender inequality and reduced violence as fully patriarchal societies “detraditionalise”, but once substantially done, the relation dissolves.

Indeed, it is quite possible that as women gain social power in post-industrial societies while some groups of men lose it, violence will be present as a “backlash effect”, and first level out only to rise again. This would show Sweden to be an exception only if you insisted on applying the “gender inequality” thesis against the evidence.

This is relevant to Australia, both because a city like Melbourne may be close to the “inequality” limit, but also because, in the past several years, a bizarre misrepresentation of Australia has grown up. Despite an Australian murder rate — 0.8 per 100,000 for women, 1.3 per 100,000 for men — absolutely even with western Europe, global notions of Australian machismo have created a spurious exceptionalism, feeding notions of an epidemic, running counter to the statistical record.

The gender inequality/respect explanation for gendered violence has largely come apart — so much so that the latest report is more a justification for anticipated failure than a road ahead — yet is far too institutionally and ideologically embedded to be questioned from within. That may drive bad policy, for the latest report is insistent on primary prevention — reshaping culture and psychology so men don’t want to be violent — even if change is slow. But if that sort of change has stopped, then drawing away resources from “tertiary response” (i.e. doing something now) is misallocation.

A case in point: the Victorian state government is pouring hundreds of millions into prevention on the gender inequality/respect model. At the same time it has starved public housing of funds. Is it possible that some of the money going into social re-engineering could be better spent on housing that would allow women to financially extricate themselves from violent men? Is the increasing willingness to make analogies between VAWC and terrorism — a response to policy stasis — feeding consent to state repression without good cause?

That and other such questions are unlikely to be asked until there is a willingness to question a policy that now, by its own documents, promises no measurable change.

If you or someone you know is impacted by assault or abuse, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey