Scott Morrison women's taskforce
Marise Payne, Scott Morrison and Amanda Stoker at the Cabinet Womens Task Force Meeting (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Yesterday’s photo of Morrison sitting between two women, ready to co-chair the women’s safety cabinet committee was the absolute high point of a whole series of messages reminding one not to write about this issue.

It came shortly after right-wing anti-union journalist-activist Aaron Patrick’s brainspray about journalism-activism in the AFR, Paul Kelly’s weekend dismissal of the “women’s movement” as a potential election issue, and Peter Van Wrongselen doing everything he does.

Gawd help us. But with state and federal women’s ministers meeting today and the prospect of another inquiry, there are a couple of things one feels the need to say.

The first and most important is that, aside from calls to properly fund services, the suggestions and proposed solutions to violence and harassment that are coming from this new uprising are now almost wholly oriented towards increased surveillance, regulation, incarceration, and an ever-closer union with the police and the state.

A committee meets and proposes mandatory ID to start a social media account. Random alcohol and drug testing is proposed for MPs and their staffs. Coercive control legislation, which criminalises a whole new range of behaviours, is proposed on the basis of the latest popular theory on the roots of gendered violence. And on it goes.

This has been happening for some time. But in the recent round of protest and response, it has become dominant. The last vestiges of liberatory caution have been thrown away in the search for relatively rapid solutions to the problem.

As I’ve noted before, if there’s evidence that such measures will significantly lessen violence then they need to be considered. But if there is little or none then the demand for immediate action is simply fuelling a relentless attack on such liberties to no purpose — or at least to insufficiently scrutinised purpose.

That latter position is strengthened by the strong suspicion that, aside from some common-sense reforms in court practice, there has been little policy-based success in reducing violence against women. Anne Summers noted this possibility several days ago in The Age, pointing out that some of the best statistics indicate that there has been no change at all in such violence rates over 15 years.

Summers’ solution is more money, because certain federal funds haven’t been used. But they’ve spent a fair bit, and state governments have been spending large amounts on the issue. The total spend over two decades has been huge. If it was simply a lack of resources, you’d expect to see some sort of positive shift. If there truly has been no change, then the other question must be asked: is the whole basis of intervention policy simply wrong? A false steer?

Have we been applying ineffectual measures for two decades, largely because the state and NGO apparatuses in this area are pursuing intertwined but different aims — reducing violence and changing gender relations — with the firm conviction that the two are identical?

In that conception, many other explanations of gendered violence — that much of it is transactional but between unequal forces (woman slaps man, man puts woman in hospital), or that much of it is transferred (the systemic violence of the workplace, capitalism, racism, etc, applied to men being taken out on women) — have been all but excluded from consideration, as a “gender first” explanation began to take over in the late-1980s and became dominant in the ’90s.

This is the situation we face now. A lack of progress on gendered violence rates, meeting an increasingly insistent demand — headed by professional-class women — that change be rapid. This fuels the application of policy that may be absolutely wrong: the belief that change will occur through changing individual violent men.

To the liberal, individualist mind this seems the obvious, indeed only, course of action. To anyone from a sociology or criminology background it seems at the very least dubious and limited in its effects, if not partially counterproductive, due to the “backlash effect” (whereby people take on the identity they are being instructed against).

Round and round we have gone like this for close to two decades, caught in a pair of contradictory mindsets. The first is that all men are potentially violent, and that the “not all men” claim is a cop-out. The “all men” claim must push us towards a biologistic explanation for gendered violence. But underpinning policy is an opposite idea: a social constructionist belief that humans are a blank slate, constructed and capable of being readily reconstructed.

There is also very little critical-inquiry journalism on this at the moment. There isn’t much to choose between andropausal tantrumson the one side, and the mantra-like recitation of statistics rubbed like talismans over and over on the other. Most of them are useless to the argument. The statistic of 90,000 police callouts is waved around, for instance, but we don’t know what these consist of — the ratio of potentially lethal assaults to minor physical altercations to loud arguments.

At least a part of those would be the moral policing of the poor and the black (loud arguments in McMansions don’t get a callout, those in;thin-walled flats do). The factoring and sorting of police callouts should have been done a decade ago. Journalists simply repeat it, because it’s easier than digging into it.

The second talisman is the murder rate. This too tells us nothing about overall violence rates, because non-lethal violence is dynamic and subject to change, while murder is far more static.

Testing violence policy by this measure is the worst possible way to assess policy impact. The murder of women has come down over the last 30 years, but as a fixed ratio of murder overall, largely due to the ’90s gun buyback and improvements in emergency medicine. Three decades of policy may have had zero effect on it.

On RN Breakfast this morning, Hamish McDonald used the murder rate to question women’s minister Anne Ruston as to a failure of action. But even if there had been huge success in combating mid-level violence, intimidation, control etc, it most likely wouldn’t show up in the murder statistics. These are awful, abhorrent deaths. But endlessly reciting “one woman a week” has done nothing to lessen that ratio, and it won’t in the future.

But really we just don’t absolutely know what the relationship between different types of violence is. That has been the great gap in the last two decades of this issue. Van Wrongselen is wrong, as always. What we need is not quick policy measures, restored funding of crisis services aside. We’ve had a decade of politicians doing that to look busy and responsive and it’s done very little.

We need to instead acknowledge the righteous and just anger of the recent protests and to follow that with some real scrutiny of policies that haven’t worked — and the reasoning behind them. We need a focus on good stats and metrics so we can get some picture of the simultaneous trending up and down of different types of violence that adds to an aggregate. We need any new inquiry to be led by a sociologist or criminologist, not a lawyer — someone who can bullshit-detect the line being run by self-interested parties.

Ultimately we need to try and work out how much male domination is changeable, and how much of it is an irreducible feature of overarching patriarchy that won’t be demolished in a couple of generations, and beyond that, possibly, of biologically determined embodied sexed asymmetry.

The melancholy indication from comparative studies of gender-equality-pursuing nations like Sweden, and traditional patriarchal societies like Italy, is that the reduction on gendered violence slows as it gets lower, until it barely moves at all. Accepting the real possibility of that would dictate a whole series of different policies which might generate real, statistically visible success.

The essential demand of progressives — that things change simply because you want them to — is not easily dispensed with. In the short term, maybe someone at the meeting of women’s ministers can dispense with the platitudes and ask why so little of this vast policy apparatus appears to have worked, and why the only answer to this failure appears to be more surveillance, more coercion, more micro-control of everyday life?

These are the questions not being asked — neither by progressives, nor by the whining Muppet choir in the Oz and elsewhere.

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