Note: This story discusses domestic violence and infanticide.
Despite decades of advocacy, awareness campaigns, and legal reforms, violence against women in Australia remains high. One in five women in Australia has experienced sexual violence, and on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
There’s been a recent push to criminalise coercive control — patterns of abusive behaviours that rob a person of their independence and is sometimes a precursor to more violent behaviour and murder.
But the push has highlighted deep divisions. While many frontline workers and advocates support the new law, many Indigenous experts argue it could give police more power, more reason to penalise victims, and increase incarceration among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
What’s being proposed?
Coercive control, such as limiting someone’s access to finances, isolating them from their families and friends, and using tracking devices on their phones or cars, often falls under civil law. Tasmania is the only state or territory which has introduced specific criminal offences covering elements of coercive control, though it’s rarely prosecuted as an offence.
Research has shown intimate partner murders are predictable. In the UK, a review of 372 intimate partner homicides found murders follow an eight-stage homicide timeline involving coercive control. One NSW review found that of domestic violence perpetrators who killed their partners, 99% used coercive control in the relationship.
The NSW Labor opposition has proposed a bill to criminalise coercive control, with a 10-year maximum penalty following the murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children, and of Sydney dentist Preethi Reddy. Reddy’s sister is an advocate for the law.
An inquiry into the bill is currently underway, but submissions to the inquiry are mixed. Some organisations say it would validate survivors’ experiences, have police take a pattern of abuse more seriously, and would send a message to the community that coercive control is being taken seriously. Others argue criminalising relationship behaviour could be harmful, and question the efficacy of such a law given women’s hesitancy to go to the police.
All highlight how complex defining coercive control would be, and the difficulties in drafting and enacting the legislation.
Women’s Safety NSW CEO Hayley Foster told Crikey many of the organisation’s members were pushing for the new law.
“People are calling the police to access protection and our frontline workers and survivor advocates are telling us that the laws need to be improved. [Our members] want the law to actually take into account a pattern of abuse and reflect the lived experience of survivors,” she said.
“They don’t want just a law change, they want practice change alongside it.”
How would this affect Indigenous communities?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children experience violence at 3.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous women and are 35 times more likely to experience domestic and family violence.
But many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts and advocates are against the new law. University of Queensland Indigenous health specialist Chelsea Watego told Crikey police didn’t need another reason to lock up First Nations people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander make up 27% of the national prison population despite being only about 3.3% of the general population.
“[Indigenous women] often get misidentified as offenders instead of being seen as victims under current laws,” Watego said.
“We want to save communities and what we know is giving the police greater powers is not going to [make that happen].”
Watego pointed to a case study in SBS docuseries See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill. Aboriginal woman Tamica Mullaley was beaten and stripped naked by her partner Mervyn Bell — but when police arrived, they arrested her for abusing officers. Bell kidnapped and murdered Mullaley’s 10-month old son.
“There’s a real contradiction here,” Watego said. “The documentary that’s being used to make the public PR case for criminalising coercive control has an example of why it should not be criminalised.”
Importantly, there isn’t consensus across the Aboriginal community. One Aboriginal domestic and family violence specialist at a regional women’s domestic violence court advocacy service, who asked to remain anonymous, told Crikey Aboriginal workers agreed they wanted to see coercive control recognised as a crime.
“So many of our women are suffering from it and having it criminalised sends a message about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour,” she said.
“[But] if this law gets created, it needs to happen alongside bigger changes to the justice systems, and serious police education, and it needs to have Aboriginal people being involved from start to finish.”
It’s not a magic wand
Watego said other alternatives that didn’t involve incarcerating people was needed.
“[We need to adress] what’s underneath all of this, around intergenerational trauma with healing centres and therapeutic approaches,” she said.
“This approach to criminalising a social problem is the problem.”
Foster agreed major structural reform is needed and stressed while much of the public debate has focused around criminalising coercive control, that’s just one small part of what many advocacy organisations are working toward.
“We’re advocating for improvements in the law, alongside significant changes to practice, and a substantial investment in primary prevention and community-led responses,” she said.
“[An annual $1 billion investment is needed] to fill those service gaps so that local communities are resourced to not only take charge of primary prevention but also to deliver culturally safe and accessible services at the local level.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.