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Turnbull's response to domestic violence ignores the evidence

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 6 October 2015


Common sense commonly goes out the window, when it comes to "women's issues".  The recently announced measures to combat violence against women are no exception.  They largely represent a knee-jerk response by politicians and their bureaucratic advisers (including the Office for Women) to populist demands that "something needs to be done".   

The Turnbull Government is endeavouring to increase its popularity among female voters and appease the women's lobby.  PM Turnbull had already increased the number of female ministers in his cabinet (not entirely without justification).  He now wants to be seen as dealing with the evil of violence against women.

"All violence against women begins with disrespecting women," Malcolm Turnbull told reporters.  "We as leaders, as a Government, must make it - and we will make it - a clear national objective of ours to ensure that Australia is more respecting of women."  Turnbull was effectively toeing the line pushed by feminists that intimate partner violence is the result of society condoning aggressive behaviours perpetrated by men, while socialising women to be non-violent.  The issue of women abusing men is not seen as a serious social problem so that "violence against women" is emphasised rather than "domestic violence", and the main solution (a la Turnbull) is to change attitudes on the part of males so that they are "respecting of women".

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According to White Ribbon ("Australia's Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women") "domestic violence is a widespread though often hidden problem across Australia.  It occurs in all parts of society, regardless of geographic location, socio-economic status, age, cultural and ethnic background".  The organisation also notes that "in the large majority of cases the offender is male and the victim is female". 

The problem with this (and Turnbull's) characterisation of domestic violence (DV) is that it is unduly driven by ideology and supposition rather than grounded in hard reality.  In short, we are asked to believe that DV results from "men behaving badly" across all levels of society due to lack of respect for women, and that the problem can largely be addressed by changing male attitudes.  The reality is far different so that the proposed solution won't work because it targets the wrong causal factors.

Heterosexual males are not the sole perpetrators of DV, and other factors, including mental illness, substance abuse, and Aboriginality are more important contributors to domestic assaults than mere "lack of respect".  There is also evidence that those in low income households, those dependent on welfare, members of certain ethnic groups, and those in de-facto relationships are much more prone to domestic violence than those in educated, middle-class husband and wife families.

In individual cases, character defects, including poor impulse control, are not to be discounted, while (at macro level) widespread tolerance of violence per se (accompanied by soft penalties imposed by the Courts for assaults) may be just as important as attitudes towards women.  Stressful circumstances (e.g. family breakdown or an unfavourable Family Court outcome) are known trigger factors in more serious cases of domestic violence.  All these factors seem to be largely ignored in the current policy response.

In the landmark case involving Rosie Batty and her son Luke, it is accepted that the perpetrator (her former partner) suffered from untreated mental illness, a common contributor in more serious assaults.  It is also well documented, for example, that in this country domestic violence is far more prevalent in Indigenous communities.  According to the Creative Spirits website "An Aboriginal woman is 45 times more likely to experience domestic violence than a white woman", though state crime statistics suggest a less extreme gap in the more populous states.

It is true that male violence is both more prevalent and tends to be more lethal in the home than violence perpetrated by women.  Such greater incidence, however, seems to be by a factor of roughly three to one, instead of violence on the part of women being insignificant.  Men may also be more reluctant to admit to being a victim of violence than women. 

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The ABS 2012 Personal Safety Survey found that one in three victims of current partner violence during the previous 12 months (33.3%) and since the age of 15 (33.5%) were male.  Men are alsomore likely than women to experience general violence.  In 2012 it was estimated that 8.7% of all men aged 18 years and over compared with 5.3% of all women aged 18 years and over (467,300) had experienced violence in the 12 months prior to the survey.  Women were more likely than men to experience violence by a partner.  In 2012, an estimated 17% of all women aged 18 years and over (1,479,900 women) and 5.3% of all men aged 18 years and over (448,000 men) said they had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15.

An important phenomenon not often examined is the direction of violence.  In a very large proportion of violent households, the violence is actually perpetrated by BOTH partners.  An extensive study of dominance and symmetry in partner violence by male and female university students in 32 nations by Murray Straus (2008) found that, in Australia, 14% of physical violence between dating partners during the previous 12 months was perpetrated by males only, 21% by females only and 64.9% was mutual violence (where both partners used violence against each other).

The Australian Institute of Criminology in a study analysing homicides in Australia between 1989 and 1999 found that just over three-quarters (76.9%) of intimate partner homicides involved a male offender and a female victim.   SBS News, in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Criminology, published an overview of all victims of domestic or family homicide over the 23 year period 1989/90 to 2011/12.  They found that 408 male partners (24.8%) and 1237 female partners (75.2%) had been killed during this period.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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