My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for this week

by ray goodlass

We need real action to prevent domestic violence

The gruesome murder of Hannah Clarke and her children in Brisbane emphasises the need for real action to once and for all put a stop to domestic violence.

Rowan Baxter’s treatment of his estranged wife was an act of horrific violence which needs to be viewed in the context of one woman a week being murdered by her current or previous partner.

I’ll first look at the reaction of the Queensland police. Though the extent of police interactions with the couple remains unclear, police detective inspector Mark Thompson did say that domestic violence orders had been granted against Baxter.

“I can confirm Queensland police have engaged with both Hannah and her estranged husband in relation to domestic violence issues,” he said. “When it comes to Hannah, we have dealt with her on a number of occasions and worked with the Brisbane Domestic Violence Centre in supporting Hannah throughout her family issues. And we’ve also referred Rowan Baxter to support services as well.”

Police initially suggested their task was to review interactions between the family with an “open mind”, though the Queensland police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, later apologised on behalf of the officer who had said that Baxter “may have been driven too far”, and stood him aside from the investigation. Thompson was in fact blaming the victims, which was apparent when viewing his to the camera television news interviews.

Baxter’s killing of his family followed a pattern of behaviour familiar to domestic violence specialists. It is pattern of two or three acts known as “changing the project”.

“We know from the research, and what we often tell police and service providers is, to look for evidence that the perpetrator is changing the project,” says Claire Ferguson, a forensic criminologist and homicide researcher. “Whereas the project was most likely previously being about regaining control, we’re looking for those instances where the goal isn’t about regaining control anymore, but it changes to be about punishment and revenge.”

The reference to a ‘pattern’ is important because it shows where the situation is heading. Kerry Carrington, an expert on gendered violence from the Queensland University of Technology, said the murder was preventable because Baxter’s pattern of behaviour was predictable. “Had we had the kind of supports in place to protect and support women in that period, and we don’t have it, then a lot more could have been done.”

Molly Dragiewicz, a domestic violence research professor from Griffith University, said that a period of separation heightened the risk of violence. “What happens is once a couple separates, the abuser loses a lot of routine ways of controlling the family they had before, so that contact around children becomes one of the primary avenues for abuse. Somehow that system doesn’t really recognise the intensity of the risk at separation. We know there is an escalation of risk at separation.”

Angela Lynch, the chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland, said police often framed domestic violence cases as “tit for tat between two parties, rather than an abusive pattern of violence”. She said domestic violence matters were often not dealt with effectively, and that police and the family law system should act to prioritise the safety of those involved, rather than treating incidents as difficult family law matters.

Lynch said “It’s quite clear we must use these tragic circumstances as the catalyst for change.”

The Morrison/McCormack government seems to be asleep at the wheel on this issue, but commendably Labor leader Anthony Albanese renewed calls for a national summit on domestic violence, and criticised the government for plans to abolish the family court.

The Greens have been very active on the issue. They established a Senate Enquiry into Australia’s domestic violence crisis, exposing harsh cuts the Liberal government made to the sector, resulting in some of those cuts being reversed. Last week Greens spokesperson for Women Senator Larissa Waters condemned the Federal Government’s announcement of a pitiful $2.4 million funding for men’s behaviour change programs to address domestic violence as a drop in the ocean, saying it will not stem the tide of violence against women.

What we need is a target of zero acts of domestic violence by 2021 and, borrowing from Scotty for Marketing, a clear road map of how to get there.