We are academics who research and teach in the area of women’s rights and the prevention and response to intimate partner and family violence.
When the Australian Senate established an inquiry into domestic violence only one week after the horrific killing in February of Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, it was the correct response. There are issues arising from this case and others like it that deserved proper examination by the Senate.
We are angry that the inquiry closed this week. We are angry that it did so without conducting any consultations or taking any submissions from the specialist domestic and family violence sector. We are angry that you did not take the time to hear from those with personal experience of family violence.
The committee’s reason for closing the inquiry angers us further.
The committee formed the view that conducting another lengthy, broad-ranging public inquiry into domestic and family violence in Australia at this time would be of limited value.
We have participated in many of these inquiries and the reason another was necessary is that review recommendations need to be funded, acted upon, monitored, and evaluated. This was a moment to talk about the resources required for prevention, to recognise coercive control rather than individual violent incidents, to acknowledge how children are involved in domestic violence pre- and post-separation, and how to help men who want to stop using violence. It was a moment to harness the political will necessary to follow the recommendations.
Yes, we know many of the answers from past reviews. But the Senate’s job is to listen to citizens, and then marshal this evidence into the political debate here in 2020, and it has failed in this duty. Is it time for the Federal Parliament to establish a Women and Equalities Committee like the UK?
We know only too well that political will has not been generated yet at the federal level to meet the scale of the problem. Such a response puts this lack of political leadership into sharp relief. Although Minister Payne has noted that the Parliament and the Senate “take these issues very, very seriously”, and taken welcome actions to increase funding to services, that is not the impression given by this report and process. We have seen the Australian Government take terrorism, pandemics and economic disruption seriously. We know what it looks like.
To close such an inquiry on the anniversary of the murders without the process other inquiries receive was disrespectful to the memories of these victims, and all the survivors whose names we do not know.
As Queensland academics, we are horrified by Queensland Senators’ significant role in this aborted inquiry. This decision does not reflect Queensland residents’ feelings about this case and the hundreds of others like it.
We are angry because of what could have been. As Kate Fitz-Gibbon and Silke Meyer have argued, the Clarke murders could have provided a pivotal opportunity for all Australian governments to ensure all agencies charged with monitoring perpetrators and keeping women and children safe understand the risks posed by coercive controlling abusers. If not this case, when? If not this Senate, who?
Closing the inquiry in this manner says once again that women’s lives are not valued by the state, that domestic violence is less important than other kinds of threats despite 20 femicides so far this year; that the parliament does not think issues that affect women are important. Australia has tragically lost 100 citizens to COVID-19. Indeed, 101 women and children were killed in 2019.
The idea that this is not the time for such activity is dead wrong. As the Minister’s answer in the Senate last week noted:
“We know that major crisis events have, historically, led to an increased incidence of violence against women …There are indicators of a greater need for services, most certainly. 1800 RESPECT has seen an increase in calls, particularly after midnight. The No to Violence Men’s Referral Service experienced a very significant increase in demand after those community restrictions were announced.”
The final report addresses nothing of these new circumstances but could have. The president of the Law Council of Australia has criticised the report as a “scanty literature review”, and that is a generous assessment.
The inquiry’s inaction and closure sends a dangerous message to the Australian community that this Parliament doesn’t care about domestic violence beyond the headline, when the hard work has to be done.
We praise South Australian Senator Rex Patrick for his dissent.
Scientia Professor Louise Chappell FASSA
Director, Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW
Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer
Law Futures Centre, Griffith University
This open letter was addressed to:
Chair of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee,
Senator Kim Carr
cc: President of the Senate, Senator the Hon Scott Ryan
cc: Senator the Hon Marise Payne, Minister for Women