Rethinking how Australia approaches its domestic abuse crisis, with Jess Hill

Investigative journalist and author, Jess Hill, dismantles the flawed logic of victim-blaming and challenges everything you thought you knew about domestic and family violence.

Jess Hill & Richard Denniss in conversation at The Australia Institute’s Politics in the Pub

The Federal Government’s 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children is a decade in, and $723 million of federal money has been committed on top of state and territory funding.

The goal of the plan is ‘a significant and sustained reduction’ in sexual assault and domestic violence by 2022, but a recent audit found that the plan is not on track to meet that goal. And the statistics remain shocking.

“It is very rare that a relationship will just be unrelentingly violent — often there is love and kindness too— sometimes to lesser degrees as the relationship goes on, but sometimes the love stays the same throughout, even while the abuse is occurring,” said Jess Hill, on The Australia Institute's podcast Follow the Money.

“Nothing compares to years of on-going violence — but the ‘violence’ we are talking about is not purely physical — it’s also a violence centered around humiliation, degradation, and control.

“The physical expression of that — it’s just one part of the picture.

“Instead of asking: why didn’t she leave? We should be asking: why did he do it?”

“There’s been an incredible awakening in Australia to the idea of domestic abuse and just how many people it affects, but it’s shocking how many people who still think that domestic abuse only happens in working-class families, or to people with drug or alcohol addiction.

“You speak to police from every different postcode, and they are all spending a good amount of their time dealing with domestic abuse call outs — it’s not just the ‘down and out’ suburbs — it’s happening everywhere.”

“What is clear, is we are at a point unmatched by anytime in recent history where we have the tools and understanding to really take this on, and not just take it on in a law and order sense, but in a true reforming way. Whether Australia is going to do that — I don’t know.”

“Australia has taken a regular assault-like approach to domestic abuse and it bears little to no relationship to the experience that most victims have — where the most terrifying things that happen to them are, quite often, the psychological violence,” says Hill.

“That is not to say that physical violence isn’t important and isn’t worth prosecuting but the fact is, at the moment, police really have no motivation or reason to investigate the full arc of an abusive relationship and thus it is very easy for police to get it wrong.”

“What police are looking for is if there is a charge to be laid, if there is a physical assault, or if there is an intervention order that should be put in place — but it’s all based around one-off incidents and domestic abuse is not a one-off incident.

“At the moment I think the government has basically thrown in the towel — their focus is only on primary prevention — which is the idea that if we change attitudes and gendered norms then we will get rid of domestic violence.

“I’m really angered by that because primary prevention is just one part of a much bigger puzzle.

“Relying only on primary prevention means we won’t see any real changes in the amount of domestic abuse for at least the next 10 years, while we wait for gendered norms to change.

“I just think that it is unconscionable to give up like that when we’ve had such amazing progress on other seemingly intractable public health issues, like smoking and drink driving.

“The key is to interrupt the violence, right now, in tandem with primary prevention.

“If you don’t interrupt the violence that culture won’t change because we’ll have another generation of children growing up in with a display of power that resonates with them in all different ways — but for a number of children will show that the way to be powerful, is to hold power over others. Or, that they aren’t worth anything more than having power held over them by someone else.

“It’s a diabolical situation and we can't just expect to change that through respectful relationship programs in schools and telling children that it’s not the way things should be —because that’s not the reality they’re living with daily.

“One in four children are growing up in some form of domestic abuse situation. That is just unacceptable and it needs to change now.

“Australia can do this, we just don’t believe we can do it, or we’re not willing to burn the political capital to do it properly.”

“When you adopt a whole of community approach to dealing with domestic abuse — which is about collaboration and about collecting the right data so people know the problems they are dealing with — you not only reduce crime but you increase all the positive indicators,” says Hill.

An example of this, Hill notes, is Operation Solidarity in Bourke where incidences of domestic abuse were reduced by 40% over just four years using a strategy called justice reinvestment.

“Police would get a DV call out and rather than arriving and threatening the perpetrator with arrest they would ask, what is it that this family needs in order for the perpetrator to make the decision to stop this violence?

“The Police would work with people on whatever their issue was, whatever it was that was going on in their life, to get them to stop.

“In Bourke, they found after four years of this approach there was a 40% reduction in domestic violence assaults and an enormous reduction in domestic homicides in the area.”

“This a proven strategy, and if you get the community on board to collaborate, rather than have services competing with one and other, there can be big improvements.

“And it’s not that hard because all of these people, the services and the police are usually working on these domestic abuse cases anyway, but they’re working cross-purposes. Instead of doing that, and repeating all the same work, with the same people, without even knowing it, it conserves resources to work together.

“Change is possible but we have to believe it is possible,” said Hill.

Listen to the full discussion with Jess Hill, hosted by The Australia Institute’s Ebony Bennett, on episode 39 of Follow the Money.

Jess Hill is an investigative journalist and author who has specialised in reporting on domestic violence since 2014. Her reporting on domestic violence has won two Walkley awards, an Amnesty International award and three Our Watch awards.

Hill’s new book See What You Made Me Do: Power Control & Domestic Abuse is available here.

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