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October 9, 2015

Why Australia must secure women’s safety as a national priority

By Jude McCulloch, Kate Fitz-Gibbon and JaneMaree Maher

The increasing regularity of fatal violence against women – 63 deaths so far this year – combined with harrowing tales from the Victorian Royal Commission, and this week’s Coroner’s Report on the tragic killing of Luke Batty gives flesh to the declaration of family violence as a ‘national emergency’.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of increased funding and a host of other initiatives at the state level suggest that women’s safety is on the political agenda. Despite this family violence is still not part of the national security agenda.  The threat of family violence and the risk of fatalities that arise in that context are tolerated while there is zero tolerance for the risk of threats from activities, such as terrorism, which are classified as national security matters.

The risks of a woman being killed in her family in Australia are significantly higher than the risk for any Australian of being killed in a terrorist attack. Between 2002/3 and 2011/12 in Australia 488 women were killed by a current or former intimate partner. More than twice as many women are killed each year in Australia in intimate partner homicides than people killed in Australia as a result of terrorism in the years since 2001.

While the fatalities and injuries from family violence far outweigh those from terrorism those who set national security priorities and allocate funding nevertheless judge the threat of terrorism as more significant than that of family violence. The threat of terrorism is not based on what has already happened or the evidence about known risks but on what might possibly happen. In contrast the priority given to terrorism over violent crimes against women caused one unnamed Victoria Police detective to observe ‘we are ignoring known threats to investigate potential ones’.

For national security, preemptive measures that aim to eliminate threats have been put in place. These measures expand the boundaries of the criminal law and provide for substantial coercive civil and administrative measures. They aim to eliminate even the opportunity to commit violence in a spirit of ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ or as Tony Abbott put it ‘no more benefit of the doubt’. There are control orders, preventative detention, new criminal offences that target ‘preparatory acts’ and expanded powers to detain without charge. ASIO can coercively question even non-suspects. Terrorist  ‘watch lists’, if ‘you see something say something’ hot lines and massive data trawling exercises are all based on the premise of proactively intervening to disrupt or incapacitate those who might possibly represent a terrorist threat. These laws and measures amount to a ‘pre-crime’ approach which aims to identify and neutralize ‘would-be-murderers’ before they have the opportunity to act.

In contrast, and despite its increasing national profile, family violence is primarily dealt with in the traditional post-crime frame. Family violence typically needs to have occurred or the threat of such violence needs to be comprehensively demonstrated before criminal justice or civil law interventions take place. Major coercive and incapacitating criminal justice interventions against repeat family violence offenders often only take place after a fatality. In many cases men have breached intervention orders, in place to protect women and prevent family violence, dozens of times before the perpetrator is sanctioned.

The case studies of Australian women killed by their intimate partners repeatedly demonstrate the justice system tolerates the risk of family violence and intimate partner homicide. The February 2014 killing of Kelly Thompson in Victoria by her former partner Wayne Wood highlights both the preventability of intimate partner homicide and the failure to effectively prevent. At the time of her death, Thompson had an intervention order, which had been breached by Wood on at least two occasions. In the months prior to her death, Wood made repeated threats of violence, strangled Thompson and stalked her. In the weeks prior to her death, Thompson called the police on at least 35 occasions.

Research has long indicated that family violence homicides are the most preventable type of homicide because histories of abuse indicate the risk of tragic outcomes. Yet there is still no effective multi-systems approach to the prevention of lethal violence in the domestic setting akin to that in the terrorism arena.  Furthermore, the services best placed to identify and prevent family violence escalation remain starved of resources.

Reducing the tolerance for family violence may produce dividends in countering terrorism. Recent research indicates that societies with higher levels of gender equality are at less risk of terrorism. Tolerance of family violence is inconsistent with gender equity. An informed precautionary approach to terrorism mandates that the correlation between gender inequity and the risk of terrorism be taken seriously and that women’s safety be prioritised in our national security. Too many Australian women’s lives are at risk if we do not.


Jude McCulloch is Professor of Criminology at Monash University. Her latest book is Pre-Crime: Preemption, precaution and the future

Kate Fitz-Gibbon is a Lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University

JaneMaree Maher is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at Monash University

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