How on Earth did an abhorrent crime like domestic violence become entangled in Australian cultural wars?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment commentators began to talk about the domestic violence “industry” comprised of “feminazis” who complain too much about men, and to imply, without evidence, that hordes of women like to fabricate stories of abuse.
But every time we lose another life in this outrageously predictable and perennial onslaught against women, these voices emerge.
They disrespect the grieving, suggesting we should line up in ideological camps instead of doing every thing we possibly can to stop this happening again.
It’s galling, when you think of the thousands of women who live in pain and fear of leaving violent men, of the hundreds murdered when they try, of the eight women killed by current or former partners already this year, of the uncounted numbers of children who witness these grotesque, brutal acts, and spend the rest of their lives unspooling from them.
Victim blaming is embedded in our culture, and we need to confront and uproot it when we confront domestic violence.
Anger about victim blaming erupted on Thursday, when Detective Inspector Mark Thompson was speaking about the investigation of the deaths of Hannah Clarke and her three children, who were doused in petrol and set alight by their father in Brisbane’s Camp Hill.
“Our job as investigators is to keep a completely open mind. We need to look at every piece of information and — to put it bluntly — there are probably people out there in the community that are deciding which side, so to speak, to take in this investigation.
“Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of her husband, or is this an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?
“Because of that, that’s why I want people to come and speak to us.”
When asked to clarify these remarks, Thompson — who has since stood down from his position — said Queensland Police was not excusing violence, but that he anticipated people in the community would make such allegations (that Rowan Baxter had been “driven too far”).
If so, he asked them to “please come forward and substantiate those claims”.
Jess Hill, the author of See What You Made Me Do, told The Drum she was “blindsided” by his “incredibly clumsily framed” remarks.
“What I can’t fathom is [how] someone from the police service could frame a murder saying that … a man was driven too far and thus set his family on fire,” she said.
“That that would be the logical result of a man being pushed.”
Though some leapt to his defence, Commissioner Katarina Carroll said Thompson was “distraught and gutted” by the way he framed his words.
He was, she said “an extraordinarily committed, experienced and brilliant investigator”, who, “like the rest of us, believes that domestic violence is nothing but a scourge on society”.
But Rosie Batty said, with evident grief, that she was “deeply concerned” by some commentary.
“No-one is ‘driven’ to murder, no matter the circumstances or situation they find themselves in,” she said.
“Murder is a decision that is deliberate and driven by the need to exact revenge and achieve the ultimate act of power and control.
“Although mental health, drugs and alcohol can be contributing factors, violence is always a choice and one that we should not continue to make excuses for.”
There are no ‘sides’ in this debate
One basic premise we can surely all agree on is that the slaughter of women and children, of anyone, is wrong, inexcusable and criminal.
But he was reflecting what some people believe. From reading some public commentary, you might be forgiven for thinking there were two points of view about women killed by violent men.
That it might be, for example, women’s fault.
In 2016, a former political leader said men hit women as a “coping mechanism”, blamed feminists for “demonising men” and making men who abuse partners “feel worse about themselves”.
He also attacked Rosie Batty, a woman who has suffered greatly and worked hard — at some personal cost — to ensure others would not endure the pain she has, falsely suggesting she was “causing more harm than good”.
For years, some columnists have slammed the “domestic violence bandwagon” pushed by the “professional virtuous” and blamed violence on “unsuitable women” having kids with “feckless men”.
These commentators claim women may misuse AVOs and abuse domestic violence leave policies.
Police say domestic violence is under, not over, reported. False allegations are extremely rare. So why do some still say women make these things up?
It’s not an abstract debate — in Australia — one in three people believe if women do not leave a violent relationship, they are partly responsible for it.
A quarter think women exaggerate male violence and 43 per cent think women fabricate claims of abuse to get an edge in divorce and custody proceedings.
When women are not believed, they will not seek help
Commissioner Carroll said the Queensland Police fielded 260 domestic violence “occurrences” a day. That’s about 100,000 a year.
The multiple agencies and NGOs work like a “machine behind the scenes”, she said.
“We work so hard, altogether. Like, we don’t have a difference of opinion on this. We want to stop it, and stop it as soon as possible,” Carroll said.
“And our challenge is that it’s not happening. Our challenge is, in fact, that I think it’s underreported. And it’s difficult to tell how much underreporting takes place, but I know, from talking to domestic violence services, that people will go to them and haven’t reported it to police.
“So, we are talking about a scourge in society that we all have to stand up and take a stance and be responsible and have the discussion and say, ‘This has got to stop’.”
Culture wars only ultimately thwart action, and sap political will to address a problem. Suggesting there is an inevitability and explicability to male violence only enables it.
If we are going to stop it, the key is not to politicise it.
There are so many crucial questions. Why weren’t Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey better protected?
Why are there so many holes in the family court system? What do we do about the backlog of cases? Why didn’t the AVO work? What could have been done better?
Why did the family’s myriad interactions with the police in the months before three tiny children and their mother were doused with petrol and set alight one Wednesday morning on their way to school not save them?
We are all bystanders now, on that suburban street billowing with smoke and sorrow.
And all of us need to work out what to do now.