Two days before Christmas, the freshly anointed premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, announced the establishment of a royal commission on family violence. “The whole system is broken,” he said. “It doesn’t protect the vulnerable, it doesn’t punish the guilty and more of the same policies will only mean more of the same tragedies.” Andrews pledged to adopt all of the commission’s eventual recommendations.

The issue – preposterous in scale – was finally receiving an almost proportionate political attention. Rosie Batty would be named Australian of the Year the following month. Newspapers were devoting front pages to murdered mothers. It was tempting to consider the wave of public sentiment cresting. The issue of family violence had long been complacently dismissed – the problem, always, of “others”. But this felt different.

This was the commission’s third and penultimate week. Each day had been devoted to a new theme – intervention orders, drugs, financial vulnerability. Consulting the various submissions, it is obvious that the sector comprises competing philosophies and personalities – police, academics, counsellors, clinicians, volunteers.

But as I watch the polite examinations of professionals, I also watch the fissure lines vanish. The politics is rendered invisible. And not for the first time I wonder if family violence is an issue that both benefits and suffers from its enhanced publicity.

Victoria Police campaign

In 2013 I went to work for Ken Lay, chief commissioner of Victoria Police, as a speechwriter and later an adviser. It would prove to be a happy contrast to my time working in Canberra where, enmeshed in the cogs of government, I was effectively employed to bludgeon language in the shadows. I was jaded, and in an early interview I shared with Lay my scepticism about media advisers and public communications. Few had an appetite for explaining complication or contingency, I said. Many chose the camouflage of platitudes. Their lives were hysterically defensive – public life was never an opportunity to embrace, but a minefield to negotiate. Success was defined in the negative – the avoidance of controversy was valued above illumination. I gave examples from my time in Canberra, and Lay listened and nodded his head.

My candour was less a gambit to distinguish myself, than it was a simple conviction – I would not relive my experience in the federal bureaucracy. If Lay considered me naive, reckless or grandiose, then he should employ someone else.

We were equally aware of the power of a police chief speaking about “warped and misspent masculinity”.

When I started, in between drafting internal memos and graduation speeches, I began examining crime stats. I had a wealth of data, but also access to talented and engaged police officers, statisticians and policy advisers to explain them to me when I had questions, which was often. Quickly, I noted the scope of domestic violence. It was huge. This week, Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius estimated it engages between 40 and 60 per cent of police time, discounting trial appearances.

What also became clear as I worked for the chief commissioner was that the scale of the problem was not generating a proportionate amount of discussion – from police, or from the media. This was hardly a revelation. It was certainly not news to the people working in crisis centres and referral teams in the community. It was not news to advocates and abuse victims. But, I thought, perhaps the police chief’s office could help. It was surely the job of the office to reflect the reality of policing – and not to parrot the illusory versions of it in the media.

Lay guided me, sketching themes and giving me newspaper articles that piqued him. He was intent upon sophisticated candour and cultural leadership. Many of my colleagues in his office had worked on this issue for years; many were happy to help and provide experience and knowledge I didn’t have. But my proximity to the chief helped, and he lent me his ear. I spoke with detectives from sexual assault teams, women from refuge shelters. I liaised with the media team, bouncing ideas off them.

In speeches and op-eds Lay used the gravity of his office to enlarge community understanding and sympathy. We were aware of the irony: that a man in uniform quickly assumed an authority on the issue that had evaded many women over many years, but we were equally aware of the potency of the office, the power of a police chief speaking about “warped and misspent masculinity”. It had never really happened before.

Acknowledging Lay’s stature, and its implications of strength and uncomplicated decency, we knew our audience would be as much men as women. We knew Lay could shame men who treated women as toys, conscript others to an issue that women had historically borne, and encourage fathers to speak to their boys about sexual conduct. But it would also be an opportunity to tell victims that they were believed, and to encourage a faith in Victoria Police. When Lay spoke at the National Press Club, we noted an increase in women reporting abuse.

Soon, there was momentum. Much of it attributable to Lay’s thoughtfulness and humility. The Herald Sun joined the initiative, and devoted many front pages to the issue. We began working on campaigns together. It was encouraging. But momentum on a public issue is capricious and mostly uncontrollable. It sweeps up its participants. You become beholden to it. And soon the narrative we helped devise – that gendered assumptions fed abuse – began to overwhelm us. I wrote things I now regret, things that remain unchallenged in the royal commission.

Narrowing the debate

Working with Lay, I spoke with many impressive, impassioned people. It was one of the pleasures of the job. Some had spent their professional lives pressed against what seemed an insurmountable wave of abuse. But among many, a socio-constructivist model of abuse had been adopted – simply, that male violence against women was solely an expression of patriarchy; proof that gendered expectations had turned rancid, tyrannical. Subscribers to this view found awesome resonance in Lay’s statements about male entitlement.

The problem, I thought, was that the theory was incomplete. The socio-constructivists had correctly diagnosed some diseases of modern masculinity, but their explanation was far from everything. In its most ardent form, it ignored the literature of psychiatrists and criminologists, professions that respected the complexity of criminality. So while I believed in everything I wrote, I wasn’t happy with how it was being exaggerated, turned into a Great Theory that explained violence against women. And as the momentum grew, these ideas became cemented, inarguable, when they should have been subject to debate.

I had written a line about a “spectrum” of abuse, how the guy who wolf-whistles the woman is displaying the same sort of entitlement as the nominal rapist. I don’t think I expressed it that simply, but that was certainly a belief of many feminists with whom I spoke. It is a specious argument. It discredits psychiatry and common sense to draw a straight line between the wolf-whistler and Adrian Bayley – to meaningfully connect casual vulgarity with a profound pathological aberration. That Bayley had preyed upon many sex workers before murdering Jill Meagher says something, perhaps, about
the culturally created vulnerability of that profession, but his crimes do not meaningfully reflect the State of Man, or any other grand, scientifically challengeable theory. Regardless, the “spectrum” line is part of a gospel – canonised by repetition.

That the socio-constructivist approach often resists scientific validation was confirmed in a submission made to the commission by the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science (CFBS). It was in regard to Men’s Behaviour Change groups (MBC), intervention services that attempt to correct the behaviour of male perpetrators. These therapy groups are largely overseen by the non-profit organisation No to Violence, and receive funding from the Victorian government. Referrals may come formally – via police or courts – or from the affected families or the men themselves. MBCs function according to the Duluth model – a sort of Holy Grail among socio-constructivists – which posits that “domestic violence is the result of patriarchal ideology in which men are encouraged and expected to control their partners”, according to criminologists Wayne Bennett and Kären Hess. The Duluth model originated from the eponymous town in Minnesota, United States, in the early 1980s.

The problem identified by the centre for forensic behavioural science was that the MBC’s Duluth philosophy was unhelpfully narrow. It ideologically discarded any contributing factors to the perpetrator’s crimes other than his gender. The MBC philosophy reflects a very old and very common anxiety – that the attempt to explain violence leads inexorably to its exculpation. Presumably it would lead also to the diminishment of the Duluth model itself. “There is almost no reference to the principles of evidence-based practice in offender assessment and rehabilitation in the international literature or practice settings for family violence,” the CFBS submission reads. “This is in large part due to the predominance in both academic and social service settings of explanatory theories that singularly attribute male perpetration of family violence against women and children to a gendered sense of entitlement, power and control.

“The predominance of this social systems-level theory in the family violence field is at odds with the predominant explanatory theories of criminal behaviour in general, which utilise an individual-level psychological explanation… Indeed, the MBC program philosophy explicitly states that individual, psychological-level factors such as mental health, personality disorder, or substance abuse cannot be causal of family violence and any attempt to pursue an understanding of these factors in treatment is akin to finding excuses for violent behaviour… Failing to assess these factors may have the unfortunate consequence of having an offender’s criminogenic needs, and their true violence risk, being unaddressed.”

There is another consequence to this narrowness. By focusing almost entirely upon intimate partner violence, it ignores all other forms of domestic violence – parent on child, child on parent, and that committed by sibling on sibling. This last category, it was revealed in this commission, may account for the largest proportion of domestic violence. “US figures suggest that sibling violence is actually the most common family violence,” the CFBS submission says. “Child to parent violence is poorly understood, but recent and as yet unpublished research at the CFBS found that one in five university students sampled had abused a parent… Despite this, the family violence service sector in Victoria responds almost exclusively to adult female victims (and dependent children) and adult male perpetrators of intimate partner violence. This approach misses at least 30 per cent of family violence situations.”

Regardless, the reporting regimes for these groups are paltry. More than one bureaucrat has told me this week that the groups are required simply to report to government – who fund them – on the numbers of men treated. No measure of efficacy is asked for, which is important, because a number of international studies are highly doubtful about their effectiveness. 

Little of this has been explored in the commission’s hearings. The whole process seems smoothed by politeness, and an unwillingness to reconcile the contradictions that appear in the submissions.

Ignoring the evidence

Another thing I regret is a reluctance to contemplate socioeconomic factors. In Lay’s office I ignored the data and wrote lines that reflected the socio-constructivists: that every woman was equally vulnerable to abuse, regardless of class, suburb or salary. In fact, it quickly became anathema to mention socioeconomic factors. In its giant 300-page submission to the commission, the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria never mentions unemployment, poverty or other socioeconomic indicators, except on the issue of filicide. The omission is startling, and exists in many other submissions. The Victoria Police contribution does mention it, though only briefly.

The World Health Organisation is not so reticent. In a 2002 report on violence, it says: “Women living in poverty are disproportionately affected [by family violence]. It is as yet unclear why poverty increases the risk of violence – whether it is because of low income in itself or because of other factors that accompany poverty, such as overcrowding or hopelessness. For some men, living in poverty is likely to generate stress, frustration and a sense of inadequacy for having failed to live up to their culturally expected role of providers.”

But the police couldn’t say it. The concept of equal exposure to violence was repeated so often that it fossilised into truth. I think many have come to actually believe it. Certainly, it became scandalous to raise the issue of socioeconomics – it would be an act of apostasy. In their submission, the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria observed: “While anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of family violence, family violence is predominantly committed by men against women, children and other vulnerable persons… [It] affects the entire community and occurs in all areas of society, regardless of location, socioeconomic and health status, age, culture, gender, sexual identity, ability, ethnicity or religion.”

You’ll note the qualification of point one – which is entirely reasonable – but the absence of qualification in point two. I’m unsure how to reconcile this.

This week, I studied Victorian statistics on family violence, stretching from 2009 until 2014. They’re detailed. You can examine them per local government area, and I noted the 10 areas that recorded the most family violence incidents. Cross-referenced with Australian Bureau of Statistics data, each area was below the national average wage. Well below.

It was never made explicit by anyone that Victoria Police shouldn’t mention socioeconomic factors, either within or outside the force. The momentum we had begun, but couldn’t entirely manage, swept us away. And there were certainly benefits. A police chief speaking righteously, and striking a register that hadn’t been heard before, meant men were just that little more introspective. Ken Lay received calls from public figures who had been positively challenged by his words. Trust in Victoria Police increased. We developed unprecedented alliances. Newspapers were piggybacking. And, on the most arrogant level, my anger about deadhead thugs mistreating women I knew was being filtered through one of the most powerful offices in Victoria.

The momentum was too much; I resigned to it. That meant ignoring my gut, which said that as important as these cultural issues were – and as obvious as the benefits were – certain truths were becoming casualties. We should have been discussing socioeconomic factors, among other things. We had unwittingly become braided with the Duluth model and, while we supported it, it became apparent to me that an overwhelming emphasis upon it was int
ellectually dishonest.

I suspected – and still do – that all this was coldly strategic. That to narrow the issue would be to narrow sympathy. There was a rhetorical sleight of hand, practised collectively but unwittingly, to remove anything that distracted from the public’s total focus on male attitudes. The introduction of socioeconomic factors, or any other factors, would be too damaging – that “the people” didn’t care about the poor, and if we made this a “poor issue” we wouldn’t make it an issue at all. I also think that the discussion of any contributing factors would have contradicted the social-constructivist theories – that violent male privilege evenly soaks our society, and discriminates against nothing other than women.

Politics and dogma

This is not a grand renunciation of any of the work done by Ken Lay and the force he led – far from it. Cultural attitudes and gender roles contribute to violence. It’s that simple. There is much to recommend the Duluth model, and its descriptions of male control and manipulation. More than one abused woman has told me how revelatory it was, how it described her disempowerment – a disempowerment she hadn’t previously recognised.

It is also effective. My professional and personal life confirms to me the importance of isolating male attitudes, and discussing the subtle or unsubtle forms of patriarchal control. But I regret the dogmatic emphasis I helped force upon the constructivist view, and the way the applause it generated distorted my instincts. Despite my determination to confront complexity, it is a grim truth of politics that many effective campaigns rely upon its diminishment. Ultimately, I contributed to this.

Commission a missed opportunity

Domestic violence has become a highly politicised area, and the ideological and personal factions ultimately don’t fully serve victims. It is important that the issue is receiving attention – it would be better if refuges and referral services received proper funding. But the commission could have been more inquisitorial, examining the political borderlines.

It seems a missed opportunity for the government. A chance to broker a new covenant: greater government attention and funding, in exchange for new regimes of accountability. If at any point the government thought that making demands of the sector would appear unseemly or hostile, here was an opportunity for the commission to play the bad guy – its independence would grant the government an alibi. Perhaps this is still possible – the commission’s findings aren’t due until early next year. But if these past weeks are anything to go by, the status quo is unlikely to be challenged.