Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak today. Firstly, I acknowledge that the land we are on is the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, pay my respect to Elders past and present and leaders of the future. We know this always was and always will be Gadigal land and it is our honour to be here and speak together today.
Thank you Chair and committee members for inviting us to join you today. You have seen our written submission and so I don’t need to go over it in detail in this introduction.
The criminalisation of coercive control has become a matter of some public debate, in which a complex issue has often been reduced to a binary – either for or against criminalisation narrative.
While there is some political pressure in some jurisdictions for swift legislative action to criminalise and move on, for most people engaged in the conversation there is far more nuance than simply being for or against enacting this reform. I want to touch on those deeper aspects of the debate a little today and recognise that people on both sides of that somewhat false binary have a great deal in common.
White Ribbon Australia is one of the organisations who have publicly called for coercive control to be criminalised, for a range of reasons – one of the key ones being the fact that we are regularly hearing from women, victims and survivor advocates who are saying that they can finally see themselves and their experiences in this description of intimate partner violence, and who want to see an outdated law explicitly reflect what many women describe as the worst aspect of the violence they have experienced. Criminalising coercive control will improve the visibility of the complex nature of family and domestic violence, bringing the law up to date with something that has been understood for decades – we are essentially advocating for the criminalisation of the power and control wheel co-created by Ellen Pence.
Secondly, laws help us clearly articulate what society believes is ok and not ok. We regularly hear from both men and women words to the effect of, “I just thought that’s how relationships were?” or “I had never experienced another kind of relationship growing up” or even, “this is the way it’s always been in our family.” This is why we have criminalised marital rape, people have fought for strangulation offences, or why there is a push to ban LGBTIQ+ conversion practices - and myriad other laws that protect people’s human rights to freedom and safety. We know something isn’t right. We know the harm it does. We want to unambiguous about that.
Thirdly, and perhaps the reason that has the most transformational potential of criminalising coercive control, is shifting the social, cultural and institutional understanding of family and domestic violence from individual incidence of physical violence to recognising that in the vast majority of cases intimate partner abuse is actually a pattern of harmful controlling behaviour. Instead of focussing on specific incidents of physical violence, the criminal code and the response can reflect the lives and experiences of victims by recognising, investigating and prosecuting a pattern of life-destroying behaviour. We believe we must explicitly recognise coercive control as criminal violence in and of itself – not because it may lead to physical violence or murder, but because exerting this type of power is an ongoing act of violence.
Coercive control is a pattern of assault, threats, intimidation, humiliation and other abuse that erodes a person’s autonomy and ability to flourish – and this abhorrent misuse of power in a relationship is currently not a crime. To address some areas of concern – no, we do not believe that a law on its own is a panacea that will end the intimate terrorism that goes on in our nation. Culture and practice change will be required in the police, judiciary and broader society. There will need to be significant investment in training and education. There are challenges with crafting a law to ensure it doesn’t further criminalise already over-criminalised communities or have other unintended consequences.
Broad consultation and listening and learning to these communities as the detail of legislation is worked through will be essential. First Nations Australians in particular must be listened to and their advice taken on board. These are the some of the concerns raised by those who aren’t pushing for criminalisation – the police will need to be trained, the judiciary won’t understand, there needs to be broad consultation and careful crafting of these laws to avoid further harming women. We agree.
But because this is difficult does not mean it shouldn’t be done. We can learn from best practice globally – understand what has worked and where they would do things differently in hindsight. It also doesn’t mean other essential efforts are less important or that we can reduce our urgent advocacy for other reforms and or don’t continue our action towards cultural change.
Of course, we need to keep addressing the gender inequality and gender norms that create the space for the abuse of power and controlling violence.
Gender inequality leads to entitlement, the expectation that your preferences, desires, opinions and decisions deserve to be prioritised over others, it breeds disrespect and creates an environment where not being in control undermines your entitled sense of self. This can lead to ever-more controlling and coercive behaviours. And so we continue to strive, in primary prevention organisations like White Ribbon Australia, to end gender inequality and eliminate all forms of men’s violence and abuse.
Along the way to that vision, a clear declaration to society that we will not tolerate or excuse the pattern of devastating torment that traps victims in relationships characterised by fear and manipulation will help protect women, change our collective understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship and even more clearly articulate the horrific impact of gender inequality on our communities.
Thankyou Chair, Committee members and colleagues.
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