The Re-Conceptualisation of Domestic Violence under the Howard Government since 1996

Article excerpt

Since its election in 1996, the Liberal Coalition Federal Government led by John Howard has engaged significantly with the issue of domestic violence in Australia. Throughout its administration the Howard government has distanced itself from the feminist structural approach to domestic violence, which had been widely legitimised and accepted by 1996: it de-gendered policies and the language of domestic violence and rejuvenated and extended the outdated 'cycle of violence' approach to understanding domestic violence. The Howard government's re-conceptualisation of domestic violence intentionally avoids recognition of the 'gender dynamic' that is intrinsic to domestic violence in Australia. Recognising the gender dynamic to such violence is crucial, for as Jocelynne Scutt propounds in Women and the Law, while sometimes men are hit by their wives, 'the level and frequency of sexual, physical and psychological violence against women in the domestic setting far exceeds violence inflicted on men'. (1) The gender dynamic of domestic violence results directly from the broader oppression and inequality experienced by women in Australian society.

Prior to the Howard Re-conceptualisation: The Feminist Structural Analysis of Domestic Violence

While significant public and professional interest in the issue of domestic violence can be traced to before the First World War, debates around the appropriate way to understand the causes of domestic violence in Australia became most pronounced, controversial and sophisticated subsequent to the Women's Liberation Movement which emerged in Australia during the 1970s. Feminist discourse on domestic violence in this period shifted popular, policy and theoretical emphases away from women's supposed predisposition to victimisation and the public/private dichotomy towards a gender-based, structural analysis. (2)

During the early 1980s feminist advocates were able to work, to some degree, with the government in addressing the issue of domestic violence. In 1981 a committee was convened by the department of Premier and Cabinet to examine problems associated with domestic violence, (3) resulting in the publication of Criminal Assault In The Home in 1985. (4) The text is significant because it is the first attempt by feminists and the government to define the nature, prevalence and cause of domestic violence in Australia. It recognises the gender dynamic inherent to domestic violence in Australia:

   Myth 4: "Men Are Also The Victims of Domestic Violence": The
   victims of domestic violence are almost exclusively female. In part
   this is due to differences in the socialisation of men and women;
   men are trained to be aggressive and dominant whilst women are
   reared to be passive. It is also due to the relative economic and
   social powerlessness of women. (5)

This text identifies the two key elements of the feminist conceptualisation of domestic violence, an approach widely accepted prior to the Howard government's re-conceptualisation: firstly, the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, men are the perpetrators of domestic violence and women are the victims; secondly, that this inequality results from broader inequalities experienced by women, and benefited from by men, in Australian society. These inequalities stem from the patriarchal structuring of society and manifest in the distinct and ongoing economic, social and political oppression and disadvantage of women. (6)

The Extent of Domestic Violence in Australia under Howard

Since 2003 the United Nations and Amnesty International have confirmed that domestic violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness for women aged between 15-44 years of age in Australia.' Men perpetrate over ninety percent of intimate partner violence against women, and it is modestly estimated that ten times as many Australian women experience domestic violence from the age of fifteen than men. …