By Phil Barker
Social and community workers, counsellors, police, health workers, court and government officials, researchers, policy writers – everyone who works in the area of family violence – have one thing in common.
It is hope for the safety of women and children and hope that men who use family violence can change their beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and choices that has driven the work of No to Violence for 25 years.
It is hope that men, and the performance of masculinity that lies behind family violence, can change, that drives me, personally, every day.
Perhaps one of the most crucial shifts that needs to be embedded in our communities, is that if women and children choose to report or reveal abuse against them, they are believed.
This is why outrage erupted across the nation and from the ABC’s Q and A panel on Monday night, to an avalanche of horrified commentators, in and outside the sector, and millions of ordinary Australians on social media, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed One Nation leader and Senator Pauline Hanson to deputy chair another government investigation into the family law courts.
Hanson told the ABC last week, straight after the announcement of her appointment, that “there are people out there who are nothing but liars. I am hearing too many cases where parents are using domestic violence to stop the other parent seeing their children.”
Her obvious bias, demonstrated by her reference to “personal experience” of her son’s family court case involving domestic violence allegations as evidence, was too much for many campaigners.
Prominent anti-violence activist Rosie Batty said Hanson’s appointment was “completely unacceptable” and that Hanson’s “obvious agenda” made her unsuitable for the position.
Hayley Foster, chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW, succinctly nails why the Hanson appointment is so bitterly opposed by so many. “My heart sank. My fingers hurt. I couldn’t believe they would do it. It seemed so unnecessary and cruel. I thought of the women who would have to front that inquiry and front … a woman who believes they are lying.”
“Men who use violence will be emboldened by the rhetoric on women lying in the family law system. Boosting the men’s right propaganda of Pauline Hanson is only going to further endanger women and children,” tweeted Jess Hill, anti-family violence campaigner and author of the powerful and influential new book on family violence, See What You made Me Do on Tuesday.
Bolstered by public perception of family court as anti-men and of a high-profile Senator echoing those sentiments positioned as deputy chair of a Family Court inquiry, the words: “they won’t believe you anyway. “I’ll tell them you’re lying. You’re not taking my kids”, will surely have even greater resonance.
The news of this enquiry reinforces incorrect but widely held ideas the family court system is biased against men and driving men to suicide daily, as Hanson has claimed.
Hanson’s One Nation colleague, Malcolm Roberts, expressed the view, on camera, that the family court system causes men to “lash out in violence”. His baseless claim was, in turn, lashed succinctly by the Law Council of Australia as “irresponsible and plain stupid”.
The reality is the opposite.
A leading research piece on false domestic violence allegations referenced in Jess Hill’s book, now widely cited as the “Canadian study”, found that non-custodial parents, usually fathers, are most likely to make false allegations, making up 43 percent of total claims. Even neighbours and relatives outnumber false claims by mothers, who constitute only 14 percent of false allegations.
Those are the real numbers based on rigorous research.
But now the focus has swung even further the wrong way, with the burden of proof sitting squarely with the victim, when the spotlight needs to be directly on the perpetrator.
“This is a step backwards. When an Australian Senator accuses women of lying about family violence, it reinforces the difficulty for victim-survivors coming forward and creates an environment where they feel they will not be believed. At NTV our number one priority is the safety of women and children. Hanson’s claims and the decision to have her deputy chair of this inquiry flies in the face of that safety. We join many loud voices in saying Ms Hanson’s clear bias renders her unfit to lead a review of the family court system. Her public statements on family violence are incorrect, ill-informed and dangerous,” said No to Violence CEO, Jacqui Watt.
But nuggets of hope pop up in the strangest places. While I seethed over the prioritisation of the political agendas of the powerful and their cynical indifference to women and children’s safety, a scroll through Netflix provided me with a compelling counterpoint.
Last week I stumbled across the Netflix series Unbelievable, which, like many, including feminist writer Clementine Ford, I binged in delight. It’s based on a true story of a rape investigation that went, “brilliantly wrong” then “brilliantly right”. It delicately unpacks how easily a victim can be disbelieved, and the terrible impact it has. It shows how the male-dominated system bludgeons already damaged victims.
Sure, watching TV won’t save the world, but at least popular culture is doing the job of putting an alternative view to Hanson’s damaging nonsense to a broad audience. That’s a good thing, a little bit of hope.
(In my opinion, it’s must-watch TV. Do find it if you can. Also, Toni Collette’s performance tears it up!).
The Hanson appointment is a step backwards and heartbreaking for so many working so hard for change. But that simply makes the push for change more urgent.
The need for voices of dissent, around things like the appointment of a biased politician to a pointless and potentially damaging family court review, must become louder in response.
Hopefully, this debate will end up amplifying the that fact most people claiming to be family violence victims are telling the truth.
That’s the wonderful thing about hope. There’s always more of it.
If you need help addressing your use of family violence, call the Men’s Referral Service is at 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7