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Resisting Interpretation: The Perpetrator and Domestic Violence in Australia

A parliament of tears, or at the very least, a chamber of parliamentarians keen to shed tears. It all seemed that a feeling of genuine empathy was streaming forth in Australia’s national capital in February. A mother, Hannah Clarke, and her three children (reciting their names is now political ritual: Aaliyah, Laianah, Trey), had been killed by a former partner and their father. The ingredients of cruelty, and their cataclysmic denouement, were there: incessant harassment, stalking, nursed thoughts of pre-meditative violence. Then came the car, the incineration of Clarke and the children, and the perpetrator taking his own life.

How such stages of ceremony preserve their solemnity, and sincerity, is a difficult thing. Do you ham it up, remain stoic or seek that slim middle ground of balanced sorrow? Australia has a domestic violence problem on both the levels of reality (it is colossal) and the way solutions are put forth (often inadequate). Then there is the hypocrisy that comes with political appropriation. To elevate an act of incessant barbarity to a representative podium can serve to singularise it. For the Australian context, domestic violence is neither singular nor infrequent. It patches the landscape of interactions between the country’s citizens.

The deaths have prompted the squirreling types of the academy to ponder how perpetrators are portrayed. Those wishing to see things in terms of gender frames take issue with a media that, in Denise Buiten’s words, fails “to provide domestic violence resources such as 1800Respect in their reporting of these cases.” The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, tweeted on the Clarke killings but finished it with a Lifeline support number. Even in a message with 280 characters, he was scolded for not providing a list of sources on domestic violence.

Buiten falls into that classic analytical trap: the either-or school of reference, the temptations of a convenient demonology. Presumption dictates all: the father behind the killings could not have been mentally ill, she implies, but was “gendered” in his approach, a natural-born woman hater caged by convention. The point that he might have been mentally unstable and misogynistically muddled is simply a step too far, the very sort of holistic appraisal that is championed yet rarely applied. Domestic violence, like the Holocaust, is an absolute that resists understanding. Wide-ranging efforts to do so will be condemned, if not quashed altogether.

The prime minister is not exempt from this categorising tendency either. Being obsessed by a country near infallible, an Australia beyond comparison to other countries, he asked parliamentarians how “such evil” happened “on our land.” The actions of the estranged husband Rowan Baxter were those “of a depraved and evil man.”

Hannah Clarke pictured with her husband and three young children – Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey. (Facebook)

Thinking of the perpetrator in terms other than pre-allocated categories dominates the reaction to such horrendous violence. Leader of the Opposition, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, for instance, inadvertently made the case against interpretation by suggesting that the murderous conduct of Baxter was “quite frankly…just beyond comprehension.” The nagging sense behind such comments is that explanation constitutes excuse, not reasoning. Best not make an effort to understand; the darkness excludes.

Sharon Claydon, Labor member for Newcastle, was adamant in her tribute that the slayer was “a cowardly criminal, and anyone who says otherwise is part of the problem.” An aspect of this came through with the fury against the loose-tongued Bettina Arndt, long known as the female face of male rights Down Under. Arndt’s colossal faux pas was to suggest that the Queensland police were “keeping an open mind and awaiting proper evidence, including the possibility that Rowan Baxter might have been driven too far.” For Claydon, her Order of Australia needed to be removed.

The Arndt intervention gave politicians a chance to rage about the granting of honours rather than an explication about the causes of domestic violence. Labor Senators Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally moved a motion that Arndt’s comments were “reckless and abhorrent” and inconsistent “with her retaining her Order of Australia.” A luminous alibi for a social ill had been found.

The approaches to such instances of violence become heavy with information kits, attachments for support, ideas that behaviour can be ringed, medicated and domesticated. The purse is open for more programs on inducing behavioural change. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston made an announcement in the immediate aftermath of the Clarke deaths that $2.4 million would be made available for four programs. But even in the tributes, there was a feeling among politicians that money, and community awareness programs, are blunt, poorly evaluated instruments. Tim Watts, Federal Labor member for Gellibrand, recalled the murder, in plain view of the main street in his electorate, of constituent Fiona Warzywoda. “Sometimes it feels like we have made very little progress since then.”

An overview of such “behaviour change programs,” specifically directed at men, is delved into by Rebecca Stewart and Breanna Wright. The authors note that a “minimum standards manual, developed by NTV [the No to Violence initiative], has been highly influential nationally.” While the object here “is to shift attitudes and beliefs that are well-established drivers of men’s violence against women, so as to change their behaviour,” the material on whether they actually do so is “scarce.”

Some political representatives are keen to use the law, whatever its limitations, to influence the family structure. Parliamentarian Graham Perrett of Moreton suggested to his fellow lawmakers that the “presumption of equal shared parental responsibility” outlined in the Commonwealth Family Law Act be removed. Call it, he suggested, “Hannah Clarke’s amendment.” Its existence “incentivises violent men to litigate and is dangerous to women and children escaping domestic violence.” The law, as ever, supplies a normative cord that is hard to sever.

Legislation and lawmakers are limited in terms of altering human conduct, as they should be. The historical record is heavy with governments and regimes that have insisted on the social engineering imperative, the mechanisms so troublingly depicted by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange. Much like humanitarianism and charity, an industry has developed around understanding the insidious presence of violence in the home and behind closed doors between the familiar and the intimate. The key questions remain stubbornly unanswered, leaving opinion-making spoilers and theoretical speculators to earn currency and plaudits. Moral cant and outrage is often a poor substitute for treatment and healing.