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Australia’s inadequate response to family violence

Australian of the Year and family violence campaigner Rosie Batty has suggested that family violence would be more accurately referred to as ‘family terrorism’.

If so named, she suggests the issue might receive the public and government attention it so richly deserves.

On that she’s absolutely correct.

In so doing, our 2015 Australian of the Year not only appropriates a more accurate description; one more likely to evoke an emotive national response.

Importantly, she also reminds us of the Australian, state and territory governments’ unequal response to issues deemed to be of national importance.

Consider this: if Australian governments managed national security the way they manage family violence, the focus would no longer be on preventing acts of terrorism.

Instead it would be on providing inadequate funding for programs and services to support victims of terrorism. And a half-hearted investment in educational programs designed to achieve generational shifts in attitudes in the hope of reducing terrorist acts 20 years down the road.

And Australians would die.

As the innocent victims of family violence do today.

Over 40 already this year.

Regardless of whether you believe Australia’s national security concerns to be exaggerated, understated or accurate – political theatre designed to distract, or a real and present danger – there can be no argument that our priority when combating terrorism cannot be one of resignation to the inevitable and an investment in body bags for the dead.

It must be, first and foremost, one of prevention.

And so it should with family violence.

Yet up to now, Australian governments haven’t given enough attention to preventing family violence.

As a nation, we can no longer accept the inevitability of these atrocities.

Our leaders must take determined steps to stop family violence before it happens.

That’s the first step.

But the next step, if governments are sincere, is to recognise the elephant in the room; to acknowledge the role of alcohol and to embrace evidence-based solutions that would address alcohol’s role in family violence.

Let me be very clear. Family violence is a crime. A crime neither excused, nor justified by alcohol.

Yet alcohol is significantly implicated, its involvement increasing both the incidence and severity of family violence.

Alcohol is involved in up to 65 per cent of family violence incidents reported to police and up to 47 per cent of child abuse cases in Australia. In over a third of intimate partner homicides, the perpetrator had consumed alcohol.

Far from being overwhelmed by this harsh reality, an acknowledgement of alcohol’s implication in family violence provides governments with a powerful opportunity to take meaningful action to prevent further tragedy.

The National framework for action to prevent alcohol-related family violence, the culmination of nine months of reviews of the evidence and consultation with professionals with expertise in public health, child protection and family violence, provides Commonwealth, state and territory governments with such an opportunity.

The Framework is a complete and balanced package of measures that recognise the importance of prevention while not abandoning the absolute necessity that governments continue to support those already affected and assist and protect those most vulnerable and includes:

  • Restrictions on trading hours, a licencing freeze or buybacks in areas saturated with liquor licences and the termination of all 24 hour liquor licences;
  • The introduction of a levy on alcohol products to pay for the costs incurred by government in responding to family violence, together with long overdue alcohol tax reform;
  • Longer term, sustained funding for the alcohol and other drugs and family violence sectors, which are currently threatened by budget cuts;
  • A shared model of care between alcohol and other drug services, mental health services, intimate partner violence services, perpetrator programs and child protection services; a ‘no wrong door’ approach that ensures those in need and those at risk receive the care and protection they require; and
  • Innovative programs for perpetrators of family violence that specifically aim to change their behaviours.

Tough problems require tough solutions.

Governments must acknowledge the vast research and the irrefutable evidence that clearly links the availability of alcohol with family violence.

Governments must stop ducking and weaving, and act.

As a nation, we must be ready to demand that they do.

But prevention must be key to our efforts.

We cannot afford to wait for generational change.

Body bags and burials cannot continue to be the nation’s response to this mounting national tragedy.

Michael Thorn

Michael was was Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) from January 2011 until November 2019


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