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Let's get really tough on domestic thugs

Sending more bullies to jail might help.

During summer, like many other Australians, I spend as much time as I can at the beach. The local pizza bar has a popular seafood pizza called "Shark Alley". It's a bit of fun because the stretch of water just in front of the bar, which runs between The Bluff and a small island, is called the same thing by locals.

Nonetheless, I see people hopping into kayaks and heading out to the island, assuming they are skilled enough to never tip over or that they will be lucky and strike a shark-free day. I wouldn't risk it, but so what?

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The ocean is the sharks' home. They belong there; we don't. I find the hysteria over shark attacks during the summer revolting. We, civilised humans, behave as though the ocean is our play haven and the sharks are marauding vicious intruders. Then we set out to hunt and kill any shark that, in the course of its normal behaviour, takes a bite from intruding humans. Some sharks lose their lives just because we are frightened.

Parts of the media encourage the hysteria. Our heart strings are pulled by scenes of despairing relatives and friends of the victim. The invasion of their privacy in such difficult moments counts for nothing.

Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd says domestic violence victims get all the support they need.
Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd says domestic violence victims get all the support they need. 

Yet, the facts stand in stark contrast to the hysteria. Since the collection of records began in 1791, there have been fewer than 300 deaths by shark attack in Australia. That's about one a year. Given all the media attention, one might have expected a much higher number.

There's an even starker contrast. Compared with about one death a year by shark attack, we have one woman killed each week by domestic violence. That's about 52 a year. If that rate has been constant, that's 11,700 deaths by domestic violence since we started collecting data on those oh-so-dangerous sharks.

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Yet, our response to domestic violence is very limited, compared with our response to shark attacks. More often than not, when there are initial domestic violence attacks, we issue some sort of order to tell the perpetrators to keep their distance. If they ignore the order and go in for the kill, they will be pursued – but it's all a bit late. There's rarely a front-page story, a live cross or the whipping up of hysteria. It's just another woman killed by another man.

We hunt innocent sharks, we set up nets, but when it comes to violent thugs who beat women, we send them away with a notice saying, "Please keep away or we might do something".

At this time of year, we focus, briefly, on the road toll. It's about 1100 a year in Australia; that's more than 20 a week. It's a tremendous improvement on what it used to be – in absolute numbers, it's less than a third what it was in 1980. Per head of population, it's down to a quarter of the 1980 figure, and per car it's down to a tenth. That just goes to show, we can make a difference when we try.

Some road deaths are the result of genuine accidents. Many involve culpable driving, drink-driving or plain old negligence. We rarely report them on the front page, either. When we do, it's usually because kids are involved. Sometimes, we see the perpetrator leaving court after sentencing. At least a fair few of them go to jail.

It seems that if you kill and maim with a car, you might well go to jail. But beat women with your bare hands, physically and mentally mutilate them, and not much happens until you actually kill them.

Someone who works in this area recently suggested we should get rid of the state domestic violence laws and stick with straight-out assault charges. She says apprehended violence orders are a waste of time and resources. In effect, they tell the police there is a path they should take before proceeding to charge someone with assault. The laws are the result of politicians being asked by their constituents to do something. Sadly, all too many people and politicians unwisely think passing legislation is a good idea. It's easy to forget there has been a law against murder for a very long time and it has done little to stem the violence.

Beat women with your bare hands, physically and mentally mutilate them, and not much happens to you until you actually kill them.

We should think seriously about getting rid of domestic violence legislation and just dealing with the perpetrators as the thugs they are. That should apply to domestic violence, whoever the perpetrator, male or female.

Let's not get sucked in by the idea that prosecutions would be too difficult. Plenty of crimes involve the word of one person against another. What is difficult is kidding ourselves that we are civilised, when we lose so many people, the vast majority of whom are women, at the hands of uncontrolled thugs.

Over the years, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this problem. Some of the money has been well spent. But when a bucket of money comes into sight, the well-meaning, the capable, the ideologues and the incompetent are like bees to the honeypot. There's been a lot of research, which might well have advanced some academic careers, but not all of it is being successfully applied on a day-to-day basis. After all that, we still have the problem.

Our hard-working police are called out to domestic violence incidents on almost every shift. Perhaps putting a few more bullies in the slammer will encourage some others to think twice. Perhaps the real threat of a stint in jail where they might experience some sort of violence from other thugs their own size would have a salutary effect.

I know that many criminologists wouldn't agree with me – but they can't say that what we're doing now is working.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist with The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.

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