Domestic violence and the welfare state

Australia’s domestic violence crisis was spotlighted recently, due to a series of horrific incidents in Queensland that included the deaths of two women on the Gold Coast and a machete attack on a woman at Wacol. Political and popular demands for decisive national leadership addressing the domestic homicide epidemic led to Australia’s then-prime minister Tony Abbott and his frontbencher Christopher Pyne making public statements calling for public courage and new values. More recently, Malcolm Turnbull, in his first major announcement as the new prime minister, has ‘upped the ante’ calling for a ‘cultural shift’ to challenge the misogynistic attitudes which support and legitimate violence against women.

This rush to reclaim and reposition national ‘values’ and ‘culture’ is peculiarly context free. Such statements create the strategic impression of action and leadership, but also conveniently skate over deeper cultural and political issues of how vulnerability to violence is compounded by intersections of social class, race and ethnicity. By invoking the often-repeated claim that domestic violence transcends all social class boundaries, neoliberal politicians effectively avoid responsibility for creating a ‘lean and mean’ policy environment that makes some women more vulnerable to abuse. While Malcolm Turnbull may present as a more credible and palatable spokesperson on social issues than his predecessor, he holds the same essentially economistic line of neoliberalism – an ideology which fundamentally contradicts values of social justice and collective social responsibility.

While domestic violence is at last receiving some public attention, there are still certain aspects of the issue that remain relatively hidden. How Indigenous women are disproportionately subjected to domestic violence is rarely mentioned. How socioeconomic status makes some women more vulnerable not only to violence but to incarceration is another controversial issue avoided in the rush to take a stand.

It suits the neoliberal agenda to imagine family violence as an aberration committed by a few dysfunctional individuals in need of correction and education. Speaking in populist grand generalities also disguises the reality that neoliberal governments have been undermining social services, social responsibility and commitment to the public good for decades. Abbott, Pyne and now Turnbull have invoked social values, calling for courage to take a stand in the face of Australia’s national DV crisis.

Yet, compassion is not a value that fits with the neoliberal model. At least since Thatcher and Reagan, neoliberal values have stood for ‘let the market decide’ and ‘let the weak go to the wall’. Thatcher famously declared, remember, that there was no such thing as society – and what lurked behind closed doors was apparently private family business. Attitudes are at last changing. But difficult questions still need to be asked about how domestic violence intersects with other forms of disadvantage, which are often compounded by neoliberal cutbacks to the welfare state.

Making welfare harder to get (for women forced to flee the home with no documentation, for example), increasing economic inequality, enacting policies that make education and housing more expensive, cutting community legal centres, cutting back or casualising work in the social service or ‘caring’ professions are all actions that do not support women –  especially economically disadvantaged women. Neoliberal cutbacks to public housing, public health, public education and legal aid have created a perfect storm for the most vulnerable in our communities.

There is a bitter contradiction in grand statements about ‘taking a stand against violence’ when women’s shelters and other frontline services which support the most vulnerable in our society have been closed or cut back to serve the neoliberal agenda of small government. Indeed, crisis shelters represent the last resort of a still mostly underground epidemic, where women are locked into abusive relationships because they simply have nowhere else to go. A housing affordability crisis has existed for decades in many parts of Australia, due in part to neoliberal policies which reward the wealthy (such as negative gearing) and punish the disadvantaged (through cutbacks to public housing, for example). As such, it is increasingly difficult for single women on a low income or women with children to find safe, affordable long-term accommodation.

While a rethink of values is necessary to end the violence, neoliberalism (that is, competitive individualism) cannot offer support to those who need it most. Community, empathy, social responsibility and a commitment to the social good are the values that may bring about a real cultural change for the better.

These values were demonstrated recently by members of the community in Wacol, Queensland, when a neighbor rushed in to save a woman under attack from her armed former partner. Other neighbors in the same street then offered the victim shelter in their homes. It would be nice to think our national leaders would demonstrate the same moral courage, but it is unlikely those at the top of the social and cultural hierarchy would ever be put to such a test. They could, however, try putting adequate funding and resources back into providing secure shelter and holistic support to women in need, and not only for the short-term.

Stopping violence against women is not just a question of culture, but also of political economy. Stopping violence would require reversing the neoliberal legacy of decades of cutbacks to state services and community centres. If Malcolm Turnbull wants to put social responsibility back on his party’s agenda it’s going to cost more than $100 million to ‘put his money where his mouth is’.

Ironically, one of the most vocal recent critics of Turnbull’s new softer version of liberalism is right-wing Daily Telegraph commentator and social conservative, Miranda Devine. Devine is right to be cynical of Turnbull’s play to attract the female vote with catch-all statements about ‘respecting women’. She is also right to draw attention to the rarely mentioned role of social class in family violence and the concentration of reported domestic violence incidents in low socioeconomic postcodes.

Sadly, her solution is to apparently blame the victim(s) for their own desperate circumstances and supposed bad choices. Devine claims ‘welfare traps’ have ‘emasculated men’ and ‘create the conditions for domestic violence’. This radical conservative discourse attempts to revive the worst excesses of Thatcherism at a time when there is actually little nanny state left to attack. It also overlooks the role of structural factors which limit the life ‘choices’ available to many women. Such right-wing radicalism is not only mean-spirited, it is also outdated. The ‘desperate chaos of the underclass,’ which Devine discerns, is compounded not by the welfare state, but by neoliberal attempts to dismantle it. The problem may not be too much government, but too little. Certainly, when the state has effectively abandoned care and responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens, it is too little too late to talk about implementing ‘cultural change’.

We also need to do better at recognising the signs of violence before it escalates. The woman who was beaten to death by her former partner on the Gold Coast recently had allegedly been to the police to report abusive text messages sent to her mobile phone. Police clearly need training on how to recognise and respond to communication-technology enabled violence, and the gendered aspects of online abuse, electronic partner surveillance and harassment. In many cases the stalking and harassment begins in the digital world, starting with texts and social media, before it accelerates, often with horrific consequences. Telling women to turn off their phones and get off the internet is hardly solution – communication technology is now interwoven with our social and working lives.

The appalling assaults on women in recent weeks suggest police may not have the staffing, training or technology to adequately protect women, even when a ‘protection’ order is in place, so yes, this is a national crisis. But after decades of cutbacks, there is hardly a state left to respond (other than in the mediated rhetoric of political elites with little lived experience or real understanding of these social and cultural issues).

Conservative politicians push law and order ‘solutions’ to domestic violence and have done so energetically in the past few weeks so it appears that action is finally being taken to address this crisis. But there has been scant mention of the tragic link between domestic violence victimisation and incarceration – that is, how the legal system systematically re-victimises the victims of domestic violence. The neoliberal punitive agenda not only cuts back the welfare state, it criminalises those most dependent upon it. Characteristics of female prisoners typically include histories of sexual assault and domestic violence. Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable, doubly disadvantaged by gender and race. A significant proportion of the Indigenous women going to prison have acquired brain injury and other disabilities, often the result of violence by current or former partners.

Breaking these crippling cycles requires more than mediated statements about culture and values. It requires real, material, holistic and ongoing support for vulnerable people and adequate funding for those who support them. Now is the time for raised awareness of domestic violence to be channelled into real political and economic change in the interests of social justice.


Susan Hopkins

Susan Hopkins is a senior lecturer in the Open Access College at the University of Southern Queensland, Ipswich campus, Australia. Susan holds a PhD in social science and a Masters (Research) in education. Her research interests include gender and media studies.

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Jenny Ostini

Jenny Ostini is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Digital Futures Collaborative Research Network at the University of Southern Queensland. She is a qualitative social scientist and media studies researcher who is interested in the production, consumption, use, and transformation of knowledge, and social change in a digital environment. She is @follysantidote on Twitter.

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  1. Thanks for writing this, Susan and Jenny.

    I think it’s impossible to separate DV from the economic and sociopolitical structures in which we live. Gendered violence doesn’t occur out of nowhere — just as sexism itself is not innate — and any successful progressive approach to dealing with it needs to have a material basis, or it is as good as hot air.

    FWIW I wrote something similar for the Drum earlier this year when campaigns for a punitive approach to VAW were coming thick and fast from the left as well as the right:

  2. Thoughtful article and well put.

    For what it’s worth as well, I would opine that education, socio-economico-political restructuring, plus a push to abolish gender, and, to begin with, as with rape, making domestic violence a crime against women, may all be necessary to eradicate the endemic misogyny upon which domestic violence is founded.

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