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Government pledges to act on domestic violence have failed to stop the spate of family murders. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Our family violence shame

Hanging on a tree on the corner of Devonshire and Hampshire roads in Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, is a ceramic heart tied to a branch with fishing wire. It’s surrounded by perhaps 50 other hearts, and on each one is penned, in black permanent marker, a message of hope, commemoration or mourning. 

On this particular heart is written: “RIP Rekiah O’Donnell. 11.10.13. Love, your little sister.” Last year, not far from this tree, O’Donnell was allegedly shot in the face with a handgun fired by her ex-partner, Nelson Lai. The shooting happened in Sunshine North, in a bedroom of the home of Lai’s parents. When police arrived, they found Nelson and his mother, Lina, trying to revive O’Donnell on a bed. Nelson’s father was sitting in the dining room. Rekiah O’Donnell was pronounced dead at the scene. She was 22. 

On the same corner is another tree, bearing what looks like exotic fruit – hand-knitted hearts of deep reds, blues and purples. It is also a commemorative tree, and on Tuesday this week hundreds of locals were helping add to them in silent vigil. 

This is the site of another murder – the stabbing of 33-year-old Fiona Warzywoda in front of many witnesses, on the busiest corner in Sunshine. Warzywoda had just left the office of her solicitor – only metres away – when Craig McDermott allegedly ambushed her. 

The federal member for the area, Labor backbencher Tim Watts, had only just left a meeting on Devonshire Road with the president of a community group. They were discussing community safety. “Given this context, when I first heard about the incident, my first reaction was to think it was a random assault gone wrong,” he said.

“As further details came to hand and the nature of the alleged incident became clear, the horror of someone being murdered on the busiest street in Sunshine during the lunchtime rush gave way to heavy depression. My response changed from ‘How could this happen?’ to ‘Oh no, not again.’” 

Empty promises

In 2010, Victorian opposition leader Ted Baillieu pledged to “make Victoria safe again” in his pitch for premier. Strange, given that during the previous decade total recorded crime was down 30 per cent, recorded offences down nearly 20 per cent and crimes against the person – independent of family violence – was down 0.6 per cent. Homicide gently trended downwards, too, from an already low figure, making for one of the lowest murder rates in the world. 

There was one startling exception, however, and it was almost ignored in that year’s campaign: family violence. In a pattern repeated across the country, it was increasing. In the years since the 2010 Victorian election, family violence statistics have rocketed upwards: 40,000 incidents in 2010-11; 50,000 in 2011-12; and, in the most recent reporting period, 60,000. 

Much of the increase is due to changes to mandatory reporting of family violence – first through a change in the code of practice governing its investigation in 2004, then through the Family Violence Protection Act of 2008. It is difficult to parse the numbers to determine what constitutes an increase in reporting versus an increase of incidence. But the numbers are soaring and few senior police – or those working in the area – believe it’s going to plateau soon. In Victoria and New South Wales, family violence comprises 40 per cent of police work. It’s similar in other jurisdictions. 

For something we care so much about, we speak poorly about law and order. We are content with anecdotes, or to summon phantoms in our appeals to legislators to secure us from barbarism. We have a fleeting and jaundiced view of courts; we distantly cheer the work of police, but few are bothered to learn much about what they do. 

The image of the lone and murderous stranger both haunts and comforts us. We revile the image, yet are drawn to it; it makes strange demands of our imagination and unhelpful ones of public policy. So it was in the 2010 election, when it was promised the streets Victorians so feared would be secured. Expenditure would reflect this. Missing was a courageous attempt to steer the ship of public assumption – to point out that the vast majority of serious crimes against the person happen in the home. 

There are very few political leaders willing to disabuse us of our more irrational fears. As a result, family violence has been a “boutique” concern – the province of gender politics and social workers – and it’s been made such by our concerns with bogymen. Despite the scale of the problem, it has never attracted proportionate funding or attention. 

The crime of inaction

It seems to have been largely forgotten, but in 2010 the federal Labor government released the 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. It was adopted by the Council of Australian Governments the following year, and assumed by the Abbott government when it took power. The minister for social services, Kevin Andrews, “retains overall responsibility for national plan policy and program”, according to a spokesperson.

You wouldn’t know it. In his six months as minister, Andrews hasn’t touched the issue. Not one speech, opinion piece or media release about the plan. I put it to Andrews’ office that there was a serious lack of commitment, and predictably received this pabulum in response: “We are committed to ensuring that the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 continues to be implemented and its programs are properly resourced and effective. Where appropriate, they will be augmented with new initiatives that can provide cost-effective, practical ways to address violence against women.”

Andrews’ spokesperson also said, in response to the minister never actually talking about this issue: “The Coalition believes it is fundamental that women and their families are safe from violence. Domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrated against women costs the nation $13.6 billion each year.”

Citing fiscal loss is vulgar and misses the point – it’s costing us the lives of women. As Andrews’ office made clear, while the minister for social services maintains ultimate responsibility for the plan, the minister assisting the prime minister for women – Michaelia Cash – “is leading the development of the Second Action Plan”.

I saw Cash speak late last year at a forum on violence against women, and was stunned by the robotic sterility. Through a vaudeville smile came a crush of platitudes, dispiriting many of the police officers in the room. There was an awful dissonance between the significance of the subject and the barrenness of her ideas and language. 

In its four years, the plan has made some important changes. There is now a national, 24/7 counselling hotline – 1800RESPECT – the website for which also offers online counselling. The plan has also been responsible for the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children, chaired by Natasha Stott Despoja.

These are positive changes, but they are inadequate and the sector is screaming for much more funding rather than legislation or “action plans”. 

Federally, the other side has not been much better. Last year, Bill Shorten made family violence a fundamental part of his campaign for the Labor leadership. If elected, he vowed to install family violence at the centre of our national discussion. On this issue, he said, Labor needed to be “brave”. 

He has rarely mentioned it since.

Tim Watts told me this about the federal politics of family violence: “Ending men’s violence against women is clearly not a partisan goal. I know that people on all sides of politics support this objective. But the allocation of resources and attention is an inherently political exercise. It requires governments to prioritise scarce resources. Unfortunately, this government has spent more time talking about deaths caused during the installation of pink batts than it has about deaths caused as a result of men’s violence against women.” 

It is a shame: we have a lot to talk about. Throughout the country, very few crisis shelters and refuges are funded to accept women at weekends. In Victoria, there is only one such service. Needless to say, in a nation experiencing many more than 100,000 family violence incidents each year, this is unacceptable. Weekends are also peak times for violence. 

There is then the issue of intervention orders. Fiona Warzywoda had only just had one applied to her ex-partner when she was killed. Luke Batty’s killer, his father, Greg, also had an IVO against him. An experienced solicitor, who does not wish to be named, said there had been a massive surge in people “using IVOs as swords, not shields” – in other words, spiteful, separating partners using these powers vexatiously. “It has choked the system, and magistrates have become more cynical about them,” he said. One of the reasons for this is that there is no “triaging” of IVOs before they enter the legal system for processing. No adjudication is done to determine the risk factors of the men involved – vexatious and potentially lifesaving orders alike are jammed into the grinder. 

Grief weighs heavy

The vigil for Warzywoda was overcast and cool. A light, misty drizzle fell. Camera crews moved like fish through the crowd, seizing on Bill Shorten and the occasional local. The same camera crews would have been dispatched to record footage about the alleged murder of two young sisters by their father in Melbourne only last week. 

After a while, the crowd seemed to organise itself in invisible concentric circles of grief, radiating outwards from the site of the killing. Ground zero was occupied by Warzywoda’s family and close friends. Loosely around them were people crocheting, handing out ceramic hearts or holding petitions – or just those who wore a silent solemnity. Further out still were people who seemed less heavy, locals who brought their children and met friends. People who wanted to demonstrate – or share in – a sense of solidarity. 

There is something obscene about watching strangers grieve. The grief is fierce; its faces warped and howling. It’s also deeply, shockingly intimate. As the Warzywoda family consoled and embraced each other, police stood politely around them, providing a sort of protection. They weren’t required to prevent any vulgar incursions, from media or anyone else, but their presence seemed to add some morale to the family. 

People lit candles pierced through plastic cups. Parents chatted while their kids orbited their legs. Sudanese, Thai and Chinese restaurants were open nearby. Among us, probably, were people who witnessed the killing. I wondered who they might be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "Our family violence shame". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.