A Safer Place

In this country, one in four women has experienced violence from an intimate partner. On average, one woman is killed every week and only the most shocking capture the headlines. Most never report the crimes to the police. This scourge demands urgent attention.
In her acclaimed first book, See What You Made Me Do, award-winning journalist, Jess Hill investigates the reasons people are reluctant or unable to leave their abusive partners, focusing particularly on the power of coercive control and shame to lock in a cycle of abuse, violence and grief, and the urgent need for more to be done to stop Australia’s epidemic of violence and control.
Australian governments are now considering legislation to make coercive control a criminal offence, as it is in other countries, in an attempt to stem this crisis. SBS has adapted Jess’s book into a three-part series examining how this might be done and the shocking consequences that await should we fail to address this deep cultural rot, which has left too many people feeling unsafe in their own home.
A compelling and passionate advocate, Jess’s years reporting exclusively on domestic violence in Australia make her an ideal person to discuss this highly sensitive — but utterly vital — topic. Hosted by veteran journalist Kerry O’Brien, the latest instalment of Griffith University’s conversation series, A Better Future for All, canvassed the issues at stake, what needs to be done and the obstacles to making home a safer place for everyone.

Jess Hill

Jess Hill is a Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist who has reported exclusively on domestic abuse since 2014. Prior to this, she was a Middle East correspondent, and worked as both a producer and reporter for various programs across the ABC, including AMPMThe World Today, and Background Briefing. In 2019, she published her first book, See What You Made Me Do, about the phenomenon of domestic abuse in Australia. It was awarded the 2020 Stella Prize, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Walkley Book Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. In 2021, SBS will broadcast a three-part adaptation of her book, and she is producing an audio documentary series with the Victorian Women’s Trust.




Professor Carolyn Evans, Vice Chancellor and President Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, could I ask you to take your seats please? My name is Carolyn Evans and the Vice Chancellor at Griffith University and Griffith University is proud to be partnering with HOTA, Home of the Arts here on the beautiful Gold Coast. For this series of conversations creating a better future for all. Could I begin by respectfully acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which we meet, the Kombumerri and the Yugambeh people, the traditional custodians for many generations and pay my respects to Elder’s past, present and future, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today. Could I also acknowledge the counsellors of the City of Gold Coast, acting superintendent Ben Martain of the Queensland Police Service, and the Chair of the HOTA Board of Directors, Professor Emeritus Ned Pankhurst. Welcome everyone to the latest in the series of creating A Better Future for All, hosted as always by the inimitable Kerry O’Brian. As you’ll know Kerry is one of Australia’s leading and most awarded journalists, commentators and writers. And we’re very grateful that he continues to lead this event today.

This is a difficult topic that we’re tackling tonight. And before we continue, I’d like to acknowledge the survivors of domestic violence and their families who we know are present in the room tonight. I know that tonight’s discussion will be challenging for some — confronting; if you need to leave to take a moment, please do that. There will be some counseling available after this session and you’ll hear more about that at the end. Tonight we’re going to discuss one of the most important issues for this country. One in four women in Australia has experienced violence from an intimate partner, and on average, one Australian woman a week, and one man a month, is killed. These issues tragically have been brought very close to home here on the Gold Coast in recent times. We only ever hear about a fraction of these devastating stories, but the tales that go unheard are every bit as important and as heartbreaking. To help explore this difficult but vital topic, we’re honored to be joined this evening by award-winning journalist and anti-domestic violence campaigner, Jess Hill. A former foreign correspondent, among many other reporting production roles of the ABC, Jess has reported exclusively on domestic abuse since 2014. Her years immersed in such stories have given her a unique insight into the seriousness of this social issue and we’re really thankful that she’s agreed to be our guest tonight. In her acclaimed first book, See What You Made Me Do, Jess investigates the reasons people are reluctant or unable to leave abusive partners. Released in 2019, See What You Made Me Do went on to win the 2020 Stella prize, as well as being shortlisted for several others including the Walkley Book Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Jess’s book has since been adapted into a three-part documentary series, which many of you might have recently seen on SBS. The series is also available to stream on demand. It introduces us to survivors, victims and their families as it navigates the unpredictable and complex ways in which abuse manifests and takes hold in relationships. Jess’s book and the documentary are essential sources for anyone with an interest in how we can affect change at a societal level to address the issues that affect far too many people. Both Jess and another audience member here tonight, Grace Carol have given generously of their time and committed to sharing their passion to end this violence by becoming ambassadors of the Griffith University’s MATE program. Made stands for ‘motivating action through empowerment,’ and is the work of researchers from Griffith University led by Shaan-Ross Smith and Professor Patrick O’Leary. The MATE program works to raise awareness about abusive behavior at a cultural level and offers training programs in the prevention of violence. I encourage you to find out more about MATE and Griffith’s broader violence research prevention program, and our staff who work tirelessly to produce research and best practice for addressing, understanding, controlling and preventing violence. We have a MATE project team here tonight who would gratefully welcome your support for their programs. And if you’re interested in more information, you can go to the website or just stop by and pick up a brochure at the back of the room at the conclusion of this event.

Now, would you please join with me in welcoming Jess and Kerry for tonight’s conversation as they examine this complex, challenging, but critical issue.

Kerry O’Brien: Thanks, Carolyn. Jess and I actually worked together; we were colleagues at the ABC working on the 7:30 Report a little over a decade ago, and it’s a privilege for me to actually be sharing the stage with her here tonight. Jess, congratulations — congratulations on the book, and the series, and just the impact of the body of your work. So congratulations for that. Your book and your series have been enormously confronting on so many levels. But one of the most chilling images for me was your observation that apart from the military and the police, the family is the most violent group in our society. I just want to reflect on that for a moment, right at the start, because I think we all want to believe — don’t we — that for all the testing moments, there is no structure in society that says sanctuary, or safety, more than family.

Jess Hill: Yeah, and that line, actually comes from the first national survey on family violence that was conducted in the United States in 1975. It was the first time they’d actually counted how many people were being subjected to this. And that was the conclusion that the researchers reached. And no matter how much new information we have about statistics, you know — prior to the 1980s, we used to think that it was about one in a million children have been sexually abused. And then it became like, one in 80, one in 20 — now it’s, you know, it’s unfortunately known to be much more prevalent. These statistics, they become more precise; it becomes more clear what the nature of violence is in the home. But you’re right, it so, it interrupts what we need, at an organismic level — this sanctuary; this concept of sanctuary. But it’s true. It’s true that and you know, you’ll here many feminists, like we were talking about before, Germaine Greer, she’d say, the nuclear family is basically a breeding ground for violence — that what we’ve done in putting a, typically, a man and a woman or two people in a home with four walls around it, with children, with sometimes very little community around them, no longer that communal upbringing, that you are basically creating a pressure cooker situation, and a lack of transparency in which this violence can flourish. And so we say now, things happen behind closed doors. Well, traditionally, you know, prior to Western culture coming around, or prior to the more industrial revolution, there was no closed doors. But those closed doors have led to a level of secrecy and also the need for us to maintain the idea of home as a sanctuary has made people who feel like they do not grow up in a sanctuary feel like freaks, feel like they are to blame, because their family is not like everyone else’s. When in fact, this has become virtually normal.

Kerry O’Brien: Yeah. I’m sure there are many people in the audience who have read your book, and or seen the documentaries. But just as a quick recap, to set up the rest of the conversation, can you give us a summary, if you like, of the scale of the crisis?

Jess Hill: Sure. So, you know, there are some statistics that are really well known. Obviously, the one that that is very well known is one in four women will report having been sexually or physically assaulted by an intimate partner since the age of 15. When I was writing the book, I really wanted to really flesh out what does one in four actually mean. And it means like around 2.2 million women alive today; 2.1 million men and women will have seen their mother physically assaulted before the age of 15; another 800,000 will see their father physically assaulted. There are other statistics that do not relate directly to violence, but where we see this destruction start to move out into other areas of society. So, the year that I started writing the book, which was 2016, 105,000 people went to homelessness services — 96% women and kids said that domestic abuse was the reason they sought help. So, these statistics, even when we say 2.3 million women, 2.1 million men and women as kids — it’s still abstract. And we abstract these statistics, because it’s almost impossible to take on and retain a sense of love and joy in our lives if we would really take on the reality of it… I found personally. And also because it’s impossible to really consider what that scale means. But I have to say when I released the book two years ago now, I’ve done a lot of interviews; I’ve pretty much have not stopped talking about it for two years. And in the signing lines after events, the number of people who come up to me and talk about the most horrific times of their life, of every single background — and Rosie Batty was not lying when she said family violence can affect anyone, no matter how nice your house is — that has brought home to me the prevalence.

Kerry O’Brien: There are so many aspects to it, that I want to break them down a bit. But also, when we talk about domestic violence, or abuse, we invariably talk about heterosexual relationships. But of course, implicitly, the discussion encompasses wider gender relationships. So, in terms of the types of offenders, there is a wide variety of perpetrators, is there not, in the wide variety of victims?

Jess Hill: And actually, I tend to think like, when I was writing the book, I was trying to get my head around all of those questions that we asked, and you know, I’m not an academic, I actually didn’t go to university, I’m just going to disclose.

Kerry O’Brien: that makes two of us.

Jess Hill: Oh, good, see! All good people — no formal education. So, I’m like a total autodidact, which has its positives and its negatives; I think that I’ve probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it. So, I work very hard to make sure that I understand before I write anything. And so I was asking all the questions that pretty much like general public questions, when I was writing the book, which is like, is there a victim type? Or what kinds of guys become perpetrators? You know, amongst many, many other questions. And what it came to is that actually, it’s much more important and interesting to look at what leads to someone perpetrating, because actually what leads to someone being victimized — yes, there are people who are disproportionately affected. And yes, you could say that growing up in a violent household, those girls, particularly who grew up in those households are disproportionately going to become victims later in life. But actually, as I said, it’s anybody. And what I found most interesting about finding out about coercive control, and the broad nature of it, not just in interpersonal relationships, but in so many other contexts — from prisoner-of-war camps, to cults to sex trafficking rings, that, you know, anybody who is subjected to that type of behavior is likely to fall prey to it, and will have very similar responses because it is behavior that, somehow instinctively we know as humans, will override the autonomy and the perspective of the person who it’s subjected to. So, the types of victims are less interesting. The types of perpetrators are very interesting. And that is very important. And I think that at the moment, we look at people, let’s say, you know, men in the main, who perpetrate domestic abuse and violence:we have men’s behaviour-change programs that sort of deal with them as a homogenous type. But we know that we have a cohort of them that score very highly on antisocial personality disorders — doesn’t mean they necessarily are disordered, but they definitely have very low ratings for empathy and compassion. So, they’re very different offenders, and they require different approaches. You put them in a room with other guys, you know, the majority of offenders who don’t have antisocial personality disorders, but are, as we’ll look at later, you know, beset by others seriously disordering kinds of emotional problems, they are going to totally run riot over that group. They’re going to collude with the facilitator. They’re going to manipulate the whole process. And they will use being, you know, having gone through the process as a way to get access to kids through family court, as a way to torture their partners, etcetera. But the the majority cohort, are not those guys; the majority cohort are men who, when you speak to guys have really gathered some self insight about their offending and have the possibility to reform, the commonality is that they had a huge degree of self loathing — very well hidden, covered over by grandiosity and seeming narcissism. But an almost total lack of self love, and an absolute belief that if the person they were with found out who they really were, they would leave.

Kerry O’Brien: Which surely were formed in childhood.

Jess Hill: To a degree, yeah..

Kerry O’Brien: I mean, you can have trauma or particular events that might lead you further down a particular path. But surely if you arrive in a situation as a relatively stable emotionally stable human being, you are less likely to be tipped over an edge.

Jess Hill: Boyhood is inherently traumatizing.

Kerry O’Brien: I found that.

Jess Hill: you would have, especially when you grew up..

Kerry O’Brien: as a Christian Brothers boy, I most certainly did.

Jess Hill: Oh Kerry, should I do the interview?

Now, one of the most interesting conversations I had was with this family therapist from the States, Terry Real, who talks about the normal traumatisation of boys. And when he says normal, he means that every boy will go through this. How they respond as they grow older is up to every individual, but they will have to resist what this normal traumatisation process is. And what it is, is a process by which they learn that they must split, and that one half of themselves has to be held in contempt — and it’s the half that we define as feminine. The half that may be intuitive, compassionate, vulnerable, emotional. Boys to this day, even though we don’t sort of do the whole ‘boys don’t cry’ thing, as much of an absolute rule, the one rule of masculinity stands today, which is you must be strong; you must not be weak; and you must show that you’re in control. And then we wonder why coercive control is such a massive problem in Australia, and in other countries. We’re actually socialising boys into it.

And what’s awful, I think, from a parent’s perspective, even if you are raising your boy to be sensitive, and understanding and trying to raise them even like gender neutral, as some people do, then they go to school, they enter this milieu, and they will receive the shaming responses to kill off those parts of themselves, or at least to attempt to kill off those parts of themselves, regardless. And parents will see their little boys turn from boys who adore their Mums, who are really soft, gentle boys holding hands with other boys and little girls, too, as Tim Winton put it, donning this kind of awful cloak of misogyny. Not all boys! But enough for it to be a really serious social problem. And we’re so inured to it, that we just see it as unavoidable. And I think what the #metoo movement and other auxiliary movements around it have done is to say, this is not, this should not be normal. It is massively problematic. And it is leading to the corrosion of our society.

Kerry O’Brien: I’m going to come back to shame. And I’m going to come back to the point about how boys grow up a little bit later. I want to get into coercion. I mean,  I suppose what we most know, about domestic violence is, or domestic abuse is outbursts of violence. And they might be isolated outbursts of violence, or they might be repeat patterns of violence. But the one that strikes me as particularly insidious, is coercion. Because as you describe it, it seems to me it’s a creeping process. And that the person who is the target for the coercion, may not even be aware of it for a long time.

Jess Hill: Even the person who’s perpetrating, it may not be aware that that’s what they’re doing.

Kerry O’Brien: Because they’re not all consciously manipulative people, are they?

Jess Hill: No, and in fact, that’s what’s so confounding about coercive control is that you’ll have a group of perpetrators who will actually be able to describe to you exactly the steps by which they managed to coerce and control their partner, and others who will see themselves operating in response to what their partner did to them. So the victim complex amongst perpetrators is nuclear. Like these guys will stand in the doorway, even with their partner standing bloodied and bruised behind them and claim the victim status to police. I was told 90% of the callers to men’s line will claim to be the victim up front, and by the end of the phone call, it’ll be around 10%, once they’ve worked through actually what’s going on.

Kerry O’Brien: Yeah.

Jess Hill: So I think that the unconscious nature of it, how it can operate in a lot of relationships, it often starts off first of all, usually with an intense whirlwind of a romance and a fast track to commitment. This is just a general, it’s not always but this is just a generalisation. Once that commitment is secured, a lot of people will find that the abuse starts at times when you would never imagine, like right after wedding day, on the wedding night, during pregnancy or when the baby is born, you know, at these times of commitment. And a part of that is because a controlling person, once that commitment is secured, in their head, the only person who is deciding that this commitment ends is them. So there’s a level of comfort that that arrives at a time of commitment where they can start to be much more upfront.

Kerry O’Brien: So it becomes a sense of ownership.

Jess Hill: It becomes a sense of ownership and a sense of what is deserved.

Kerry O’Brien: Entitlement.

Jess Hill: Yes. So literally, you hear stories where a guy can turn on a dime from being, you know, fully supportive of that woman’s independence, of gender equality, looking like the perfect husband. And like one woman who spoke to me, turned on a dime the day she announced she got pregnant, literally became the total image of a coercive controller. And she spent the next 18 months trying to manage him like a psych patient. She wasn’t actually a nurse, or I should say she’s actually a doctor. She was thinking that this was an aberration, that the man that she met and knew and fell in love with, that was the real person. And the other was an aberration. And the number of women who stay because they believe themselves to be the strong person and the that they are the only wants you can fix this man, I can’t — I’ve lost count.

Kerry O’Brien: Yeah. I can understand that then. Yeah. So, to more graphically illustrate the extent of coercive control, can you briefly talk us through the Rowan Baxter coercive behavior with his wife, his partner, Hannah Clarke?

Jess Hill: Yeah. So this case really woke Australia up to the nature of coercive control. I think prior to that, I mean, this is in February 2020. Personally, I’d been speaking about coercive control for just a few months prior to that; the domestic violence sector have been talking about power and control for decades. But when Hannah and her three children were murdered by Rowan Baxter, it shocked the nation in much the same way that the murder of Luke Batty did. And in much the same way that Rosie stepped out onto that street that day in front of the media and didn’t stop, Sue and Lloyd Clarke have done much the same. I think it’s a reason why Queensland is leading the way in legislating against coercive control. And what they did, they knew that that relationship, almost intimately. They knew what Rowan had been subjecting Hannah to. They’ve been trying to talk to her about it, you know, sorts of things that Rowan did: he would isolate Hannah, from friends and family; he would tell her what she was and wasn’t allowed to wear; he would prevent her from accessing food, sleep, you know, he would induce that debilitating exhaustion in her, so that there was that feeling that just getting by on an hour-to-hour level was a matter of psychological survival. He would destroy his kids’ toys as punishment for them not putting them away. He’d use surveillance on her phone to track her; he would turn up when she’d be out at a cafe and just stand outside and menace. He would expect sex virtually every night, and if he didn’t get it, he would sulk and he would stonewall the entire family. And I must say, this is why I’ve really gone towards using the term domestic abuse — much like child abuse includes neglect, in domestic abuse, one of the most horrible behaviors that perpetrators use is stonewalling, literally going quiet, like this menacing presence in the house, when nobody knows what’s coming next. So Rowan would use those techniques and behaviours. He’d also threaten to kill his previous wife and son, which is a raging red flag about future violence. So all of these behaviours together are like a textbook for coercive control. And when, it’s interesting when you list behaviors like that together, what’s so weird about coercive control is how predictable it is. And that’s when people say, well, like, you know, it’s covert behavior, how can you really identify it? How can you codify it? It’s like, these stories are so predictable, and they run along a plotline so similar, that anyone who spent any amount of time in this sector can almost finish a woman’s story before she’s halfway through telling it.

Kerry O’Brien: How closely have you looked at the education of police to coercion to the role of coercion, because I know in one of your recent forums, there was a senior police officer, I think it might have been New South Wales, who said that something like 80% of the cases they handled as coercive control was a part of the abuse

Jess Hill: That was actually Ben, on Insight the other night. 107,000 call outs and over 80 percent are including features of coercive control.

Kerry O’Brien: So how long has it taken for police to actually see with clarity, how coercive control is a really fundamental and significant part of the whole process and end syndrome of domestic abuse?

Jess Hill: Well, the shortest answer is: too long. And the long answer is that our justice system has been built around policing incidents. So the motivation for police to have that education around coercive control has not really been reflected in their job description, you know, which is to go an incident, find out who is at fault, is there something to charge? And maybe, is there an intervention order that we want to put in place? But because we’ve had this incident-based system, it has, to a large extent, concealed the true nature of what the vast majority of people especially who seek help, from either domestic violence services or from police, are experiencing. And what that means is that when police traditionally have turned up at an incident, there’s so much that doesn’t make sense to them. And I understand because when I first started studying this, and I was coming at it through that incident -based framework, I couldn’t understand victim behavior. Until you understand how coercive control works on a person, and also how the system responds to coercive control and victims and survivors are often acutely sensitive to what will happen if they leave, you can understand why a woman will press charges one day and withdraw the next. It’s annoying, you know, to police, who are not well versed in this, those people are just getting in the way of them doing their jobs. Those police are turning up at court, that person who was crying at the call out last night is now sitting with the perpetrator and saying, this cop is a bastard, we never wanted to be here. So because police have not understood that their response to these incidents or call outs is part of a process that women particularly — but anybody who’s been subjected to this — will go through a process of leaving that is like a game of snakes and ladders. And that part of that is establishing trust in the system before they jump into whatever safety nets being held out for them.

There is just going to be this frustration. And no matter how much they even understand coercive control, until they understand why victims make certain choices, until they understand what their role is in providing safety, until they respond with a protective approach, they will continue to fail in responding to this crisis.

Kerry O’Brien: Is there a template in the world where coercive control is accepted, clearly accepted in the justice system. There is a pattern of investigation and process and building the case for prosecution and responsiveness from the courts.

Jess Hill: Yeah, I mean, it’s early days still, but Scotland has been held up as the standard. It’s held up for a number of reasons. Because of the time it took to write legislation, collaboration with victims and survivors — not just adults, but kids — with legislators. The amount of time that went into implementation, training, cultural reform, which is not perfect by any stretch, but has shifted the dial considerably. But also because, unlike other offenses that have come before it in England and Wales, they actually listed the behaviours for police to look for. So they listed isolation from friends and family, tracking through surveillance devices, threats to abuse or harm a pet or a child, threats to harm themselves as a way to stop the victim from leaving, and other really complex things like, coercing the victim to engage in illegal activities in order to stop them from disclosing the abuse

Kerry O’Brien: In other words, to use it as a form of blackmail.

Jess Hill: Exactly. To make it so that they are complicit in the illegality. So the list that they’ve got in the Scottish legislation means that police have very concrete things to look for. The way that evidence is gathered is through text messages, financial records, photos, on phones if there’s been assaults, testimony from friends and family — if there still are friends and family around to give that to attest to isolation. So much evidence that the specialist prosecutor in Scotland said that the vast majority of cases that came before the courts, the offender pled guilty, because the evidence was so conclusive, so did not even go to trial. And the victim therefore did not have to go on the stand and endure what is a secondarily traumatising process.

Kerry O’Brien: Okay. So how do you assess the response of governments around Australia to define coercion as a crime, backed up by significant prison sentences?

Jess Hill: It’s a complicated question.

Kerry O’Brien: The question is simple, I’m sure the answer is less.

Jess Hill: The question is simple.

So there is necessarily caution. And people tend to use the comparison between the ‘one punch’ or ‘coward punch’ legislation in New South Wales that that saw Kings Cross shut down and said, like, you know, two young boys were killed. And within a month, we had a, you know, change in laws. It’s actually like a really bad response, though, and like, killed off a whole business sector. So maybe a bit of time would have been better. And so I don’t think we want to do that in coercive control legislation.

I think that what Scotland has done is shown us that they wanted to legislate back in 2015. But they took four years to do it, because it is difficult, and you need to take a whole system with you. So Queensland, has committed to criminalising coercive control. Their taskforce actually just put out a paper today on the options around it. They’re also doing a review of how women interact with the criminal justice system. Fantastic. Like, that’s what advocates are asking for. They don’t want just laws, they want this to be the bringing of a whole new lens to the systemic response. In New South Wales, the inquiry into criminalising has completed — that’s going to report on the 30th of June, there seems to be quite a bit of momentum there. It’s likely, I think that they will criminalise. In Victoria, almost no momentum to criminalise despite the fact that, to date they’ve been the most advanced. They’ve, because of the Royal Commission, the Royal Commission did not recommend criminalising coercive control, but it was conducted in 2015. And it was only first criminalised in England and Wales in 2015. We have a lot more field evidence now for how this works. But in every state and territory in the  country, there is a discussion. And that has come in the space of about a year.

Kerry O’Brien: Alright. Queensland is interesting, isn’t it? Because there’s a woman who’s Premier; half the cabinet of women. The Attorney General and Justice Minister is a woman. And the government is intent, as you say, on criminalising coercion and has established a 10-year plan to end domestic violence based on recommendations for a special task force in 2015. Yet at the point when Gold Coast mother, Kelly Wilkinson, was set on fire allegedly and killed by her former partner a month ago, after going to police for help, the police themselves have acknowledged, I think twice, we hear from other sources that she went many times looking for help. There were fewer than 90 domestic violence specialist police officers in Queensland to handle 107,000 cases in the last year. Is there a disconnect there, between what the government is committed to on paper and what is happening in practice? Is five years not yet enough time to judge the effectiveness and seriousness of their policies out of that taskforce report?

Jess Hill: Mmmm. I think that policing is obviously key. It’s not the only part. The courts are a very big part of this, in terms of the actual legislation and response. But just to take policing: you know, we’ve come out of a time — the 80s and 90s, we started the sort of more pro-arrest policies, not mandatory arrest, but pro arrest. So, we went from police almost universally saying ‘this is just a domestic, drive on,’ to having to attend and having to respond. That had some unintended consequences around women being misidentified as perpetrators. And it’s certainly not short of its critics, you know, the use of the criminal justice system in response to domestic violence. But certainly, you know, victims survivors that I’ve spoken to who who engage or want to engage in the criminal justice system are quite happy that it’s there, even with all of its flaws. What’s happened, I think, is that slowly over the last 10 years, the reporting rates to police have increased quite exponentially because of the enormous amount of awareness that has been growing in the community, because of the advertising campaigns to report encouraging women to jump into that safety net that is supposed to be there.

Kerry O’Brien: So, on the one hand, we’re encouraging this, but on the other hand, the resourcing is simply not matching the demand.

Jess Hill: Well, I think that the paradigm shift in policing and government hasn’t matched the awareness campaigns. So domestic violence has become core business for police. In some, in Victoria, at least, it’s 40 to 60% of police time.

Kerry O’Brien: That is extraordinary.

Jess Hill: And yet, you still have a large number of police who don’t think it’s proper policing. And the the analogy that I’ve run is that if you had a large number of firefighters who attended a grass fire, and went, ‘I reckon it’ll burn out on its own, just leave it; just, why don’t we just separate it from that enormous tract of bush land, build a little fence, and it’ll be fine,’ our country would have been reduced to ash. And unfortunately, our country is being reduced to a type of ash. Because that’s the approach that police have. They see these incremental improvements in policing and think we’re doing much better. But I want to take it as though, let’s like, we’ve arrived from Mars, we see that the police force, its core business is domestic violence — it’s not doing a very good job there. At what point do we say, unless you deal with the fundamental cultural problems in policing — racism, the number of perpetrators that you have in the police force that remain employed, and not charged, and protected by police unions — all of these issues, unless they are dealt with, maybe you should not be funded to respond to this crisis. We need some kind of law enforcement. And this is why in the series, we looked at the alternative, because after the fascist dictatorships in Latin America, they realised, well, police can actually respond to gendered violence. They were actually the perpetrators of gendered violence for the whole time, you know, of these dictatorships. So they created a totally separate force, which was purely about protecting victims, with the powers of police. So, those are really serious questions. We have to ask, can police do this job?

Kerry O’Brien: And it is an incredibly difficult job. I mean, particularly for police who aren’t properly prepared for absolutely, and who are under great stress from the range of demands that are on them. And I’ve seen many situations where police have been placed in the most extraordinary circumstances and have dealt with it extremely well.

Jess Hill: There are amazing police. And I want to really make that clear that there are police who dedicate their lives to helping victims that go way above and beyond. And the women that I speak to who have been helped by police like that they saved their lives, there’s no question. The problem is the front desk lottery, and when a woman is ready to leap out or call police, because actually, she’s got no other choice, or police are called by a neighbor — the fact that you don’t know who you’re going to get is inexcusable.

Kerry O’Brien: And just quickly touch on because I want to, there’s an awful lot to get through. But I just want to quickly touch on what is nonetheless one of the most important aspects of all of this, and that is the number of times when a woman who is the victim ends up being labeled as the perpetrator.

Jess Hill: Yeah, that’s right. There are all sorts of reasons for that. Sometimes, I heard recently from Chloe McCardle, who I interviewed, and was also on Insight with Ben: police just got a story from the perpetrator; Chloevwasn’t there to at that moment to counter that story and was also too scared to say it in the in the presence of the perpetrator, and so she got the seven-day eviction notice. So she had to leave the house. I mean, she’d been coercively controlled by this man for years in a way that she was terrified. That action from police so unseated her sense of justice and protection, that she actually had to leave the State. She feels that she can no she can no longer live in Victoria. So sometimes, and when she asked for an explanation, they said, ‘well, at least you were separated.’ And for them it didn’t matter who had been identified as the perpetrator.

Kerry O’Brien: And if in all of this, they’re also they’ve got little or no resources. They’re leaving the house behind. They’re facing possible homelessness; they might not be able to get into a shelter.

Jess Hill: I mean, if you’re misidentified as a perpetrator, for numerous reasons, whether it be that you were using self defence, and your perpetrator had a more common considered story, because you are in the process of trauma, maybe you’re a bit aggressive, which is what trauma will do to you; maybe you were using violent resistance, maybe you had been subjected to the worst kind of abuse for 10 years, and one day, you picked up a pole and you flogged him. You know, like, if that was a hostage situation, we would applaud that woman and go, ‘good on you.’ And instead, we arrest her, and we criminalise her. And this happens disproportionately to Indigenous women who feel like, a lot of Indigenous women feel like they have no choice but to use violent resistance, because they can’t rely on the systems. If they call police, as mandatory reporters, they will call The Department of Communities and Justice and their kids will be removed. The effect of this on women is incalculable. And it is, again, inexcusable. It’s also very much I think, down to the fact that we have an incident-based system where police turn up and say, ‘what’s just happened?’ Not, ‘how did we get to this point?’

Kerry O’Brien: Yeah. So when you mention Indigenous women, you’re instantly going to the extra layers of complexity around the colonial legacy and the continuing racism of the justice system. And you’ve just got to look at the raw numbers on Indigenous incarceration, that the racism, the embedded racism in the institutions of justice is profound.

Jess Hill: Yes.

Kerry O’Brien: And so one assumes that it is equally profound as it relates to the treatment by police of domestic violence involving Indigenous women and children.

Jess Hill: And look at the Tamica Mullaley case…

Kerry O’Brien: Just very quickly, go to that.

Jess Hill: So Tamica had been terribly violently assaulted by her partner Mervyn Bell. In public, on a public street. She had sought some safety in a garage; she was, he had stripped her naked. She was covered in a sheet; it was covered in blood. There was a call to triple zero from the nurse who was sheltering her. That nurse call triple zero because Mervyn was threatening both of them and she felt she had no choice. Police arrive, just a moment after Tamica’s father arrives at the scene. Tamica is massively affected by trauma. She doesn’t want police to be there. She is a woman in living in Broome in WA, she’s an Aboriginal woman living in Broome; She’s had a history with how police respond to Aboriginal people. She doesn’t want them there. So, she may have used some spicy language to tell them to go away. Police say that she spat, or she did something of that nature. And then they proceeded to arrest her. They didn’t just, they tackled her to the ground. They also, once she was running away from them, she climbed into her Dad’s ute. They tried to break the windshield to get to her. This is a woman who has obviously been very terribly assaulted. They arrest her. She’s there with her 10-month old baby Charlie. The police hand the baby to two girls who were there at the same time, not having any understanding of their relationships to Tamica, or to the person who’s just assaulted her. Tamica’s father Ted feels he’s got no choice but to let Charlie go with the girls because he has to make sure that Tamica is not going to be a death in custody. The police are refusing to take her to hospital. And Ted’s absolutely insisting, he can’t take Charlie with him. He follows the police to the hospital while he’s at the hospital making sure to make she gets attended to and, by the way, doctors say she would have died in custody had she not been treated, Mervyn Bell goes around to the girls’ place and takes Charlie. Ted goes, as soon as Tamica has being taken care of, he races around to the girls’ place to go and pick up baby Charlie, finds out that he’s been abducted, Ted goes straight back to the hospital and says, ‘you’ve got to help me. He’s taken off with my grandson. He’s gonna kill my grandson.’ And the police officer sitting outside the hospital says, ‘how many cars do you reckon we’ve got here?’ He says, ‘we’ve got two mate. We’ve got one here. And we’ve got one back at the station.’ And as Ted says later, he found out the one back at the station was doing paperwork on to make his arrest. Ted went to that police station numerous times that night and begged them to find his grandson. He was convinced that Mervyn would kill him. He called triple zero and we had the recording: it’s very clear how lucid Ted is, it is clear how calm he I,  in a way that I would challenge any one of us to be as calm and present as Ted was, and yet the police said that he was drunk. He hadn’t drunk in 20 years.

Mervyn had Charlie for 16 hours. There was no alert sent out until it was far too late. Mervyn walked into a roadhouse, the Fortescue Roadhouse with baby Charlie in his arms, and said that he was dead. Okay, you know, and the worst part of that story, if you could possibly imagine there being a worst part, is that after baby Charlie ends up being murdered — and I won’t go into the details, because it is truly shocking — the police pursued charges against Tamica and Ted for resisting arrest. And they were convicted. And the judge described Ted as the most upstanding witness he’d ever seen in the witness box. And yet Ted walks away with a criminal record. And when police said to Ted that night, ‘mate, are you playing the race card?’ Ted did not even know what that meant. Because to him and his family, he thought police were there to help him. He didn’t even think that he would be prejudiced against because he was Aboriginal because he saw himself as an upstanding member of the business community, and deserving of help like anyone else.

Kerry O’Brien: You said in one discussion, “my rage over the injustice of this, broadly, has many times overwhelmed me.” Tell me about that impact on you, because you’ve really immersed yourself, really immersed yourself in this.

Jess Hill: So, every day that I was writing that book, I would cry every day for almost four years, often alone. Um, I was really lucky to have my partner who’s a psychotherapist — even more helpful.

Kerry O’Brien: Was his path influenced by where you were going?

Jess Hill: No, he had already moved into that area but his practice is definitely influenced by the ongoing study of this subject. And many of his clients are either perpetrators or victims. So we have a feedback loop going on there. It’s fun times at our place at night, going over our day’s activities. I think that because I did not come through academia, I didn’t come through like a traditional sort of understanding of feminism, I had to spend the first year getting a hold of the nature of patriarchy, the history of oppression. And to be honest, I was a very angry person for a lot of that, and I was using my own home as a petrie dish. So, I was looking to poor David’s her behaviour and saying like, ‘that, that’s entitlement, isn’t it? That’s what that looks like. Right? Let’s have a chat.’ It is an impossible environment for a husband to operate in, I have to say. And this is a man who did was the only man in a Gender Studies class in Sydney University. So he was the best equipped you could possibly be. But no one can be equipped properly.

Kerry O’Brien: But then after talking about the rage, you say you’ve turned around and tried to see domestic abuse through the eyes of the perpetrators, to see them as complex humans with their own needs and sensitivities. And found it so difficult, it sometimes made you feel ill.

Jess Hill: Yes, and there’s a reason why most people don’t work with victims and perpetrators, because it feels like you’re having to divide yourself in two. It can feel like an act of disloyalty to the victim, to see the perpetrator as a whole person. It took me a long time, and this is again through the assistance of David who was seeing some of these men and was really imploring me to get past that well understandable rage to understand these guys is three-dimensional complex creatures. And what I realised was that the greatest act of loyalty I could give to those victims was to better understand these men, and why they do it, and how to stop them. Seeing them as two-dimensional characters or foot soldiers of patriarchy or men who just do it for power and privilege or any of the number of glib statements that have been used to describe men’s violence for years, was not getting us to the heart of the issue. And I think that James Gilligan, who is a prison psychiatrist in the States put it really well when he said, ‘to condemn, just simply condemn violence is like condemning heart disease, or cancer or cancer. It’s not going to cure it.’

Kerry O’Brien: Yeah. Now sense of entitlement. And where it comes from. Eva Cox has said that it’s not how do we stop men from doing that to us, but how do we stop men feeling that they’re entitled to do it? What do you take from that, I mean, it’s sort of what you’re saying.

Jess Hill: It’s key. I come back to that quite a lot, actually. And this is being like when we talk about, there are a lot of men in our society who carry deep-seated feelings of shame, who feel like they can’t talk about their emotions — all of the things that we sort of talked about, when we talk about perpetrators, who would never for one moment feel entitled to take that out on people that they are supposed to love. The entitlement piece is, is absolutely key. One former perpetrator I spoke to who’s in the first chapter of the book, Rob Sanasi, he said that a big part of his pathway out of coercive control was to relinquish entitlements so entirely that he felt entitled to almost nothing at all. It was like going cold turkey and entering like, you know, Alcoholics Anonymous but ‘entitlement anonymous,’ where he would let, basically let his wife say or do anything for a period. Almost just to a) let her have her say for the first time, but b) learn what it was like to not step in and have to his needs met or believe that that was his right. The giving up of that overblown sense of entitlement is incredibly difficult because perpetrators are nothing if not massively self-centered.

Kerry O’Brien: You mention shame, you devote a chapter of your book to shame. And you quote, Salman Rushdie, at the top: “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

Can we talk about the path that shame plays in all of this with regard to both perpetrator and victim?

Jess Hill: Let’s take shamelessness for the smaller cohort first, and they’re the guys we were talking earlier about, you know, who have anti-social sort of personality disorders. This forensic investigator, homicide reviewer from Arizona, Neil Websdale, he was saying that there are some guys who he would interview after a homicide in jail, and he would ask them about the experience of killing. And they would say that they felt it as a type of transcendent experience; that it was almost a type of spiritual experience.

So there are those men who operate with extremely low bandwidth of any type of shame if, if any. But they are in the minority. And the majority of guys, and this is again, what Websdale found, when you look back to their lives and their childhoods, they were steeped in shame, they were steeped in a time of compromised masculinity.

What shame does to someone when it is deeply buried, and I’ll talk about in a moment how that is then expressed. But that feeling of absolute unlovability, of deep self loathing, that may never rise to a cognitive surface, but becomes a knowledge of oneself, such that when some of these guys, you know, these guys grow up, feeling this type of shame — they can create this carefully constructed mask; it could be of like the tough guy, the gentleman, the human rights activists, any type of masks that they’ve chosen. And they keep, they’re able to keep that on in almost every circumstance: at their workplace, at school. But when it comes to an intimate relationship, and the woman that they’re with wants to go backstage and see what’s behind the mask, that’s when they start to feel the sense of irritation. And then the rage starts to build. And at first, they don’t even know how to explain it. And they may apologise for it. And they may mean it in the moment that they apologise. But it’s too difficult to sit with that feeling of being apologetic, because actually what’s happening there is a feeling that they are entitled to not feel this way. They should not have to feel vulnerable, and they should not have to feel afraid, which is what so many perpetrators, below their sense of anger and control, say that they are feeling.

Kerry O’Brien: Because that sense of vulnerability would scare them, wouldn’t it? I mean, doesn’t that incite fear? If you feel vulnerable and you feel a threat, no matter how strange that threat might sound to somebody outside their own fury.

Jess Hill: Particularly if you subscribe closely to the rules of masculinity, which say that you’re not allowed to feel vulnerable.

Kerry O’Brien: Well, let’s talk about that. Gloria Steinem – this was an interview I did with her for Lateline in the 90s – said, “it would be very helpful, to put it mildly, if children understood that men could be as loving and nurturing as women because without that, our early experience causes us to believe that only women can be loving, nurturing, patient, empathetic: qualities that are necessary to raise kids, kids are called feminine. Until we experience men doing that, when we’re little, we’re going to go on dividing up our natures and saying, if we’re little boys, we can’t be those things, which of course is libel on men. And if we’re little girls, we must be those things. You know, if you haven’t seen a deer, you won’t recognise a deer. And if you haven’t seen loving and nurturing men, you think that that’s not masculine.”

Jess Hill: Precisely and this goes back to what we were talking about before. The splitting or the binary where this whole idea – and Terry Reel calls it ‘the dance of contempt’ – where we’re basically seeing boys being raised with the idea that to be a girl is to be a thing of contempt. Being a boy is not being a girl.

Kerry O’Brien: It’s now very prevalent in teenage culture, it’s just such a commonplace thing, for boys to refer to girls as sluts and to sort of categorise girls in different varieties that relate to absolutely nothing to do with their humanity, or their character or their personality even.

Jess Hill: Yeah. And at the same time, you’ve got these other strands of gender queerness and increasing sensitivity in some young boys. It’s like we’re living in multiple eras, all at once, and they’re all active alongside one another. I think that the issue around the splitting of boys is that there’s two things: A, it’s fundamentally unnatural to have to exile half of yourself. The idea that we could have a coherent society in which we raise boys like that is nuts. And the way that boys get programmed with this is gradually. It happens very early, around the age of three or four, they start getting these messages that if you show vulnerability, if you show emotion, if you’re soft, that you are going to be in danger. You know it’s one of the main quotes that really led me to understand this issue – and where men were coming from – and it’s that famous Margaret Atwood quote: “men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them.” For a long time I’d seen that quote pop up and think like, ‘Oh, isn’t that ridiculous?’ And it shows just how obscene that comparison is but when I started really looking at perpetration, I was like let’s take that quote seriously. Why are men so afraid that women will laugh at them? They’re afraid at what that emasculation will leave them vulnerable to, and it leaves them vulnerable to other men’s violence. There is a really primitive fear there. The primary enforcers of patriarchy are other men. And in the book, we talk about a group of perpetrators in a men’s behavior change group and they’re talking about shame. They make shame an actual character in the room and they put shame in a support group in a broom closet outside. And the facilitator asked them, ‘what does shame look like?’ And the men said, ‘it looks like another man.’ She thought they’d say, ‘Oh, it looks like my mum,’ or ‘it looks like my ex-wife.’ But it was another man, that was who they were measuring themselves against. And so, if you’re laughed at by a woman, if you’re disrespected by a woman, if you’re cheated on by a woman, especially if she goes off with another man, then you are now vulnerable in the pecking order to other men.

Kerry O’Brien: I do want to come back to policing and what the future of policing should be like in relation to domestic abuse. You have explored the nature and the effectiveness of having all women police stations in Brazil and Argentina in relation to domestic abuse and there’s the Scotland experience. What we’re really talking about – of course there’s criminality there – but what these things are reflecting, as you have revealed in this conversation, are social welfare issues. They are issues of the nature of relationships between men and women, they are complicated things beyond a burglar breaking a window and coming into a house and stealing your jewellery. Is there a mood in Australia that you are discerning? That opens us up to a rapid acceptance of the need that there must be a radical reform of police culture and police structure in relation to domestic abuse?

Jess Hill: I think that there is a mood, yes.

Kerry O’Brien: Are you convinced of the need?

Jess Hill: 100%. Yes. We have a situation in which 20% of victims who are experiencing abuse right now have ever called police. It’s a minority that doesn’t count the women who’ve left and are calling the police for help. More women would call police if they felt they could trust the systems that would then step in to respond, including the police themselves. Not all women will ever need to call police or want to call police and involve them in their personal circumstances. But for the women that do, and for the women who need that level of power to step in, to overpower the power of the perpetrator, the need to reform policing and change the nature of policing is extreme and urgent. The questions that arise are: is policing as it is currently structured even fit for this purpose? And that’s why we start to look at these alternative models. How can we offer protection, especially in these cases that show high risk of homicide? How can we do that reliably? Can we do it with the current system? I don’t know. I don’t know if police are reformable. That’s my honest answer. What I do know is that police aren’t going away, we cannot abolish police and prisons tomorrow, people will continue to call police and in many circumstances, they will actually get a measure of increased safety. That’s what we see from international research, that when police enter the house, quite often you’re seeing a reduction in the ongoing nature of violence. But it really depends on the response. And the fact that there is that inconsistency, we have to make a paradigm shift in this country to say that what’s happening is not just not good enough, but needs to be absolutely fundamentally overhauled in order to protect the enormous numbers of women and children, particularly those who are being subjected to it.

Kerry O’Brien: So you’ve got this happening in parallel with what we might call the Grace Tame field. And it’s been amazing. We had Grace Tame here two sessions ago. And there are these kind of parallels – there are these connected issues out there. So the question is that the impetus for change has to be sustained. Sadly, in this field, it’s being sustained by the ongoing reporting of these awful cases. But it has to be about resourcing and it has to be a change in mindset, does it not? And should it be clear to anybody in this country who looks at the Brazil experience and the Argentina experience that these things not only work, but they demand it to be done here?

Jess Hill: I think so. And it doesn’t have to be that we just replicate what gets done overseas. Like why not have specialist police stations? Say in communities where there’s high Indigenous populations staffed by primarily Indigenous women, or why not have cultural diversity reflected in the police, rather than what is now predominantly a white male police force?

Kerry O’Brien: But you know, even the attempts to encourage more and more Indigenous people into policing, we’re hearing too many cases of Indigenous police, who last for a time but are so assailed by the racism towards them within the force that they leave.

Jess Hill: Because they’re brought into a racist culture. Which does not mean all police are racist, but there’s an overarching culture that still has that strongly. What the specialist police stations did in Argentina, they weren’t actually related to police – they don’t even report to the police minister. They are totally mandated to prevent and respond to gendered violence. They’re quite separate to police. They have the same powers. So the end goal is not just to take women police out of the police force and put them in a station. The answer is to actually create a force that has a totally separate and different culture. Because at the moment, unless police can show us that in the space of, you know, a short amount of time, they are capable of reform, they’re capable of flushing out the perpetrators in their own force, much like the Wood Royal Commission, Fitzgerald did with the corrupt police, you know. Maybe we need another Royal Commission into police, but this time to look at offenders of interpersonal violence, to look at police who are on record for racist responses, because I think some of the problem with Fitzgerald and with Wood is that the police that were left see themselves as squeaky clean, and that, you know, ‘we survived the routing, and so were the good ones.’ Well, that’s not the case, because nobody looked at interpersonal violence, no one looked at perpetration in the police force. And what we know is that in the States, 40% of male police officers, in one large survey reported using interpersonal violence against a spouse or kids in the previous six months. That is so disproportionate, we don’t have figures for Australia. But we do know that it is a major problem that perpetrators of in the police force are protected, often by police unions. And by the police themselves. There is a brotherhood code, it’s very difficult to reform that. So I understand when people say that they think the police can’t be reformed, I would really like police to show us how they can do it, how they are committed to doing it. But it’s gonna take some bravery and some real courage in order to actually get the changes that we need.

Kerry O’Brien: And we’re out of time. But we haven’t taken your wonderful microscope to the justice system beyond the police, where the cases get into the courts. And that can be a whole other horror story.

Jess Hill: Absolutely.

Kerry O’Brien: As I said at the start, it has been a privilege to talk with you. Thank you so much.