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Taking action on coercive control

Speeches in Parliament
Adam Bandt 18 Feb 2021

CW: Domestic violence

I am pleased to speak today in support of this motion passed by the Senate and put forward by the Parliamentarians for Action to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children—a cross-party group convened by the Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate, Senator Waters, the member for Cowan and the member for Reid.

One year ago, Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, were murdered by Hannah's former partner, their children's father. He ambushed them on their way to school, poured petrol in the car and set the car on fire. It was an event so shocking it grabbed the attention of the public and politicians. It forced a conversation about what family violence looks like, how insidious it is and how critical it is we act to keep women and children safe. Since Hannah's murder, a further 52 women have been violently killed. Violence against women is a national crisis and we need to treat it that way.

Too often as a society we have viewed family violence as a physical act, ignoring the harm caused by non-physical abuse—when a partner, most often the man, exerts power and control through restricting access to finances, isolating women from friends and family, monitoring movements, belittling them in front of their children, controlling everything about their lives and threatening to harm them or their kids if they leave. These patterns of controlling behaviour, coercive control, are the ultimate red flag. Research has shown that coercive control is more highly correlated to intimate partner homicide than it is to physical abuse. It's one of the strongest predictors that a man will go on to kill his partner or his children.

In Hannah Clarke's case, before her death, she had suffered years of coercive control by her husband. He kept her away from family and friends, tracked her movements and monitored who she met with, who she spoke to and what she wore. Her murderer had never been physically violent towards her until the morning he killed her and her children. Her parents are now vocal advocates for criminalising coercive control, and I want to quote them: 'My daughter Hannah was a beautiful girl and her three kids, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, were the loves of her life. She tried to put on a positive front for them, but she was dealing with a hidden darkness. In the beginning it was only little things but then gradually her husband's controlling behaviour really started to escalate. Hannah was ready to leave him after Laianah was born. But then she fell pregnant with Trey, and Rowan convinced her she would be a bad mother if she left. He would constantly go through her phone, track where she was going and control everything. She was not allowed to have a Facebook page or wear shorts to the gym. He would threaten to kill himself, not speak to her for days and then twist it around and try to make her feel guilty. But for a long time Hannah didn't realise she was in an abusive relationship. She would say, "But he's never hit me." He would say the same thing to us: "I've never hit her." In both their heads, that was the definition of domestic abuse. That's one of the most important things we want people to understand. We want to educate people on what coercive control looks like so they can identify if it is happening to them. We didn't know. We want to do anything we can to prevent other people going through the same pain.'

In most jurisdictions in Australia, it's extremely difficult to prosecute where the abuse is an insidious pattern of behaviour rather than an incident of physical violence. Coercive control, though, has been criminalised in Scotland and the UK, and the laws have given police important new tools to protect the victims of abuse. Tasmania has recognised non-physical abuse and financial control as an offence since 2004 but the offence has rarely been prosecuted. The momentum is growing in other states and territories. New South Wales is currently consulting on new laws. WA recently introduced a new offence of persistent family violence. Last week, the NT announced plans to introduce coercive control offences and yesterday Queensland announced that it had appointed Margaret McMurdo to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into coercive control laws.

Criminalisation is not a complete response and cannot happen without wide consultation with experts, victim-survivors, frontline services, police, courts and families. Any change must be accompanied by system reforms, including the development of tools, resources and guidelines for police, prosecutors and judicial officers. We need to help people to identify the signs, to understand and validate that what is happening is not okay and, more importantly, to know what to do.

Taking a national approach, as this motion that is passing through this parliament does—and, again, I reiterate my congratulations to the people who moved it, because it's passing through this parliament with everyone's support—to education and awareness, funding support services and harmonising the legal response will keep more women and children safe. This week, of all weeks, the parliament needs to show some leadership and tackle the culture that fails to keep women safe. The passage of this motion by parties across both houses is critical recognition that we need to take the politics out of it and get to work. We need Hannah's murder and the deaths of the 52 other women since then to actually be a catalyst for change. We need action to keep women and children safe. So, on behalf of the Greens, the Greens support this motion that is passing through the parliament with the support of everyone. We commend the motion to the House.

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