Joe Hildebrand explains his comments about violence against women.
Joe Hildebrand explains his comments about violence against women.

Comment that made ‘all hell break loose’

This week on Studio 10 I was asked what I thought about Victoria Police's comments that men should reflect upon themselves in the wake of yet another brutal murder of a woman in Melbourne.

"Violence against women is absolutely about men's behaviour," Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius said.

I gave what I thought was a fairly unremarkable and commonsense answer: "I thought it was a really nonsensical thing to say.

"I don't see how me reflecting on myself is going to stop women being bashed or murdered."

And, as usual when I think I have said something fairly unremarkable and commonsense, all hell broke loose.

And, as usual when all hell breaks loose, I have been asked to write a piece about it. So here it is.

***

There is no doubt that men are more violent than women. There is no doubt that they commit more homicides and more assaults. The vast majority of murderers are men, as are the vast majority of prison inmates.

However, that does not mean that all or even most men are violent or potentially deadly, nor that murder or violence is inherently caused by masculinity.

Firstly, homicide in Australia is incredibly rare and at a record low. The latest comprehensive report from the Australian Institute of Criminology states that the rate in 2014 was one per 100,000 people, the lowest since data collection began in 1989.

The report, published in 2017, tallied 487 homicides over the two years to July 2014. At the time Australia's population was a bit over 23 million, so around 11.5 million males.

To project the absolute worst case scenario, if every single murderer was male and every single victim was female and applying over two years, that would make around one in 23,000 males a killer, or 0.0042 per cent of the male population.

In fact around twice as many homicide victims are male rather than female, homicides are usually calculated on a yearly basis and some killers are women. And so you could divide that figure by a third, then half and then take some more off to get the true annual rate of men killing women.

But let's not - let's use that absolute maximum figure of one in 23,000. Obviously it is still one too many but is that evidence of chronic violence among men towards women and, more importantly, is a mass reflection of this going to stop that one man from killing?

Frankly - and sadly - I doubt it. There are already pretty powerful disincentives against murdering people - namely jail - and yet people still commit murder. It is difficult to conceive of how asking would-be murderers to reflect upon their attitudes to women would be a greater deterrent.

Indeed, it would seem self-evident that criminals of all persuasions don't pay much attention to what the police tell them to do, least of all the very worst and most violent among them.

And that is the problem with the public posturing on men needing to respect women. No reasonable man disagrees that women deserve respect - on the contrary it is obvious to any decent man that they do, which is why the vast majority of men do it.

The difficulty is that those who abuse women to the point that they kill them are hardly likely to be swayed by a police press conference or a government ad campaign.

 

Courtney Herron was found bashed to death in a Melbourne park on Saturday morning.
Courtney Herron was found bashed to death in a Melbourne park on Saturday morning.

 

Even so, the supposition appears to be that these murders are merely the final blow in an escalating trajectory of disrespect to abuse to death. That is most certainly the case in many violent relationships but the spate of brutal murders in Victoria springs from far more varied sources, including an abject failure of the Victorian criminal justice system.

In the notorious and unbearably awful case of the murder of Jill Meagher, it emerged that her killer was a serial sexual offender of the most horrendous and violent kind and yet he was allowed to walk free on parole during which time he abducted her and ended her young life. He had never met her before.

Likewise, the young Eurydice Dixon was stalked and killed by a total stranger, as was La Trobe student Aiia Maasarwe. Maasarwe's alleged murderer was reportedly known to police.

He was also homeless, as was the latest tragic victim Courtney Herron. Her alleged killer Henry Hammond too was reportedly living out of a van and described as having major mental health problems - he apparently told people he was both Jesus and Odin.

 

Jill Meagher was murdered walking home in Melbourne.
Jill Meagher was murdered walking home in Melbourne.

 

Which of these men do police imagine would have taken heed of their message of "reflection"? Which of them do police imagine would have abandoned their murderous plans if another man had told them they should show more respect to women?

This is the only issue I have with such well-meaning platitudes - I'm not offended by them or threatened by them and I don't even disagree with them. I just think they're absurd, especially in this case. Good men don't need to be told and bad men won't listen.

And you don't have to stretch your mind too far to realise how absurd they are.

There was the horrendous case in Sydney last week of a mother killing her toddler in a murder suicide. According to another report by the AIC released earlier this year, the number of mothers murdering their children is on the rise while fathers doing it is declining. Was there a suggestion after that last unthinkable crime that all mothers ought to reflect on their respect for their children? Of course not.

Likewise, there has been a spate of so-called "African" gang crime in Victoria. Did police suggest that young African-born males ought to reflect upon their or their peers' propensity for violence? Of course not - in fact they denied such a problem even existed.

And in the wake of every terrorist attack police are at pains to stress that this is a tiny minority of Muslims and in no way reflective of the Muslim community as a whole. And they are right.

Why then is there such an unthinking reflex to say in the wake of exceptionally extreme murders that all men ought to reflect upon their attitudes? It is bizarre to say the least.

As for violence against women generally, every statistic indicates that it is not so much maleness that is the problem but chronic disadvantage. As with virtually all other indicators of crime, it is concentrated in areas of poverty and all the other problems that both cause and flow from it.

 

Reclaim Princes Park vigil for murdered comedian Eurydice Dixon. Picture: Mark Stewart
Reclaim Princes Park vigil for murdered comedian Eurydice Dixon. Picture: Mark Stewart

 

Yes, violence and domestic violence occurs everywhere and yes, it is overwhelmingly men who perpetrate it but the rates are comparatively low in wealthy areas and skyrocket in areas where people are doing it tough. This is no surprise to any serious student of crime.

For example, official NSW Bureau of Crime and Research statistics show the lowest rates to be on Sydney's north shore and northern beaches and the highest rates to be around Blacktown in western Sydney, and the rural west and north west of the state.

This is a variable that ranges from 115 per 100,000 to 1290 per 100,000. In other words you are up to 10 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence in the poorest parts of the state than in the wealthiest.

And as many brave Aboriginal women have sought to highlight, there is an even greater spike in remote and regional indigenous communities - up to 30 times the non-Indigenous rate. Do police call upon all Aboriginal men to reflect upon their attitudes to women? Of course not.

And that's because it makes no sense. If you really want to fix a problem there is no point tarring whole populations with the same brush or just telling everybody to try harder or be nicer. You need to drill down into what is really causing it.

Who are the men committing these awful crimes? What is their background? What are their surroundings? How can we make women safer? How can we liberate them and whole communities from disadvantage and dysfunction? Where is the problem the worst and why?

These are often diabolical problems that are difficult to solve but the nature of the problem is clear and the solution requires housing, health services, education, employment and time. In the meantime, we need a justice system that keeps known perpetrators behind bars and known victims safe - something that Victoria's justice system has clearly failed to do.

Or you could just go on TV or Twitter and say that it's men who are the problem and they should stop harming women.

We all know how well that's worked out so far.

Joe Hildebrand is the news.com.au editor at large and co-host of Studio 10



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