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Apologist institutions are writing the narrative of victim-blaming in Australia

Victim blaming and male sympathy in the media.

Image from Facebook.

This article contains information about domestic violence.

On Wednesday 19 February, a man murdered his ex-partner and three children by dousing them with petrol and setting them alight in a car in Camp Hill, east of Brisbane. Hannah Clarke (31) and her children Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey (6, 4 and 3) lost their lives in the most abhorrent, brutal way. Statistically, by the time this article is published, another woman will already have been murdered by a present or former partner.

In the immediate wake of the murders, headlines ran as follows: Former Rugby star and three children die in car fire tragedy (The Standard); ‘Goodnight my babies’: Camp Hill car fire dad’s Facebook posts leading up to horror (News.com.au); Ex-NRL player Rowan Baxter dies alongside his three kids, estranged wife in Brisbane car fire tragedy (FOX Sports); Dad’s Haunting posts before car fire tragedy takes three children (Seven News).

The official police statement on the matter came from Detective Inspector Mark Thompson, who asked,“is [this] an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?”

These are just some instances of the institutionalised victim-blaming and sympathy for violent men that have arisen from the Camp Hill murders. They humanise a man who murdered his wife and kids by reminding us that he was a sportsman and a father. They are suggesting that somehow society is able to collectively rationalise his actions and accept the loss of four lives. When powerful institutions like the media and the police force platform this kind of apologist rhetoric, they open up a grey area in the public square, where one can begin to justify Baxter’s actions, rather than framing them as symptomatic of the rampant and systemic issue that is domestic violence in Australia.

The media has told us that Baxter was a good man who fell from grace, an ex-sports hero, a loving father who was driven over the edge. We are time and time again presented with notions of ‘incident’ or ‘tragedy’ instead of ‘crime’ and ‘murder’, in a way that absolves this man of responsibility. These misuses of language are insidious. In understating the morbidity of Baxter’s actions, the media and the police force are dampening our outrage and our grief in a way that goes to the heart of this nation’s refusal to hold men to account for treating the women in their lives violently.

We cannot forget the racial caveat in this issue either, as discussed by activist against men’s violence Tarang Chawla on ABC’s The Drum, the apologist standpoints taken in the media are only enabled because Baxter was a white, Australian sportsman — he was “one of the boys.” If Baxter were a migrant or person of colour, the media’s coverage would undoubtedly take this into account in their reporting. Conversely, domestic violence victims who are people of colour (and especially Indigenous women) often fail to make headlines at all. 

The mainstream media has failed to report on the inarguable facts of the case: murderer Rowan Baxter had a history of domestic violence and was known to police. In December, Hannah Clarke left the relationship to go live with her parents. Shortly afterwards, he abducted their 4-year-old daughter for 4 days. Weeks ago, he breached a Domestic Violence Order. We know that 50% of domestic violence homicides occur within three months of separation, and that Baxter had a long history of using methods of coercive control. These facts are a checklist of warning signs for what became the worst possible fate for Hannah and her children.

Every time our institutions enable us to forgive a man who has murdered a woman, they stagnate any traction the movement to combat domestic and family violence might have gained. We are stuck in the pattern of repeating the statistic that ‘one woman each week is killed in Australia by a partner or former partner’ as if it were a catchphrase for this nation’s identity. However, we watch on as nothing is done to prevent Hannah Clarke’s murder from happening over and over again. 

Politicians have offered their sympathies, yet domestic and family violence services are continually being stripped of government support while communities are “begging [the government] for money to keep people safe.”

Mere days after the murders, the Morrison government announced that 2.4 million dollars would be given to fund men’s behavioural reform programs. This move has been criticised by domestic violence specialists, who see it as a trojan horse for government inaction on domestic violence. Chief executive of family violence prevention services Men’s Referral Service and No To Violence Jacqui Watt has called this move “a drop in the bucket of what’s needed.” Watt claims that government funding decisions surrounding these programs have left men at risk of using violence with waiting lists as long as six months. Women’s crisis shelters are also criminally underfunded and under-resourced: more than 50% of women seeking crisis accommodation are turned away every day, leaving them with nowhere to go during what is potentially the most high-risk time. 

If a man incinerating his partner and children isn’t going to drive policymakers, media outlets and the general public to act seriously to combat Australia’s domestic violence epidemic, what will? Women and children are being murdered by men who are meant to protect them. Our institutions are designed to keep us informed and safe and they are failing us. This betrayal is twofold, and we should be gutted and angry. More than this, we should be even more hellbent on fighting to end the scourge of domestic violence in Australia.If this article has raised concerns for you or someone you know, contact the National Domestic Violence hotline on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732), use their free 24 hour online chat service (https://www.1800respect.org.au/) or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.