Coercive control is a pattern of assault, threats, intimidation, humiliation, and other abuse that erodes a person's autonomy and ability to flourish. Many victim survivors of intimate partner violence describe coercive control as the most harmful aspect of their abusive relationship. Victims – who are mostly women – may be trapped in a relationship characterised by fear and manipulation for decades without any physical violence, but the torment is just as devastating.
This abhorrent misuse of power in a relationship is currently not a crime in Australia, apart from some partial coverage in Tasmania via their emotional abuse criminal reforms.
When White Ribbon Australia (WRA) relaunched in June 2020, we committed to utilising the influence of this well-recognised national movement to advocate for structural, systemic and political reform. Jess Hill's acclaimed book "See What You Made Me Do", consultation with a range of women's safety services and survivor advocates, and the horrific public murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children – in what was the first physical violence in a long-term abusive relationship characterised by coercive control – influenced the decision to make the criminalisation of coercive control one of the first advocacy goals for the White Ribbon Australia movement.
In Queensland, Hannah Clarke's parents Sue and Lloyd had called for coercive control to be criminalised in the months after her murder. The LNP Opposition party had backed this call and wanted legislation moved through Parliament quickly. However, the women's safety sector and women's legal services, who supported the intent, recognised that such a complex law needed careful consideration, training for police and the judiciary and a public education campaign if the reform was the have the impact they hoped for.
With an election due in October 2020, White Ribbon Australia realised that this could be an opportunity to have bi-partisan support for this major legal reform. Working with Small Steps 4 Hannah, Brisbane Domestic Violence Service and Women's Legal Service Queensland, a broad coalition of groups was brought together, over dinner, to discuss how they might collaborate to advocate for change. A joint letter and media release with around ten organisations, including the Queensland Council of Unions, saw the Deputy Premier of Queensland promise the alliance "the best response to coercive control in the world." However, it was not quite a commitment to criminalisation.
The joint letter asked not only for a commitment to criminalise, but two other asks – 1) broad and careful consultation and 2) training and education for police, the judiciary and the community.
After the Labor Government was successfully re-elected for another term, they appointed a new Attorney General, Shannon Fentiman MP – who was also to be Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence. She quickly strengthened the Government's commitment to the criminalisation of coercive control, a significant win for our collective advocacy.
White Ribbon Australia and Brisbane Domestic Violence Service invited two international experts, Dr Marsha Scott from Scotland and Laura Richards from England, to speak to another dinner gathering of Queensland organisations to discuss coercive control. This time, 18 organisations were represented including many who were not convinced criminalising coercive control was the right thing to do.
After hearing from the experts and a lengthy discussion led by WRA and BDVS, a joint letter drafted by WRA and then co-signed by all 18 organisations was sent to the Attorney-General – who that week announced a task force to lead the path towards the criminalisation of coercive control and publicly backed all of the recommendations in the Alliance's requests – broad consultation, especially of already marginalised and over-criminalised communities, training of first responders, police and the judiciary and a large public education campaign. Many of the Attorney-General's words mirrored the language in the letters from the sector alliance.
Queensland is now committed to criminalising coercive control, likely in the first half of 2022, after undertaking the consultation that WRA and the sector have asked for, carefully crafting the legislation and then committing to training and educating all of those who will be impacted by it.
This is a huge victory for all who have been a part of this campaign and demonstrates the power of both collaboration and advocacy for creating historic systemic change that will transform the way Queenslanders understand family and domestic violence and allow victim to see their experience and story in the criminal code for the first time.
Image by AreMedia.
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