As early as 2015, the United Kingdom criminalised ‘coercive control’ — a pattern of concerning behaviours highly correlated with domestic violence and homicide. The aim of such a policy move was to better protect the victims of intimate partner violence and their children.
Now Queensland will become the first jurisdiction in Australia to follow the UK’s lead. Last week, The Guardian reported Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s announcement that her government “will train frontline responders, including police and emergency services, to be ready for proposed law changes in 2023”.
The 2020 murder of Hannah Clarke and her three young children by their estranged husband and father in a horrific car fire was a major catalyst in the fast-tracking of the proposed laws in the Sunshine State.
In recounting the UK’s journey to criminalising coercive control, The Guardian explained:
Homicide detectives and criminologists identified a group of behaviours displayed by almost all the killers in the weeks, months and years before every intimate partner murder. Research findings reveal that far from being random or unpredictable, intimate partner homicides are now recognised as the most predictable type of murder and are therefore the most preventable.
Included in the report was a definitive (though not exhaustive) list of 17 behaviours that help identify coercive control — a list that includes financial abuse, isolation, deprivation of basic needs, and monitoring the victim’s time, among others.
Much could be said either way about these legislative developments in Queensland.
On the one hand, better safeguards for the victims of domestic violence are, generally speaking, a move in the right direction. On the other hand, it is easy to see how laws against inherently subjective and culturally-influenced behaviours could be misused and even weaponised against cultural and religious minorities.
In short, an ethical parsing of this issue is beyond the scope of our purposes here.
Far more apparent to a great many Australians is the jarring irony of an Australian government criminalising a pattern of behaviours that just months ago, Australian governments themselves inflicted upon citizens with reckless abandon. Indeed, Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government in Queensland was among the worst offenders.
I am of course referring to Australia’s response to Covid-19. Little imagination is required to draw analogous — sometimes literal — parallels between government-led responses to Covid and the definitive list of behaviours identifying coercive control.
Let’s take a look.
- Isolating a person from their friends and family? Depriving them of their basic needs? Monitoring their time? Check, check, check.
- Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware? If QR codes count, absolutely.
- Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep? Depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services? Yes and yes.
- Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless? Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim? Only those with a selective memory can forget state premiers’ demonisation of the unvaccinated, whether Dan Andrews’ now-hollow claims regarding a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” — or former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s infamous remark that, “I, myself, would not want to be anywhere with someone who’s not vaccinated”.
- Threats to a child? Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities? While the parallel is not so clear on this point, there are certainly Australian parents who feel their children suffered neglect and abuse during term after term of missed schooling, sports, friendships and social lives.
- Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance? Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working? Both before and after vaccine mandates came into play, countless Australian workers were deprived of income — and the freedom of movement required to earn that income — even if some financial relief was provided by the taxpayer.
- Threats to hurt or kill? Assault? Criminal damage? Review this alarming video montage of police violence against peaceful Australian protesters at your own risk.
- Threats to reveal or publish private information? With one stroke of a federal pen, the previously private medical information of all Australians became everyone’s business.
If Australian governments want to criminalise coercive control, they’d do well to lean in and listen to their own victims first.
In the words of one Jesus of Nazareth, “Physician, heal thyself”.