The rare virtue of the ABC’s Q&A programme is that it sometimes permits a panelist to reveal his true self. So it was on Monday night, when David Morrison, Australian of the Year, who should have been able to seize the opportunity of the first programme of the year to tower over the other members, betrayed the fact that he doesn’t have an original thought. Tossed the first (and loaded) question by Tony Jones, Morrison fumbled the ball.
“Is it right that we continue to hold our National Day on a day that marks the invasion of Australia?” It was a question a military strategist should have expected. His response was a muddled stumble through a miasma of embarrassment, uncertainty and attempted identification with “our brothers and sisters in the Indigenous community.” That was before conceding he didn’t feel qualified to answer.
“This is something the government would have to decide,” he said, adding that “the only way a government would decide something as key as this, is if there was either a point in an election where a party differentiated itself from another party, or if we went to, well, something like a plebiscite or a referendum.” Whew!
Even Tony Jones’ pressure, observing that he must have a personal view, could not draw him out.
“I think if there was political will, there could be a plebiscite, and then at this stage, I would probably say I would just want to listen to the arguments of all sides.”
The next questioner lobbed this hand grenade: “Can we envisage a proper future in which women are rewarded for the tireless work they undertake whilst men are given credit for simply saying the right thing?” Morrison seemed to forget he had only seven seconds after the pin had been pulled.
The audience was subjected to an evasive rigmarole: An excellent question! His surprise at being chosen as AOTY! His notoriety as a white Anglo-Saxon heterosexual male from a privileged background! Then came a striking admission. Don’t tell anyone, he confided, but the best line in his speech had been pinched: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” It didn’t belong to him, he continued, “or indeed to Cate McGregor, it actually belongs to the former CDF (Chief of the Defence Forces) David Hurley, the Governor of NSW. David, I hope you’re watching.”
More surprises were in store. If viewers expected a former chief of the Australian Army to stand against people who sit down for the National Anthem, they were, well, disappointed. Immersed in his own award, Morrison hadn’t heard of the kerfuffle caused by Aboriginal Joe Williams, who was chosen Australian of the Year for Wagga but refused to stand for Advance Australia Fair. It was not the first time. Williams in an NITV interview said he never stands: “I do not believe the current anthem represents this country’s First Nations people.”
Morrison conceded: “My immediate reaction would have been ‘That sounds disrespectful’, but I’ve now listened to the answers of my fellow panelists – I’ve listened to them – and I haven’t just respected them, I’m now thinking, well, my original frame of reference here was not broad enough.” A general who needs a frame of reference to consider whether Australians who call themselves citizens should stand for the National Anthem needs an intellectual Zimmer frame. Moral cowardice can explain, if not excuse, many things, but even it has its limits.
Up to this point, Morrison was defensive, evasive, self-deprecating — perhaps fearful, or so a reasonable person might guess, of antagonizing the morally superior crowd he considers himself as AOTY to be representing. But he came to life and spurred his hobby horse in a wild leap over the trenches when someone was so foolish as to suggest (a la Mark Latham) that domestic violence actually peaked eight years ago.
“It’s not about the statistics. It’s about the lives that are being taken and damaged here. What do you want to do? You want to compare a particular figure from a year to a year?” he began. “We are, as a society, becoming more aware of, I think, the greatest social challenge that we face and that is domestic violence in this country and nothing should be said to take our attention from it … Get real, Australia. We run the risk, at times, of being a nation of bystanders comforted by a few statistics. Let me tell you, there are people dying and people whose lives are absolutely ruined as a result of domestic violence and, what’s more, we are all, as a society, the victim. That’s bullshit!”
This re-booted the Morrison operating system, prompting a reprise of his speech when accepting the AOTY award, an address in which he promised to continue the work of predecessor Rosie Batty. But what, exactly, does the retired general intend to do? He is not a social worker. He is not a philanthropist able to endow a chain of women’s shelters. Can he really do anything about the complex causes of family tension and breakdown, or will he merely lament their effects? Will he continue the orchestrated blaming of men, as in all men, not just the small minority of violent oafs and thugs?
If he plans to stump the country at the taxpayers’ expense, exercising some sort of implied but un-legislated right to repeat the “domestic violence kills” mantra, he will soon exhaust the country’s patience. Unlike Batty, his rhetoric is not based in personal tragedy. His sounded more like an election platform.
And why would he dismiss statistical evidence? If he is going to bring any intellectual rigour to this self-appointed crusade, Morrison needs to start from a sound statistical base, not soft emotional one.
As the Q&A questioner, Ronaldo Aquino, correctly pointed out, the Australian Institute of Criminology records that rates of “intimate partner homicide” have declined from their peak in 2007-08. There were 109 such deaths in 2010-12, compared with 122 in 2008-10. What is often regarded as the most comprehensive national survey of inter-personal violence is the ABS Personal Safety Survey, last conducted in 2012 and due to be re-run this year. But there are problems with it. First, it needs to be remembered that this was a household survey; second, that responses were voluntary. A sample of 30,000 people was selected, but only 17,050, or 57%, of men and women completed the questionnaire.
Some of the organisations which quote the results omit the ABS caveat that “due to the relatively small numbers of persons experiencing certain types of violence, some of the estimates provided within the data cubes are subject to very high sampling error.” Nevertheless, it found that 17% of all adult women and 5.3% of all adult men in the survey had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15. (The ABS report seems unaware of the ambiguity in its use of “since”. Did it mean “continuously since”.) The ABS extrapolates these percentages to reflect the incidence of violence in the total population, thus: 1,479,900 women and 448,000 men. This statistical trick, from a sample of 17,000 returns, must be viewed as highly questionable.
Similarly, an accompanying table shows 1.5% of respondent women over the age of 18 had experienced partner violence in the last 12 months (2011-12). For men the figure was 0.6%. The ABS then derived the following figures for the total population of those over 18 years old: women, 1,479,900; men, 448,000. I doubt whether anyone gives credence to these figures, but are they the basis for the scary publicity for the anti-DV campaigners?
In the programme, Morrison cited the shocking Canberra murder of Tara Costigan in February last year, in which a former partner killed her with an axe, allegedly in a rage at the protection order she had taken out. But will he look beneath the surface to ask why a young mother of two children entered into a relationship with a violent man and bore him a child? Are such relationships doomed? Are they entered into in desperation or out of poverty?
Morrison could also well extend his concerns to domestic violence against men. Has he talked to the One in Three campaign organisers? They point out that 75 males were killed in domestic homicides in that same 2010-12 period. That equates to one every ten days, compared with the one a week claimed for female victims.
Domestic violence is now a mainstream and populist issue in Australia, launched on, and sustained by, public sympathy prompted by a number of headline tragedies. It is no longer enough to feature the problem as a female-victim issue, but to find out why potentially and often obviously unstable relationships are entered into, and what personal factors immerse them in hatred and violence.
If David Morrison wants to help in this, he needs to widen his perspective. Most of all, he needs to recognise the bias in the influence of those he has been relying on for advice.