Alcohol and domestic violence: a national blind spot
For many years, even though it was a huge problem, Australia managed to ignore the epidemic of domestic violence. But since Rosie Batty was named 2015 Australian of the Year for placing domestic violence on the national agenda, it has been increasingly difficult to keep on ignoring this issue.
Yet in some areas, ignoring the pivotal role of alcohol in domestic violence remains a national blind spot. This is despite the fact that alcohol is to violence as water is to fish.
Admittedly, we would still experience some violence even if alcohol did not exist but there is no doubt that binge drinking and other misuses of alcohol make violence much more frequent and severe, especially in young males.
Between 80 and 100 Australian women are killed by their male partners every year. It is deeply shocking that an Australian woman is more likely to be murdered in her own home by her male partner than anywhere else or by anyone else. According to the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), about half of reported domestic violence incidents and up to 47 per cent of child protection cases involve alcohol. Moreover, one in seven presentations at hospital emergency departments in Australia were related to alcohol. In some hospitals, it was one in three. Who would have guessed this from the media coverage of alcohol and drugs?
A few undoubtedly tragic deaths from ecstasy and we have a media frenzy. But the 15 or so alcohol-related deaths occurring, on average, every day in Australia still escapes our national attention.
How is it possible that we can ignore the carnage from our favourite drug, alcohol, and at the same time obsess about the much less harm from illicit drugs? Part of the answer is that drugs such as ecstasy provide a useful distraction for the politically powerful liquor industry.
Alcohol is not just a common factor in domestic violence; it is also a common factor in verbal abuse and physical violence. Sadly, these are common experiences. A few years ago a reputable Drug Strategy Household Survey found that about one in four Australians were victims of alcohol-related verbal abuse; 13 per cent were made to feel fearful by someone under the influence of alcohol; and 4.5 per cent aged 14 years or older had been physically abused by someone under the influence of alcohol.
In June 2015, Batty supported calls for a levy on alcohol to fund more effective responses to alcohol misuse. In doing so the courageous campaigner noted, “Alcohol is involved in up to 65 per cent of family violence incidents reported to police and up to 47 per cent of child abuse cases in Australia”. She added, “alcohol was also consumed by the perpetrator in more than a third of intimate partner homicides”.
A recent Australian study funded by FARE and undertaken by the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research found that “more than 1 million children are affected in some way by others’ drinking, 140,000 are substantially affected and more than 10,000 are in the child protection system because of a carer’s drinking”. The study also found that in 2011 there were almost 30,000 police reported incidents of alcohol-related domestic violence. This was the case in just those states where such data is available: NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
As FARE chief executive Michael Thorn rightly says: “Alcohol-related family and domestic violence occurs all too frequently in Australia”.
“Because of the scale of alcohol-related problems and the large numbers of children and families affected, as a society, we need to be doing all we can to reduce the incidence and severity of the harms.”
In the circumstances, it is hard to refute the conclusion that all governments in Australian ought to embrace a broad public health approach with a strong focus on prevention.
It is now clear that there is no quick-fix, single-bullet solution to Australia’s domestic violence problem. But it is also clear that there will be no major advance in relation to domestic violence unless and until the policy responses include some effective measures to rein in excessive drinking. Critical to this, as Thorn points out, will be “measures that reduce the availability, target the price, and regulate the promotion of alcohol”.
With Australians starting to return from their holidays still full of New Year’s resolutions to do better in 2016, it’s well and truly time that we started to take seriously the often pivotal role that alcohol plays in domestic violence.
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, including his memoir My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey.
The Canberra Times, Saturday January 2, 2016. Also in The Brisbane Times & The Age, Saturday January 2, 2016.