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Alcohol and domestic violence: a national blind spot

2 January 2016 321 views 3 Comments

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.


  • Michael Thorn said:

    Alcohol and violence
    Ross Fitzgerald (“Alcohol and domestic violence: a national blind spot”, 1/12) captures what my foundation has been saying these past 12 months.
    While addressing gender inequality is a generational challenge, we can prevent alcohol-related family and domestic violence by reducing alcohol’s availability, ridding society of cheap booze and banning alcohol advertising that sexualises women.
    This will bring immediate benefits: fewer deaths and admissions to hospital. It might even mean that the booze-affected lens through which many men see their relationships with women will clear, allowing them to see the underlying relationship problem.

    Michael Thorn, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Deakin, ACT

    The Age, 4 January 2016

  • Michael O'Brien said:

    The evil of alcohol

    Ross Fitzgerald is right in his very good analysis of the correlation between alcohol and violence (“Booze-violence link is ignored”, Forum, January 2, p6). Perhaps his simile of fish and water should be substituted with fire and petrol. Given the amount of violence directly associated with the consumption of alcohol, even worse when ice comes into the picture, it is a crying disgrace that governments are not prepared to face the liquor industry and demand changes in many facets of that trade.

    For a start, the constant barrage of advertising showing beer consumption as a thing all healthy males do, and the drinking of wine or spirits as sophisticated and sexy, should be far more restricted, if not completely banned. We have stopped advertising tobacco because we are aware of the social dislocation caused by its consumption. What’s the difference to society between tobacco consumption and alcohol abuse? Ultimately, the latter has always been shown to be far more adverse, to affect far more persons than the consumer and to cause, by a significant degree, greater social upheaval.

    Furthermore, how does society rationalise the prohibition of drugs generally, yet allows alcohol to be freely available to anyone who is of age and who is, apparently, not intoxicated.

    The older I get, the more I realise just how stupid human beings really are. Good on you, Professor Fitzgerald for reminding us all.

    Michael O’Brien, Newtown, NSW

    The Canberra Times, 6 January 2016

  • Fred Turner & Leigh Watson said:

    Alcohol a big issue

    I thank ‘The Canberra Times’ for sharing Ross Fitzgerald’s article on alcohol and domestic violence (“Booze-violence link is ignored”, Forum, January 2, p6).
    It’s about time we started to address one of the nations’ biggest social issues. The statistics on alcohol are compelling. Having lived and worked in Sydney’s western suburbs most of my life I can tell you the issue is widespread. I agree with all of the issues Professor Fitzgerald raises in his article.
    It’s unbelievable that alcohol is involved in up to 65 per cent of family violence cases in Australia and we do nothing about it. It’s time that we started to address the community attitude to alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia.
    As Professor Fitzgerald rightly points out, there is no quick fix but doing nothing also means that we will not be addressing the major cause of family violence either.
    Addressing the issue would not only see a decline in domestic and other violence, it would also see a significant drop in alcohol-related visits to emergency departments of Australian hospitals. Surely this must be a very good thing?

    Fred Turner, Telopea, NSW

    It’s a no-brainer

    Ross Fitzgerald’s op ed piece on the connection between Australia’s relationship with alcohol and domestic violence is spot on. I’m no expert on domestic violence but it’s a no-brainer that the increase in Australia’s alcohol consumption is a strong factor in the increasing incidence of this social epidemic.
    Of course there are other factors, but it cannot be denied that Australia’s long relationship with alcohol and its connection to gender power issues has always, and is increasingly more so, an insidious factor in domestic violence. Ecstasy and ice attracts much more media and political interest than alcohol, although the latter has far greater negative social and health impacts – and as Fitzgerald writes this can be directly attributed to the “politically powerful liquor industry”.
    In a couple of weeks my family and I will be attending the Australia v India ODI at Manuka oval. Cognisant that some people may not want to sit with those imbibing alcohol, the organisers have considerately provided alcohol-free family zones. Paradoxically, however, the main sponsor for this event, at which a high proportion of attendees will be children, is a beer company.
    While the commercial realities of major sporting fixtures and events cannot be denied, one must ask is it necessary to actually name the event after an alcohol brand, and to actually incorporate the beer brand logo within the official emblem for the match?
    While ever we continue to give mixed messages about the role of alcohol in everyday life, it is going to be very difficult to separate the issue of alcohol from domestic violence.

    Leigh Watson, Macgregor

    The Canberra Times, January 8, 2016. The Sydney Morning Herald, January 9, 2016

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