Hannah Clarke’s parents say their daughter was being coercively controlled by Rowan Baxter for years before her murder. Photo: Supplied
Hannah Clarke’s parents say their daughter was being coercively controlled by Rowan Baxter for years before her murder. Photo: Supplied

Is it time to outlaw dangerous control freaks?

Calls for new laws to target coercive control have risen since the horrific murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children on a suburban Brisbane street in February.

A parliamentary inquiry into domestic, family and sexual abuse will examine the dangerous behaviour, described as a precursor to unimaginable violence.

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Fisher MP Andrew Wallace, who is the chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, said coercive control was a common theme from the hundreds of submissions and victim accounts heard during the inquiry.

"Unfortunately … domestic violence is endemic in Australia," Mr Wallace said.

"Try as we might, governments of all persuasions, of all jurisdictions, we don't seem to be putting a dint in it.

"And that's disturbing."

 

 

Coercive control is a term used to describe a range of abusive behaviours which aren't always physical.

They include financial abuse, isolating someone from their family and friends, threats to hurt or kill them and surveillance.

The UK introduced laws which recognised coercive control as a crime in 2015.

While many agree coercive control is a strong indicator a perpetrator of domestic and family violence could go on to seriously assault or even kill their partner, most of Australia does not recognise it as a criminal offence.

Some states and territories recognise coercive control under civil law, but Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction that has introduced specific criminal offences.

An inquest into Hannah Clarke and her children's deaths will be held next year to examine the days leading up to the attack and determine if anything could have been done to save them.

Hannah's parents, Sue and Lloyd Clarke, told The Guardian in a recent interview they hoped there would be strong recommendations for coercive control laws.

"We want to make sure the community gets to know about coercive control," Mr Clarke told The Guardian.

"Education needs to be brought in - not just state, but nationally."

Hannah Clarke and her children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey were murdered by Rowan Baxter in February.
Hannah Clarke and her children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey were murdered by Rowan Baxter in February.

Mr Wallace would not foreshadow what recommendations the parliamentary inquiry would give to the Federal Government, but said tackling coercive control would be discussed.

"Coercive control is certainly something that we are looking very closely at and what, if anything, governments should do," he told the Daily.

"We know that coercive control is very much a precursor to substantial violence.

"But for every group that says (criminalising coercive control) is a good idea, there's at least another group that says 'no it's a bad idea'."

In a recent article in The Conversation, three experts wrote Australia was not ready to criminalise coercive control.

They argued successful law reform would rely on victims' willingness and ability to involve police, which would ignore the fact many victims were hesitant to report their abuse over fears they wouldn't be believed or the abuse would escalate if police intervened.

Queensland lawyer and domestic violence victim Leila Fisher, who took civil action against her ex-husband, said governments needed to step up and introduce more laws to protect victims.

"Coercive control is a strong indicator of what comes next," she said.

"Why wouldn't you criminalise something like that?"

According to the Federal Government's 2016 Personal Safety Survey, one in four women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.

Mr Wallace said it was important to remember one in 16 men were also victims of domestic violence.

"Ultimately, domestic and family violence comes down to a lack of respect," he said.

"If you respect your partner, then it's very difficult to be committing acts of domestic violence against them."

Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace is chairing a parliamentary inquiry into domestic and family violence. Photo: Patrick Woods
Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace is chairing a parliamentary inquiry into domestic and family violence. Photo: Patrick Woods

Mr Wallace said the parliamentary inquiry had heard virtually all domestic and family violence services had experienced about a 60 per cent increase since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I don't think we've seen the extent of it yet," he said.

"If you're locked down with the perpetrator then you are not in a situation safely to be able to make a report.

"It's possible, indeed likely, that those figures will increase even more."

Along with coercive control, the parliamentary inquiry is also throughly examining how to tackle technology-facilitated abuse.

Mr Wallace said after hearing from representatives from Facebook, Google and online banking platforms, it was clear technology-facilitated abuse was on the rise.

"At the moment social media platforms and all their many guises are essentially unregulated," he said.

"Many of them are doing some terrific work in improving the security of women, but is it enough? Well, that's a question that we'll need to make a determination on."

Recommendations from the inquiry are due to be tabled in parliament in March. They will contribute to the next National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, which is due to be released in 2022.


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