A NSW parliamentary committee has said that coercive control should become a criminal offence in the state, in an effort to prevent domestic abuse related homicide deaths.
The parliamentary committee, chaired by Liberal MP Natalie Ward and made up by a group of politicians from across the political spectrum, tabled a report in parliament on Wednesday, with 23 recommendations relating to domestic abuse and coercive control. It comes after the committee’s ongoing inquiry into the issue since October last year.
“The pandemic of domestic abuse evidenced through statistics cannot be ignored,” the report states. “It is clear that coercive control is a factor and red flag for the horrific and preventable murder deaths of Australian women and children – some 29 murders in 2020 alone in NSW.”
The committee has recommended that coercive control be criminalised, but not before a considerable program of education, training and consultation with police, stakeholders and the frontline sector is delivered.
Coercive control refers to a pattern of dominating and controlling behaviour that essentially strips away the victim’s freedoms and sense of self. Criminalising this pattern of behaviour would signal a shift away from the current incident-based response to domestic violence.
In her foreword in the report, committee chair Natalie Ward said the committee’s “strongly held” unanimous view is that “implementation of a change to the lens through which we view domestic abuse” is urgently needed. Ward said the reform would only be undertaken in this term of parliament if there was an extensive implementation process, including “consultation, education, resources and lead-time”.
In the report, Ward described coercive control as a “domestic terrorism” and a “silent, hidden and deathly pandemic”.
“We also know that criminalising coercive control will not immediately end all domestic abuse. Nor will it result in thousands of arrests and convictions. But in my modest submission, these should not be the measures of success. We will never know of the murders that did not occur, as a result of prevention,” she wrote.
“More important than any of us, are the women and children who walk among us and are barely surviving the domestic terrorism of coercive control every day.”
The committee also recommended that a clear definition of domestic violence should be created, to include coercive and controlling behaviours. It was advised that this should be prioritised ahead of criminalising coercive control.
Other recommendations made in the report include that the NSW Government should seek to increase the maximum penalty for contravening an apprehended violence order, and should also advocate through the National Federation Reform Council for a nationally consistent definition of domestic abuse (that includes coercive and controlling behaviour), and for a national electronic database of domestic abuse orders.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said he moved to establish this coercive control inquiry in October last year, “with an open mind as to the ways in which government, and the community, could improve our response to domestic violence”.
The committee agreed that “systemic, whole of government reforms are needed to implement changes to domestic abuse laws”, and to adequately support victims.
It also said the Secretary of the Department of Communities and Justice should work with a range of bodies including NSW Police, health, education, justice, housing and Indigenous communities to prevent domestic abuse form occurring. The aim here should be to reduce the numbers of victims and perpetrators of abuse in the state.
Public awareness campaigns around coercive control, changes to school curriculums, and providing more support to frontline services was also suggested by the committee.