Coercive control

3. Coercive control and homicide

In February 2020, Australian feminists were gearing up to try to persuade politicians and lawmakers to follow the UK example and make coercive control a criminal offence.  A tragic event played into their hands. 

A Brisbane mother, Hannah Clarke, 31, and her three children were killed in a car fire, after her husband, Rowan Baxter, set the car alight before killing himself. Baxter had never been physically violent towards his wife but following the breakup of their marriage, Clarke was told by a police officer that because she sometimes had sex to keep him happy, she was a victim of domestic violence.

Read more about the sequence of events which followed, as the police officer’s decision to link requests for sex to domestic violence seems to be the initial trigger which led to Clarke’s sudden rationing of access to the children and eventually, as everything unravelled, the restraining order preventing him from going near the family. 

Naturally, such complexities were whitewashed in the overwhelming public grief about this appalling tragedy and anger at the perpetrator, who was simply declared “evil” in the subsequent coronial inquiry.  

But what was shocking was how quickly the domestic violence industry recruited Hannah Clarke’s grieving parents and cynically used them to promote their coercive control propaganda campaign. Within a week of the homicides, the ABC’s 7.30 Report had a Women’s Legal Service officer arguing that coercive control laws were necessary to prevent such tragedies. 

By May 2020, Lloyd and Sue Clarke were fully versed in the dogma, appearing on 7 News promoting the need for the new laws. The devastated couple were soon appearing in innumerable news stories, spear-heading the feminist campaign, and using their new foundation to warn of the dangers of coercive control and its link to domestic homicide. 

Where did this claimed link come from?

It seems that the claimed connection between domestic homicide and coercive control was largely cooked up here in Australia, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the Hannah Clarke tragedy. 

The claim by some media, and led by the ABC, that criminal laws against coercive control could have prevented this type of tragedy hadn’t featured in previous campaigns to criminalise coercive control – either in Tasmania or the UK and Ireland. So, what was the basis for the claim?

Initially, the ABC cited their favoured international expert, Evan Stark , as the source of this alleged connection. However, while he advocates criminal laws against coercive control, at no point does Stark argue that they would prevent partner homicide. The words “murder” and “homicide” don’t appear anywhere in his book’s chapter which argues for criminalisation. Nonetheless, the ABC’s error has been repeated by others in the media and the usual ideologues in the feminist movement.Tellingly, Evan Stark himself made a submission to the NSW Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control. In his submission addressing “Why Do It?” he makes no claims about prevention of domestic homicide.

There is also no evidence from other jurisdictions (such as Tasmania and the UK) that coercive control laws have had any impact on the safety of women. The rate of domestic homicides in the UK was unaffected by the introduction of coercive control laws. Similarly, in Tasmania there is no evidence that their coercive control laws (introduced in 2004) made any difference to homicide rates. 

In fact, academic research has even debunked Stark’s theories which assume a relationship between coercive control and aggression, and his claim that males are more likely to evidence this connection.  So, not only is there no evidence that coercive control is linked to homicide, there is no evidence of a link to violence at all. (Indeed, there is no evidence of any difference between the degree of coercive control exercised between the sexes, i.e. that it is gendered.)

Suddenly there’s advocacy research to make the case

When the NSW government was setting up their inquiry designed to recommend new criminal coercive control laws, Attorney General Mark Speakman supported the case for coercive control with a sensational claim from the NSW Domestic Violence Review Team report of 2017-9 that 99% of domestic homicides were linked to coercive control. No convincing evidence was provided to support that claim, let alone any details about how their “research” was conducted. 

The truth about this claim was exposed in an excellent speech in November 2022 to the NSW parliament by One Nation’s Mark Latham, who pointed out this Review Team had produced a string of reports since it was established in 2010, clearly demonstrating that socio-economic factors are key to explaining domestic homicide: poverty; mental health issues; Aboriginality; cultural factors; drug and alcohol abuse and past criminal records. 

But then along came a new Review Team head, State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan, and suddenly all that socio-economic data disappeared, to be replaced by what Latham called “politically-laden advocacy.” According to Latham, her 2017-19 report was an example of what he called “mission search” namely, “an organization retrofitting its research in response to a newly fashionable theory.” The Review Team, mainly women with backgrounds like social worker and victim advocacy, were told to look for examples of “coercive control,” which unsurprisingly they found 99% of the time. Here’s Latham’s speech which was presented to the Inquiry and then duly ignored. 

Reading the report, it is clear that scant regard was given to objective analysis. On no view could it be concluded that the report substantiates a claim that coercive control actually predicts homicide.  

And so, coercive control duly became part of the criminal law of NSW, with the government congratulating itself for having passed this “life-saving” law reform. 

“This is the tragedy of Australian domestic violence policy. Clueless Ministers have swallowed the ‘patriarchy’ line because it is too bruising politically, on social and mainstream media, to stand against it. The feel-good factor of mouthing feminist slogans and being cheered on at woke corporate lunches has been irresistible,” said Latham, one of the few truth-tellers in our political landscape. 

Read all about it in Part 4 – Roll out to target men