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Ronaldo Aquino (audience member): Just over a week ago, Mark Latham alleged that the domestic violence figures are actually on the decline and he was chastised for it in social media and I checked the Australian Institute of Criminology and he was actually right. The figures actually peaked around 2007. So is this a case of the squeaky wheel gets the grease?
Tony Jones: … It might be a job for our fact checking unit on the issue of the statistics. – Q&A audience member Ronald Aquino and host Tony Jones, February 1, 2016
Domestic or intimate partner violence is a common problem in Australia. A reported one in six women, and one in 19 men, experience physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner in their lifetime.
Former politician Mark Latham raised the issue of domestic violence in a recent podcast. He didn’t actually use the term “decline” in his podcast in relation to domestic violence rates, but he did say surveys show women are safer than ever before, and told Channel 7 viewers recently that the rate of domestic assault and incidents has come down.
So how true it is for the audience member to say the data shows rates are declining?
To answer this, we can look to three key sources of national data that can be compared over time: intimate partner homicide figures collected by the Australian Institute of Criminology, the Australian Bureau of Statistics' (ABS) Personal Safety Survey, and reported police statistics.
Intimate partner homicide
For example, the most recently published figures report that in the two-year period between 2010 and 2012 there were 109 intimate partner homicides.
That is a small decrease from the 122 intimate partner homicides for the proceeding two-year period 2008 to 2010.
This trend follows a decline in homicides generally, though the rates do vary from year to year. The 2011-12 figures show a small increase in people being killed by their intimate partners from the 2010-11 period.
The ABS Personal Safety Survey
Not all domestic violence ends in a death, so not all domestic violence shows up in intimate partner homicide data.
The ABS Personal Safety Survey is the most comprehensive national survey of interpersonal violence in Australia and has been run twice – in 2005 and 2012. A fresh survey is due to run in 2016.
It asks survey respondents to self-report whether they have experienced various forms of violence either in the last 12 months, or since the age of 15.
In its 2012 report, the Personal Safety Survey found that 17% of all adult women (1,479,900) and 5.3% of all adult men (448,000) surveyed had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15.
In order to compare rates over time however, we need to look at the rates of partner violence reported in the last 12 months, between the Personal Safety Survey conducted in 2005 and the one conducted in 2012.
The ABS reported that between 2005 and 2012 there was no statistically significant change in the proportion of women and men who reported experiencing partner violence in the 12 months prior to the survey.
As the figures are based on self-reports by individuals about their victimisation, the Personal Safety Survey provides the best data we currently have about rates of domestic violence victimisation in Australia.
The first Personal Safety Survey was conducted in 2005. Prior to that was the Women’s Safety Survey of 1996. The 2005 Personal Safety Survey reports that “a smaller proportion of women reported violence in the 12 months prior to the survey in 2005 than in 1996”.
However, the ABS also cautions that extreme care must be taken when comparing the two survey results as some of the questions were different.
Police family incident statistics
Police statistics are another key source of information about rates of domestic violence.
In Australian states and territories there is not a single criminal offence of “domestic”, “family” or “partner” violence. Instead, informed estimates can be made based on data recording the number of domestic or family violence “incidents” attended by police.
The data vary between states and territories. In Victoria, for example, the Crimes Statistics Agency (CSA) reports a steady increase in the rates of family violence incidents attended by Victoria Police over the last five years.
In the year ending September 30, 2015, the CSA reported a Victorian family violence incident rate of 1216.2 per 100,000 people. That is an increase of 62.7% from the year ending September 30, 2011.
So we know more victims are coming forward. We don’t know if that’s because of increased awareness of domestic violence in the community, or improved police and justice responses, or better available support services.
But when we consider that the majority (80-95%) of self-reported victims of violence from a current partner did not report the violence to police, it may be some time before police statistics provide an accurate measure of any changes in the extent problem.
Despite small decreases in intimate partner homicides, Australian data from the last decade overall does not indicate that domestic violence is in decline.
The best available national data suggests the domestic violence victimisation rate is unchanged over the last decade, while police data shows substantial increases in the rate of incidents attended by police.
However, such increases in police statistics may indicate that more victims are coming forward and seeking support. It is difficult to know for sure whether or not rates of domestic violence are really increasing. – Anastasia Powell
This is a sound analysis. I would highlight the issue of under-reporting, as mentioned by the author. Under-reporting does make it difficult to make a broad statement that domestic violence is in decline. There is increased reporting, but does this just reflect a change in our attitude towards reporting domestic violence?
Police services are also now more vigilant in ensuring that action is taken in domestic violence situations. Our definitions of what is considered domestic violence are also becoming more broad, which can also affect reporting figures. I agree with the author’s verdict. – Terry Goldsworthy
UPDATE: This article was updated at 12.30pm on February 3, 2016 to include information on the 1996 Women’s Safety Survey.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.