By Phil Cleary
Phil Cleary’s sister Vicki was murdered by her ex-boyfriend 32 years ago. Phil is a member of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC). The first of its kind, VSAC is made up of a diverse group of 12 people with lived experience of family violence. VSAC was set up to ensure the unique insights of people who have experienced violence, and their loved ones, are integral to all levels of policy development and service delivery.
This year’s Valentine’s Day, Thursday 14 February, marked 30 years since a jury found Peter Keogh not guilty of the murder of my 25-year-old sister, Vicki Cleary, under the now abandoned provocation defence. Vicki was attacked by Keogh as she parked outside her place of work, the Shirley Robertson Kindergarten, in Coburg on 26 August 1987. Not surprisingly, I never accepted Justice George Hampel’s ruling that Keogh was entitled to a provocation defence. It seemed contrary to my sister’s lawful rights that her ex-boyfriend, armed to the teeth, could lay in wait outside her workplace for 45 minutes, attack her with a knife as she parked her car, and be entitled to a provocation defence on the grounds that her actions might have caused him to lose self-control.
The granting of a provocation defence to Keogh, the manslaughter verdict and the sentence of three years and 11 months left me believing the justice system was inherently patriarchal and had to be reformed. Outside the court, where the verdict was announced at 6pm on Valentine’s Day in 1989, I delivered the following assessment:
We just feel in the face of all the evidence the only reasonable verdict was guilty of murder. This, in a way, is a test case for women and should be taken up and seriously considered by the feminist movement. The verdict of not guilty (on murder) cheapens my sister's life and cheapens women. It reduces women to chattels and property in domestic relationships.
That it took 15 years of campaigning to bring the provocation law down in Victoria should, I believe, be seen as an indictment of the justice system. Years of research and hours in courtrooms watching the trials of ‘wife killers’ has only strengthened my hope that in time, as part of crucial ongoing improvements to the system, there will be an apology to my sister and all the other sisters taken and subsequently belittled in courtrooms by the provocation defence. There’s hardly a provocation trial I’ve pored over that isn’t manifestly shameful. In case after case, all the dead woman had done ‘wrong’ was flee a violent, bullying man. Yet in case after case such men were treated like victims, while the women they killed were reduced to lying, cheating provocateurs. Sadly, despite the provocation law being abandoned in 2005, on the grounds that it relegated women to chattels, there has been no inquiry into how many women were reduced to chattels in courtrooms in the state of Victoria.
It’s ironic that while I was reflecting on the anniversary of the unfathomable manslaughter verdict handed down to Peter Keogh 30 years ago, the rambling anti-feminist views of Mark Latham were doing the rounds. Violence against women has nothing to do with patriarchy or male sense of entitlement, he says. Latham has probably never read a courtroom transcript dealing with a family violence murder. If he did, he’d discover that overwhelmingly ‘wife murder’ and the killing of a woman’s child or children occurs in the context of separation. If he did some proper research, he’d discover that ‘wife murder’ is an act of revenge by men wedded to the notion of male entitlement.
The provocation law flourished with impunity and survived for 15 years after the seminal manslaughter verdict bestowed on Vicki Cleary’s killer because the laws of patriarchy continue to permeate the society. It’s because of these deeply held views of male entitlement that feminism and the campaign to stop violence against women is encountering resistance from men like Mark Latham. Today, while we campaigners look for strategies to end the crisis of violence against women, visiting clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson is being feted by the Murdoch press for telling women to put their careers aside and settle into family life under the care of a male provider. A dapper man of yesteryear in a three-piece suit, Peterson revels in his celebrity status as an enemy of feminism, trotting out glib statements about women.
It comes as no surprise that Peterson doesn’t have time for women who ‘find marriage oppressive’ and believes ‘enforced monogamy’ would be an antidote to male violence and the problems created ‘when men don’t have partners’. Like so many women of her time Vicki Cleary found her relationship so oppressive she had to leave. Sadly, the moral of the trial R v Keogh was that she should have heeded Jordan Peterson’s call and stayed put. The truth is, we don’t have time to dwell on the thoughts of men like Mark Latham and Jordan Peterson, for they are clinging to an old world stripped bare by first and second-wave feminists; a world where violence against women thrived in the family home and was legitimised in courtroom narratives. Romanticising that old world with simplistic catch-cries and feigned indignation no longer has the ear of policy makers or the majority of young men I meet in football clubs and workplaces.
Nevertheless, despite the progress we’ve made over the last 30 years we are still losing around 60 women a year to family violence and a handful of other women to stranger murder. While the murders roll on, more women than ever are reporting violence in the family home and seeking protection from men who believe their rights triumph over those of the woman in their life. However, I believe we are in a far better place than we were 30 years ago.
I recently had the opportunity of sharing some of these thoughts with the Western Integrated Family Violence Committee, a whole-of-sector reference group comprising key stakeholders committed to reducing family violence in Melbourne’s West. At that meeting I was taken by the interest of frontline professionals in the western suburbs in the role of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC) and its capacity to influence policy makers entrusted with the task of rolling out the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence.
The collective energy and commitment of the 100-plus women in the room to intercede and protect women and children enduring family violence in the west was truly inspiring. So too were the collective knowledge and sophisticated understandings articulated at the meeting.
Yes, an underbelly of men is resisting the progress made by the women’s movement and women in the frontline affirming the rights of abused women. Yes, that underbelly has historically found comfort in a justice system built on patriarchy and on narratives of victim blaming. But slowly and surely, notwithstanding its failings, the justice system has been put on notice and now the abusive men know there is genuine community and institutional resistance to the sense of entitlement that drives violence against women.
That the Victorian Government would instigate a royal commission into family violence and create a body such as VSAC is testament to the progress campaigners on the frontline have made and the possibilities that lie ahead. It’s a tough territory, but everyone in the sector should be proud of the changes they’ve wrought.
Reviewed 23 June 2021