What Maurice Williamson’s shock tells us about domestic violence

In defending himself against allegations of misusing ministerial authority, Maurice Williamson said of the domestic violence charges against Donghua Liu:

He had been “shocked” at the charges because Liu had required a clean record to get a New Zealand visa.

The logic is this: Liu needed a clean record to get a visa, Liu had a clean record ergo Liu couldn’t be the kind of person who commits violent acts against the women in his family. But the logic isn’t built on good foundations.

To get the basic poor assumption out of the way first, a clean record tells you only one thing: that a person has a clean record. It indicates a certain comparative level of lawfulness, but it’s not definitive proof that a person has always been law-abiding or well-behaved.

The more insidious assumption is this: that you can just tell if a person is violent or abusive by looking at them, their police record, and the size of their investment in New Zealand.

Domestic or intimate partner violence is a huge problem which is consistently under-reported or not treated seriously by law enforcement (especially if the accused abuser is rich or famous).

Even when it’s unavoidably brought to public attention, no excuse is too outrageous. Remember Charles Saatchi arguing that choking Nigella Lawson in a restaurant was just a ‘playful tiff’?

What we see in Maurice Williamson’s shock, and his subsequent behaviour, is a the reality of our general attitudes to domestic violence. Like the idea that domestic violence cases aren’t clear-cut crimes the way burglary or murder is. Or that a wealthy person with a clean record should get a stronger presumption of innocence, unlike the great unwashed.

In the meantime, the PSA have released more research into the impacts of domestic violence on workplaces:

Over half of the more than 1600 Public Service Association union members surveyed reported some experience with domestic violence, and 26 per cent had direct experience of family violence.

… PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott … had heard of a case where a government department was reluctant to give an employee time off work to attend a family court hearing about the welfare of her children.

When a senior government minister like Maurice Williamson thinks it’s appropriate to act the way he has, we can’t be surprised that domestic violence is a widespread, under-appreciated problem in New Zealand.

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