Ballina-on-Richmond Rotary Club’s domestic and family violence prevention campaign is rippling far beyond the Northern Rivers, sparking interest and support from across Australia and the wider Pacific. The Echo caught up with Rotary District Governor Dave Harmon to find out more.
The reality of the domestic violence crisis came home to Mr Harmon when he attended the 2018 funeral of his friend’s sister in Kyogle. This was a woman who was murdered by her partner in front of her three young children, sadly far from an isolated incident. Dave Harmon spoke to his wife Robyn, then to the local Rotary Club board meeting. The Ballina Club decided to take an active stand.
In November 2019 there was a community walk through the streets of Ballina to highlight the DV issue, which was attended by 800 people. Since then, Rotary’s ‘No to Domestic Violence’ campaign has continued to snowball.
As part of a major international community organisation, Rotary’s Zone 8 covers 16 countries, including Australia, New Zealand and PNG, with 20 district governors, of which Dave Harmon is one.
Thanks to his strong push from Ballina, domestic and family violence is now a common project and campaign, throughout the Pacific zone.
‘This is the first time in over 30 years that we’ve actually had a common cause that has united us,’ he explained. ‘In October last year in Canberra, that’s the first time all my cohort met in person. And I presented to them a proposal, about domestic and family violence, and how it’s helped transform our club and connected with the community.
‘They unanimously accepted the idea, and said right, let’s do it.’
Many Ballina shire businesses and organisations now wear the purple shirts every Friday, and the idea is catching on, bringing the issue out into the open, where it can be dealt with. Other areas are being invited to join in.
‘What we’re trying to do is get our Rotary Clubs to connect with their community, at a local level, and organise an event. That might be a bike ride or a walk, it could be a vigil or a dinner, just something to get it out there.’
There’s now a webpage, set up by Rotary’s Jodie Shelley, where clubs can order their own purple shirts and posters, and find out what they need to organise their own DV marches and events, as well as learn more about the issue and what can be done to help.
Sixteen days of activism
Coming up later this year is sixteen days of activism against domestic and family violence, from 25 November to 10 December. ‘That’s our call to action,’ explained Mr Harmon.
‘Our main national day for Australia will be Friday the first of December. We are hoping to have clubs activate all throughout Australia.’
In Ballina there will be a big public walk and a speaker with lived experience of domestic violence (last year it was Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader, who was nearly killed by her former partner).
Dave Harmon is currently in the process of getting more Rotary districts involved, interstate. There is already a formal partnership with NSW Police. ‘I’m still negotiating with Queensland,’ he said. ‘They’re still not over the line yet, but I’m hopeful that they’ll come on board soon.
‘We’re getting partners on board to make this bigger and better.’
As a volunteer, Dave Harmon is not paid for his many hours of work on the DV initiative, but his passion is clear. ‘You can see it’s making a difference,’ he said. ‘It’s about encouraging the conversation. If other towns and cities can folllow Ballina’s lead, we can raise awareness in the community. It’s about prevention.’
Mr Harmon says the sixteen days of activism will focus on gender-based violence, as well as domestic violence against children.
Is the current economic situation making things worse?
‘Domestic violence crosses all boundaries, socio-economic and racial,’ said Mr Harmon.
‘Of course, drugs, alcohol and financial circumstance can increase it. But certainly, you’ll find in the rich suburbs, it’s just as prevalent as in the poor ones.’
He says the DV statistics peaked during COVID, and have since settled and plateaued somewhat, ‘ but we’re still getting that one woman a week in Australia, murdered by an intimate partner or someone she knows.
‘In terms of police stats, around 60-70 per cent of police work is domestic violence related. So with police, you can imagine the resources that’s been put into it – and that’s not fixing the problem, you know.
‘The NSW Police Commissioner says this is the most serious social justice issue facing society today: domestic and family violence. Police put it up there equivalent to terrorism. That’s how seriously they take it. In terms of their manpower hours, it’s worse.’
Mr Harmon’s strategy with Rotary is to focus on the problem before it becomes acute, with awareness and education about safe relationships for young people, such as the successful Love Bites program in schools, which he hopes will be emulated by other communities who want to take practical action.
New banners about to roll out in conjunction with NSW Police will say ‘Stop the violence, end the silence.’
Dave Harmon spent two days last week in Canberra and Sydney, talking to interested parties from across the political spectrum about the DV issue and a national launch for the major DV events later this year.
Meetings including Richmond MP Justine Elliot (Assistant Minister for Social Services and the Prevention of Family Violence), Queensland Senator Larissa Waters (Greens Spokesperson for Women and Democracy), Angie Bell (Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Youth), and Kerrynne Liddle (Shadow Minister for Child Protection and the Prevention of Family Violence).
He and his wife Robyn also met with the Governor-General, David Hurley, for the launch of Child Protection Week, in relation to the Love Bites program.
So are you going to be able to keep saving the world in your spare time?
‘Well, maybe not, but we’ve come so far!’ said Dave Harmon.
‘I think we’re nearly at the peak of the mountain. We’ve been working for five years on this, and we’ve really gathered a lot of momentum, a lot of support. You look at the impact on the community. It’s huge. We’re in a different place now.’
He said the DV issue has also brought new members into Rotary. ‘We have 80 members now with our Ballina-on-Richmond Club, including our satellite club, and we’re the third biggest club in this zone. We only have a population of 10,000 people on the island, and we’re bigger than clubs like Sydney.
‘It’s because we connect with causes and campaigns that are relevant, and the community want to be part of it. We don’t stop. We’re not afraid to take on tough projects or campaigns that people otherwise won’t look at, like mental health last year, for example.
‘This is a crucial community,’ he said.
Don’t be a bystander
While Dave Harmon acknowledges it’s been stressful for Ballina Rotary to take the lead on the DV issue, there are also plenty of rewards, including the new partnerships with police that are changing the situation on the ground.
‘They want people in the community to have the conversation,’ said Mr Harmon.
‘It’s a bit like drink driving. It took twenty or thirty years to finally get that message through. But you know, we have to start somewhere. And this is about breaking down that silence.’
He’s proud to say ‘little sleepy Ballina’ is leading the country on the issue, and everyone in the community can play a part.
‘Be the voice of change, you know? Step up, have the conversations and call it out. Don’t be a bystander. Half the problem is people are bystanders. You’ve just got to get in there and be brave.’
If you are being impacted by domestic, family or sexual violence, contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737732), 24 hours a day, seven days a week for confidential support.
If this story has brought up other issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.