Quentin Bryce: Australia needs to 'get real' about domestic violence

"I just feel very, very deeply about the responsibility I have as a woman to make any contribution I can to addressing ...

"I just feel very, very deeply about the responsibility I have as a woman to make any contribution I can to addressing this issue." Photo: Glenn Hunt/Fairfax Media

"I know I'm probably shouting at you," Quentin Bryce says, almost apologetically. "I feel so strongly about it. And so determined."

The former governor-general is not shouting – can you ever imagine it? – but her usually melodious tones have a steely edge.

She is speaking about domestic violence, which she describes as "the most grave human rights issue in the world".

Speaking out: Former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce has been particularly affected by childrens' accounts of abuse.

Speaking out: Former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce has been particularly affected by childrens' accounts of abuse. Photo: Andrew Meares

In Australia, about one in three women has experienced physical violence and almost every week a woman is killed by her former or current partner.

Advertisement

"I cannot believe that in 2014, in our society, we are seeing this horrific, abhorrent behaviour increasing," Bryce says. 

In her career as an academic, community advocate and vice-regal representative, Bryce has been working around the issue for decades. But as the chair of a new Queensland government taskforce on domestic violence, it is now her prime focus.

"I just feel very, very deeply about the responsibility I have as a woman to make any contribution I can to addressing this issue," Bryce says.

Since starting work on the taskforce – which is due to report to Premier Campbell Newman at the end of February – she has been inundated with stories of abuse.

Last week, a 20-something woman approached Bryce while she was waiting to collect her luggage at the airport.

The young woman told of how her mother would keep the car running at times in case the family had to make a quick getaway from their violent father.

"She just stood there for this long story – I must have missed my bag 10 times."

But for all the personal accounts, it is the ones about children that most upset Bryce, who is a mother of five and grandmother of 11.

"It brings tears to my eyes, really, the conversations with children," she says before talking of a nine year-old boy she met recently. 

"As grandmas do, I was talking about what did he want to do when he grew up. He just looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I don't want to be anything'."

A policewoman later told Bryce that one of the boy's parents had stabbed the other more than 20 times.

"I know from the research that I've been reading myself [that] no baby or toddler is too small to be traumatised by domestic violence," she says.

Bryce is adamant that domestic violence is not just an issue for the government to solve – all Australians have to "get real".

"We all have a responsibility here … nothing will happen without the community driving it," she says, adding that people need to talk about domestic violence for more than one day a year.

"The issue is one that for me calls up the word 'courage'.  It requires courage for a victim to tell her story, courage from each one of us to take action and not be a bystander and courage from perpetrators to seek help."

Along with chairing the taskforce, Bryce has been devoting her time, post-Yarralumla, to community organisations, particularly those for indigenous people.

Back in Brisbane and installed in an office at the Queensland University of Technology, she feels like she is going "back to the beginning". 

Having spent large chunks of her career at universities, Bryce says she loves being on a campus among young people again.

"They're so engaging and friendly. And I try and eavesdrop on their conversations," she says.

There is time for reflection, too, now that she is home.

"I've got 45 years of professional papers that need sorting out. If you open a cupboard here, they all come tumbling out."

And as she prepares for her 50th wedding anniversary to husband Michael next week, she enthuses about being to be closer to her family, after nearly six years in Canberra.

"I love being near my little grandchildren, some of them live a stone's throw away … all those gorgeous things."

But thinking about her do list, including the number of speeches, Bryce chuckles. "Frankly, I'm a bit too busy."  

It is eight months now since Prime Minister Tony Abbott made Bryce a dame.

But the former governor-general says it has "not really changed anything" for her - apart from the fact that people don't know what to call her. 

"[They] feel a bit awkward about it," she says, noting she has been called everything from "Dame Bryce" to "Your Honour".

Not that she cares about titles much, firmly correcting Fairfax Media during the interview that instead of Dame Quentin, she prefers "Quentin, thanks".