Meet Marika Ninness.
Marika died in John Hunter Hospital on Saturday, 21 December 2013, from injuries sustained after she was allegedly king hit and allegedly knocked to the ground outside the George Tavern near Stockland Green Hills shopping centre in East Maitland on 7 December 2013. Marika’s husband & sister held her hand as she died, 80 hours after life support was withdrawn. Marika’s funeral was attended by more than 350 mourners.
Marika’s boyfriend, Ross Albert Merrick was arrested at the scene and charged with causing grievous bodily harm by an unlawful act, recklessly causing grievous bodily harm and causing grievous bodily harm with intent. A statement of facts tendered in court accused Merrick of elbowing Marika to the head during an argument before midnight. He was subsequently accused of punching her and was bailed at a hearing on 13 December 2013. The charges were upgrade to murder on 22 December 2013. Merrick was remanded in custody until 23 December, when he was granted bail unopposed by the prosecution. Merrick missed a scheduled court appearance on 12 February due to ‘miscommunication’ between the defence, prosecution & court. That is the last report I’ve been able to find on Merrick’s case online. Apologies to the Hunter region media if they reported on the matter (the next hearing was set for 19 February), but it looks as though the case is not newsworthy enough after just three months. Marika Ninness died just 10 days before 18-year-old Daniel Christie was attacked in King’s Cross, but barring five paragraphs on 22 December, her case wasn’t reported by the Sydney Morning Herald (she didn’t even rate a mention in the Daily Telegraph). I understand that Sydney news editors might deem the death of a 35-year-old woman from a Hunter Valley town as of little interest to their readers, but that didn’t stop the Herald using her beautiful face in a gallery of 15 victims of street violence attached to this article calling for a political response to an ‘epidemic of street violence’ after Daniel Christie’s death. The O’Farrell government’s ‘one punch’ legislation, drafted on the back of a fag packet after a media campaign focused on the deaths of two Sydney teenagers, is inner city-centric (barring the statewide mandatory band of off-license alcohol sales after 10pm) & will do nothing to prevent the ‘epidemic’ from affecting women, men and children in suburban, regional and country areas. Of the 15 people the Herald refers to as victims of ‘king hit punches’, two (Thomas Kelly & Daniel Christie) lost their lives within the O’Farrell government’s ‘CBD Precinct’. Six of those pictured died in Victoria; one in Queensland. Of the NSW victims, two died in Maitland (including Marika Ninness); one in Windsor; one in Woolooware in Sydney’s south; one at Kingscliff, near Tweed Heads; one in Coffs Harbour and one in Griffith:
- Christopher Leicester died in Woolooware, near Cronulla in 2007 after he was punched, knocked to the ground & kicked in the head repeatedly by three youths who thought he had insulted them. They were found guilty of manslaughter in 2009.
- Connan McLeod died after he was punched by Michael Ryan in the car park of Windsor KFC in May, 2011. Both men were heavily intoxicated. Mr Ryan was acquitted of manslaughter in 2012, the jury deeming the punch self-defence. Mr McLeod and his brother-in-law (who, the court heard, has a long history of violence) had been involved in a scuffle inside a pub. A few minutes’ later, Mr McLeod chased Mr Ryan through a shopping mall, shouting, ‘I am going to kill you’. Mr Ryan punched Mr McLeod once, & pushed him away. Mr McLeod lost his balance and fell.
- Scott Snodgrass died after an altercation with a 20-year-old man at a taxi rank in Coffs Harbour in May 2013. The man was questioned by police and released without charge & the matter remains under investigation.
- 50 year old Kelvin Kane died at Kingscliff, near Tweed Heads. His alleged killer, Craig Field, has been charged with murder, with the case adjourned until 7 March.
- Jamie Purdon died after he & his friends were chased by a 17-year-old & 15-year-old at Maitland Show. The 17-year-old’s custodial sentence was reduced to periodic detention for giving evidence against the 15-year-old, whose conviction for manslaughter was overturned as a miscarriage of justice by the Court of Criminal Appeal (he awaits a re-trial). The teenager who punched Mr Purdon was subsequently charged with assaulting another man a year later.
- Andrew Farrugia‘s teenage killers were convicted of manslaughter. It is a monument to the Sydney Morning Herald that the dreadful, racist ranting of columnist Paul Sheehan was picked up by the ‘white nationalists’ at Stormfront. Really, what a feather in your cap.
These are stories of Australian men and boys – at homes, in parks, at restaurants, at parties, at pubs and clubs. Verbally & emotionally abusing, harassing, stalking and physically attacking people. Kicking them, stomping on them while they’re on the ground. Assaulting strangers, acquaintances, friends, and at least once a week, killing female partners. It’s symptomatic of a pervasive culture of impunity, a word Westerners are more comfortable assigning to African warlords. People who think that it is OK to do as they see fit, whether it’s getting into a fight with a stranger or verbally degrading the person they ‘love’. They aren’t cowards. ‘Coward’ implies they lack the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. Instead, they rely on a cowardly society which is uncomfortable with intervening in ‘unpleasantness’. We fail to stand up & say, ‘hey, you: if you want to behave like that, you’re not welcome here. You do not meet the standard we as a society expect of you’. We set the ‘what’s acceptable’ bar so low, & make it pointless by looking away when it’s breached. As Sydney city’s top cop, Commander Mark Murdoch told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘you could close every pub in Sydney at midnight and have a million cops on the street, but it won’t do anything when people believe they can behave in that fashion and get away with it’.
People convicted under the new NSW government ‘one-punch’ laws may not ‘get away with it’ thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, but it is my view that mandatory minimums will prove as useful in preventing assaults as antibiotics are in killing a virus. Keeping people in prison for a set period of time, with no prospect of leniency, mitigation or change removes any incentive to learn and practice good behaviours. As I wrote previously, imposing mandatory minimums as a deterrent is based on the assumption that people are rational actors when they commit a crime. Randomly assaulting a person on the street is right up there with the least rational crimes. In what fresh hell could Wally Hung, who killed Scott Parnell be deemed ‘rational’? Both men were drunk at a 21st birthday party at Moreton Bay’s Bribie Island Rugby League Football Club. Parnell had previously hit Hung’s friend. While on bail for manslaughter, Hung delivered another single-punch assault while drunk. Hung was convicted of manslaughter in the Parnell case & assault occasioning bodily harm in the second case. Wally Hung is a violent man from the Planet Stupid or Ignorant. What he is not is ‘rational’, nor are the men & boys who killed the other people named in this article. If charged & convicted under the new mandatory minimum laws, they would have been locked up for longer periods, but would their behaviour have changed? Would a 15-year-old sentenced to eight years leave adult prison in his early 20s a reformed character? As Richard Ackland notes in The Age, there are no studies to assess the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences as a deterrent to crime in Australia, but US Attorney General Eric Holder (with a wealth of data & research available to him), last year issued a memo urging prosecutors not to lay charges that would trigger mandatory minimums for certain non-violent drug offences.
Worse, we have these bright & shiny punitive measures while services which attempt to address the causes of violence, drug & alcohol abuse are being cut back, or are thin on the ground (NB: I’ve attempted to source this information as widely as possible, if any readers know of preventative or educational strategies & services specifically targeting alcohol, please let me know, I will publish an update). According to NSW Health’s Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Office (MHDAO), the NSW Government Drug and Alcohol Budget for the 2013/14 financial year is $170 million, with more than $120 million allocated to Local Health Districts to provide frontline drug and alcohol services, almost all focused on treatment. The rest is farmed out to non-government organisations and other agencies to provide:
- residential rehabilitation services;
- education and prevention services; and
- encouragement to pharmacists to engage with the pharmacotherapy program
NSW Health’s Your Room project produces a fact sheet on alcohol abuse and the ‘Your Guide’ series on dealing with alcohol & how to have a good night out, available here. Programmes delivered through Life Education NSW cost $20 per student. Receives $1.8 million NSW Government funding (approximately $6 per student); The Department of Education & Communities (DEC) chips in $4 through ‘fundraising and other initiatives’, leaving parents to pick up the rest of the tab. For some people, $10 for a non-compulsory school activity is unaffordable; for many, it’s a disincentive.
Department of Education & Communities’ Drug Education Unit: closed. The Australia Drug Law Reform Foundation’s submission expressed reservations as to whether the Unit’s role had been effectively replaced:
“The highly regarded NSW Alcohol and Drug Education Programme (in the Education Department) has recently been closed. The work on alcohol previously undertaken by this department is now being undertaken by Drinkwise, an organisation which is, in effect, a branch of the alcohol beverage industry.”
DEC responded to the Foundation’s concerns with bureaucratese: the Unit hadn’t closed, it had been recalibrated. Screw that: a dedicated unit established & funded has been abolished, its work now delivered as part of the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum. Individual teachers decide how much time is spent on alcohol & drug education. Over years 7 – 10, students undertake 300 hours of PDHPE, while in years 11 and 12, Government school students must participate in the Crossroads program for 25 hours.
According to its website, Drinkwise is funded by the following companies:
- Accolade Wines Australia Ltd
- Aldi Stores
- Bacardi Lion Pty Ltd
- Beam Global Australia Pty Ltd
- Brown-Forman Australia Pty Ltd
- Coles Group Ltd
- Coopers Brewery Ltd
- Diageo Australia Ltd
- Carlton & United Breweries
- Lion (Lion-Beer, Spirits & Wine Pty Ltd)
- Moet Hennessy Australia & New Zealand Pty Ltd
- Premium Wine Brands Pty Ltd
- Suntory Australia Pty Ltd
- Treasury Wine Estates Australia Ltd
- Woolworths Ltd
In 2006 the Howard Government contributed $5 million over 4 years. In 2012 the Gillard Government contributed $600,000 for point of sale educational material to highlight the message ‘it is safest not to drink while pregnant’. Terrific. We have an ‘epidemic of alcohol-fuelled street violence’ and the body largely entrusted to deliver a preventative strategy is funded by grog merchants and a piss-ant government handout. Six of the 13-member Drinkwise board represent the alcohol industry.
On 31 January 2013, the University of NSW’s National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre announced a new school-based drug & alcohol study of 3,000 Victorian & NSW Year 8 students, one of several projects conducted by a new $2.5 million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre for Research Excellence (CRE) in Mental Health and Substance Use, launched by then federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek and federal Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler. Given the Abbott government’s approach to science, research and y’know, facts, we’ll see how long that lasts, and what, if anything, is done with the baseline data.
As for the ‘Newcastle Solution’ and the drop in assaults in non-domestic settings in the ‘CBD entertainment zone’, much is made of the non-displacement of violence, i.e. that drunks aren’t strolling off to venues with close proximity to the lock-out area to continue drinking. This straw man argument fails to give proportionate weight to the fact that venues in neighbouring suburbs are in largely residential areas & close before the lockouts enforced under the ‘Newcastle Solution’ take effect. In this eight-page report by researchers from the University of Newcastle & the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics & Research, only one paragraph acknowledges this as a factor in the non-displacement argument. Ugly exceptions to the ‘Newcastle Solution’, such as the near fatal assault of 23 year-old Kelsey Johnston on the night Marika Ninness died, are swept under the carpet by its advocates. Kelsey suffered bleeding on the brain from an alleged single-punch attack outside the Prince of Wales Hotel at Merewether. Merewether is a few minutes away from the Hamilton end of the lockout zone. The Prince of Wales closes at midnight.
On International Women’s Day, and the first real test of the new arrangements in inner-city Sydney, I remember Marika Ninness. While she died outside her home, her alleged killer was her partner. I remember that among the backflips Barry O’Farrell has performed on mandatory minimums was dumping them for sexual assaults. I remember that the deaths of 32 women in NSW in domestic violence situations last year sparked… a framework & a task force. If the epidemic of violence against women in NSW incited a response equal to the moral panic over street violence, we’d remember those 32 names – but it doesn’t, & we don’t.
UPDATE: Marika’s sister, Charnie Braz, contacted me this week. Merrick’s next court appearance is scheduled for 9 April 2014. In Charnie’s words, ‘the best thing you can do for us is promote fair and responsible reporting of violence against women’. This report by Nick Ralston, Amy Corderoy & Inga Ting in today’s SMH is a step in the right direction. I hope the editors feel their work is worthy of a broader campaign – & at least devote the same coverage to Merrick’s trial as it will Shaun McNeil’s (the man charged with murder over the death of Daniel Christie).