Domestic assaults unacceptable

Bevan Dowling
Bevan Dowling

The pressure on Strath Taieri Community Board member Bevan Dowling to resign is growing, and rightly so.

Mr Dowling, convicted of assaulting a woman, is in a publicly-elected position and has not publicly fronted on the matter.  He and the majority of board members have dealt with the issue badly.

While the Strath Taieri Community Board is hardly the highest-profile organisation, and while it represents small numbers of residents over a large sparsely-populated area, it is a public body and its members are paid, albeit modestly, by the ratepayers of Dunedin city.

Elected local body members are disqualified from serving if they are convicted of an offence carrying a potential jail term of two years or more.

The maximum for Mr Dowling’s offence is one year. But just because he is not barred does not mean he should continue.

His supporters  might say he is a ‘‘good bloke’’ who works hard in the community, is civic-minded and contributes usefully to the board.  A fellow board member said he has always done a very good job.

But,  more light in recent years has been shone on assaults on women, particularly in homes.  It is a scourge on society, and is, appropriately, being taken more seriously.

Such assaults, sadly, have always been relatively common. Hopefully, various campaigns and publicity  are challenging and changing attitudes.  Hopefully,  the culture of  lashing out and bashing is passing, even if slowly.

In this context,  the Strath Taieri situation is a throwback to a darker past.  Mr Dowling and the board itself seems to think they can carry on, largely ignore the matter and hope it will go away.

That sends a terrible message.  What Mr Dowling did is being condoned, no matter the statement on behalf of the board that it wished to ‘‘make it clear’’ it did not support violence in any form.  The board, in consultation with police and other community leaders, would be looking at what practical support it could provide to the community including hosting an anti-violence workshop.

How extraordinary that elected members, local politicians, decided all media comment (which included the statement) should come from the Dunedin City Council.  Staff, theoretically guided on policy by their elected masters and mistresses, were in the invidious position of relaying the statement.

Interestingly, Mayor Dave Cull has also commented, and in a different way.  He said from a moral standpoint an elected member convicted of this type of offence is a poor example of a community leader and should step down.

Even though the court was told police had been called to Mr Dowling’s home for similar incidents in the past,  he and the board could have used what happened for good, to make a strong positive statement.  People can be forgiving, as long as remorse is genuine and the issue faced.  If Mr Dowling had publicly acknowledged his transgressions,  had promised to reform and had backed the likes of the white ribbon campaign,  reactions could well be very different.

Instead, the board  hunkered down, and chairman Barry Williams declined to comment.  Mr Dowling did not turn up at this week’s board meeting and no explanation was given.  One assumes there would have been no discussion were it not for a motion of no confidence put by board member Norma Emerson and supported by Cr Christine Garey.

Other board members,  Mr Williams, Joan Wilson, Jock Frew and Jacinta Stevenson, however, voted against it.

No doubt many around Middlemarch feel put upon by outsiders, that a siege mentality is arising.

They could do well, though, to compare Mr Dowling’s situation to those of prominent rugby players or sportsmen.  They might be well known and sports rely on public support.

But they experience potential widespread opprobrium even though they are not publicly-elected officials.   For crimes less than Mr Dowling’s, they are likely to have to stand down or receive other sanctions.  And they have to send emphatic messages that what they did was wrong.


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