Australia in shock after former rugby league player kills estranged wife and three children

Giovanni Torre
A fire claimed the lives of a mother and her three young children in Brisbane, Australia

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said the country had been left "devastated" after four people, three of them children, died in a car fire in an apparent act of domestic violence.

Hannah Clarke, 31, and her children Aaliyah, six, Lainah, four, and three-year-old Trey, were killed when their car was set alight in suburban Brisbane on Wednesday morning.

Police believe Ms Clarke's estranged husband Rowan Baxter, the children's father, doused his family with petrol and burned them alive.

A witness told Queensland newspaper the Courier Mail that Baxter jumped into his estranged wife's car while she was on the school run, setting it alight before stabbing himself to death. The body of the 42-year-old former professional rugby league player was found on a footpath.

The horrific incident has caused a national outcry, leading to increasing calls for more to be done to tackle the problem of domestic violence in Australia.

Korri Loader, a friend of the victims, grieves at a makeshift memorial - Dan Peled/AAP Image via AP

Korri Lauder, a long-time friend of Ms Clarke, described the former champion trampolinist as "the definition of love".

She told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): "It's not just her family that's crushed, it's the entire trampolining community and Gymnastics Australia. It doesn't feel real… she'd do anything for those kids. When you think of family, you just think of her."

Local resident Matthew Christopher told ABC that domestic violence "has got to end" and said: "The amount of women that are being killed… it is unbelievable what's going on.

"How can this happen? It's got to end immediately. It doesn't matter whether it's the church, the football club, the politicians, the police, the schools – we've got to all work together."

On average, a woman is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia every week. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that, in 2016, one in three Australian women had experienced physical violence since they turned 15, with one in six having experienced stalking since the age of 15.

In 2018, a survey led by the country's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, assisted by the University of New South Wales, found that, of almost 18,000 people surveyed, 21 per cent believed that "sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her when he didn't mean to".

The survey showed that 23 per cent believed women exaggerated the problem of male violence.

Dr Jasmina Brankovich, a consultant who runs programmes addressing harassment and gendered violence, told The Telegraph that, while broader community safety was important, women are "far more likely to be harmed or killed by a family member or someone they know".

"Empty rhetoric changes nothing. If you want to change anything in the future, you have to take action now," she said. 

"You need to start very early with a system in education. We are going to have to change a lot of attitudes that run deep, and we have to model something very different for our children."

Western Australian government MP Cassie Rowe told The Telegraph that intervening in the education system in order to change attitudes was part of the solution.

"We need to tackle it head on by doing more in schools and by running campaigns," the Labor MP said. "Attitudes are a really clear area where change is needed. Every level of government should be doing everything they can to reduce violence against women."

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Morrison told reporters: "Australians all over the country are just shocked, saddened and devastated about what has happened in a suburban street where Hannah and her three children were so senselessly and maddeningly murdered in a terrible act of violence."

Angela Lynch, chief executive of the Women's Legal Service in Queensland state, of which Brisbane is the capital, called for an overhaul of Australia's family court system.

"Domestic violence services are under pressure everywhere," she told ABC. She said women were seeking assistance more than ever and "we should have the systems there to be able to respond to them."