Thursday, January 16, 2014

A21’s 2008 report on public violence is still relevant today

Richard Eckersley and Lynne Reeder

The Prime Minister’s recent remark likening some entertainment precincts to war zones because of alcohol-fuelled violence echoes comments made down the years about the problem. Violence in public places is an international phenomenon, associated in part with the huge growth in what is called the night-time economy. In Britain, this growth has been called the biggest single threat to public order and health and safety.

The idea might have been to create a civilised, European-style nightlife. The reality is something different: as a British commentator noted, ‘Yeah, well, actually it is a real European environment out there, but a bit less like Paris and more like the Somme’.

In 2008 Victoria Police commissioned Australia21 to conduct an expert roundtable and to write a report on violence and public safety as part of the development of a whole-of-government strategy. The participants came from a range of relevant scientific disciplines and State Government departments and agencies with responsibility for policy development and implementation.

There was agreement across all jurisdictions – police, ambulance, hospitals, courts and education – that there had been a pronounced increase in previous years not only in the incidence of violence, but also in its severity. As one participant said, in the past a pub brawl was just a brawl. The worst thing that might have happened was that someone would be swinging a billiard cue around. ‘Now it’s gone beyond that. It’s the king hit, it’s the glassing, the stabbings, the things that you didn’t really see in the past.’

Much, but not all, of this public violence is alcohol- and drug-related, and involves young people as both offenders and victims. The upsurge in public violence is not readily explained. It is possible Australian society has reached a tipping point, where the conjunction of many social changes and developments – short-term and long-term, specific and broad - has produced social conditions conducive to violence.

Explanations include the growth of the night-time economy and a 24/7 lifestyle, involving specific issues such as: industry deregulation and promotion of economic considerations over social goals; the failure of accords between licensees and authorities; and inadequate public transport in entertainment precincts. There had also been a lack of sustained action to address the problem, and a dearth of good research evidence on what works in some key areas.

Broader explanations include changes in poverty and disadvantage, the family and parenting, and communications technology and the media; an individualistic, consumer culture; and young people’s biological and social development, including links between antisocial behaviour and other aspects of young people’s health and wellbeing. Specific factors here include: parental over-protection or neglect; increased social expectations and pressures, on the one hand, and social exclusion and alienation, on the other; a perception of violence as the norm, even fun; a lack of respect and empathy; and a sense of invulnerability and ignorance of human fragility.

When it came to proposing solutions, some participants focused on more immediate, direct interventions to address public violence, others emphasised a broader, social-development perspective. Nevertheless, most, if not all, participants agreed on the need for a multi-dimensional strategy spanning timeframes, social scales and government jurisdictions.

Key responses reflected this wide range of actions, including:
·         Increased policing of randomly selected premises at random times, and more targeted policing of problem premises.
·         Training bar staff in managing all antisocial behaviours, not just drunkenness.
·         Achieving a better mix of regulatory strategies that balance economic and social goals and objectives, combine informal and formal regulation, and can be adapted to suit different localities.
·         Introducing specific programs in schools to enhance the social and emotional wellbeing of students.
·         Broadening the focus of the education system beyond academic achievement and vocational qualifications to make the curriculum more relevant to young people’s lives and passions.
·         Increasing parent education.
·         Addressing violence in the media.  

Actions have been taken since 2008; some have worked to reduce alcohol- and drug-related violence. But as recent events show, the problem remains. Everyone - including parents, young people, education providers, police and government at all levels - has a role to play in addressing public violence. There are no quick fixes; we need to tackle the deeper social issues as well as the problem itself.

Richard Eckersley and Lynne Reeder are directors of Australia21 and the authors of its report, ‘Violence in public places: Explanations and solutions’, commissioned by Victoria Police in 2008. The report is available at:

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