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23 January 2014


Public violence - Are tougher penalties the whole solution?  

Violence in public places is an international phenomenon, associated in part with the huge growth in what is called the night-time economy.  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’.

The Prime Minister’s recent remark likening some entertainment precincts to war zones because of alcohol-fuelled violence echoes concerns over the years about the problem.
In 2008 Victoria Police commissioned Australia21 to conduct an expert roundtable on violence and public safety as part of the development of a whole-of-government strategy to improve public safety. The attendees came from a range of relevant disciplines and government agencies with responsibility for policy development and implementation.
Participants from all jurisdictions – police, ambulance, hospitals, courts and education – agreed that there had been a pronounced increase not only in the incidence of violence, but also in its severity.  Much, but not all, of this public violence was alcohol- and drug-related, largely involving young people as both offenders and victims. The report of the roundtable remains current. It explored why increased violence was occurring and recommended both short term and broader longer term solutions.

Why is it happening?
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 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.

What can be done?
When it came to proposing solutions in 2008, some participants focused on more immediate, direct interventions, others emphasised a broader, social-development perspective. Most, if not all, participants agreed on the need for a multi-dimensional strategy spanning timeframes, social scales and government jurisdictions.  This could include:
  • Increased policing, both random for all premises and targetted for 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 educational curriculum beyond academic achievement and vocational qualifications to enhance its relevance  to young people’s lives and passions.
  • Increasing parent education.
  • Addressing violence in the media.  
Some actions taken since 2008 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: 
Australia21 is a small not for profit organisation which seeks to create new frameworks of understanding about the strategic issues facing us in the 21st century.
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