The problem of worsening 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”.
Victoria Police recently 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, in the past few years, a pronounced increase, 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.”
Melbourne metropolitan ambulance records show cases of assault have roughly doubled since 1999 to more than 600 a month, with cases involving stabbings and gunshots jumping from about 50 to 100 a month. According to police, recorded assaults in the public domain in Victoria have increased by more than 20 per cent in the five years to 2007 to almost 14,000 a year; most of the increase is in night-time assaults.
Other States, including New South Wales, have seen a similar surge in antisocial behaviour, including violence in public places. The rise is part of a long-term trend of increasing rates of violent crime (excluding homicide) in Australia.
Much, but not all, of this public violence is alcohol- and drug-related, and involves young people as both offenders and victims. The Federal Government recently held the first-ever Australia Youth Forum to engage young people on issues of vital concern to them. The first topic of interest was violence and safety.
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: changes in alcohol and drug use; the huge growth of the night-time economy; a 24/7 lifestyle; broad social changes relating to poverty and disadvantage, the family and parenting, communications technology and the media; and an individualistic, consumer culture. There are also: young people’s biological and social development; links between antisocial behaviour and other aspects of young people’s health and wellbeing; and the lack of sustained action to address the problem, coupled with a dearth of good research evidence on what works in some key areas.
More specific issues include: 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. At the broader social scale, there are: parental over-protection or neglect; increased social expectations and pressures, on the one hand, or 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; and
- addressing violence in the media.
Police are dealing with the immediate problems by increasing police presence in entertainment precincts and heavily targeting antisocial behaviour, but they acknowledge this is only part of the solution. Everyone from parents, to young people, education providers, police and government have a huge role to play in addressing this issue.
There are no quick fixes to increasing public violence. We need to tackle the deeper social issues.