Alcohol and violence Matters of Public Interest

The matter of public interest I wish to raise is the issue of violence fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately this has been in the headlines again this year, and we have seen much discussion and even controversy about who is involved and how we should respond. I want briefly today to cover some of the current understanding of the scale of the issue, to touch on some of the groups who are responding, and to update the Senate on developments just in the last fortnight that I think are very positive in terms of developing a national holistic response to preventing some of these issues that we have seen unfortunately so recently, in Kings Cross on New Year’s Eve.

New South Wales has suffered from this violence more than any other state, with over 88,000 men and women reporting over a year that their attackers, whether they be known or unknown, were affected by drugs or alcohol. Data from the ABS indicates that paramedics state that almost half of all attacks on men and 35 per cent of those on women come from complete strangers. Figures from 2011-12 show that over 70 per cent of those attacks were blamed on drugs or alcohol. There is a similar situation in Western Australia and Tasmania, where over 70 per cent of physical assaults are by strangers and, again, they are blamed on drugs and alcohol. In Victoria the figure is slightly less—67 per cent—and it is nearly 42 per cent in South Australia.

Whilst the total numbers of young people affected by this violence may be less then those affected by things like motor vehicle accidents, it is clearly an issue that is impacting on our communities across the nation. In the last 14 years some 91 lives have been lost to what is known as the king hit or coward’s punch type of violence, but it is important to understand that for every one of those lives that has been lost there are many people who have been the victims of that kind of attack who, while they may not have lost their life, have lost their health and their confidence, and it has impacted on immediate and extended families and on peers and in workplaces. There is a significant burden from this kind of violence, and it is spread across our nation.

The Prime Minister picked up on this in a piece he wrote for TheDaily Telegraph on 10 January: in years past young people went out for a few drinks on a Saturday night and occasionally some of them would have too many and fights and disturbances may have developed from that, but increasingly we are seeing a trend where people deliberately pre-drink before they go out, with the intention of getting absolutely blotto. Before they even hit the venues, many of them are well over the limit—they are well intoxicated and not necessarily in control of their actions. There is a stepped change in culture. If you overlay that with the impact of illicit drugs, you have a cocktail for a disastrous situation and a culture where in some cases people go looking for a victim as opposed to young men with too much to drink who may be spoiling for a fight.

Some of the research being done shows that more than half of alcohol consumed is consumed on weekends, with nearly a third being consumed during pre night out drinks. More than 40 per cent said that a typical drinking day started between 6 and 8 pm, with about a quarter going on until 2 am and 13 per cent continuing until around four in the morning. About 21 per cent admit that they go out intending to get drunk and, interestingly in terms of the issue of violence, around 20 per cent indicate that even if they saw a dangerous situation developing, particularly if it involved one of their friends, they would not walk away—they would not seek to extract themselves from the situation. This developing culture is leading to the scenarios where some of these violent incidents occur.

The response in New South Wales is understandable. Many people want to know why the legislative response of throwing the book at somebody and locking them up is not stronger. There is a case for laws to be punitive, hopefully providing a deterrent or at least taking people with that kind of tendency off the street. But it is not the full answer. By the time an event has occurred, the damage has been done. Our emergency wards are full of families in distress—the person has lost their life or their health or their confidence or their mental health. That damage has been done, and so prevention has to be a large part of dealing with the problem.

Across the states a number of foundations have started, often led by the families who have been most impacted by this violence, seeking to bring about change—whether that be legislative change, whether it be change in terms of liquor licensing or in response to illicit drugs, or in some cases whether it is looking at the longer term view of education. The Prime Minister highlighted this in his article in January when he acknowledged that, yes, we all want to see a legal response but he also highlighted the need to understand the impact of drugs—there is a need to tackle the problem in a comprehensive and considered way so there are not just knee-jerk reactions or actions that give the appearance of a response but do not have a long-term impact—and we need to get community solutions between the levels of government and police, pubs, clubs, locals and residents. I am glad to say that, to a large extent, that is starting to happen.

In South Australia in particular, the group that I would refer to that has a good reputation for this is the Sammy D Foundation. This foundation was established by Nat Cook and Neil Davis in 2008 after their son Sam Davis lost his life to a violent and unprovoked assault. What they have sought to do is change the environment so that we do not see more of these attacks take place. Whilst they acknowledge that there is a place for a legislative response around penalties and around liquor licensing, they have sought to work proactively in three key areas—with governments, with the liquor industry but particularly with communities, families and high schools. They have reached some 25,000 young people in the five years that they have been operating.

Their program has three main elements. The first element is the impact. What is the impact that one punch can have? Many people who are exposed purely to the Hollywood version of violence do not understand what the reality of physical contact can do, so the aim of this program is to interact with young people and show both the emotional and physical impact that that violence can have. Some of the responses are showing that, even months down the track, there is still a very high percentage, 90-odd per cent, whose attitude has changed because of the awareness of the impact of that kind of violence that has been given to them.

They also recognise that some of the people who perpetrate this sort of violence are not connected to others. They do not have mentors in their life to provide guidance, to be role models or to be examples of how to responsibly engage with others—how to deal with conflict or stress or other issues in their lives. So they have a Connect program which is all about mentoring. Again, some thousands of young people in South Australia have benefited from this program.

The last area in which they work is informing schools, parents and organisations about how to run parties—the rights and responsibilities, the norms; how you can identify dangerous situations developing, how you can defuse them, how you can walk away from them and how you can avoid the escalation that results in violence. All of these are important parts of changing the culture by providing education so that more people have a motivation and are equipped to make wise life choices that will not see them in that situation.

Unfortunately, while the Sammy D Foundation have done a range of work in that area and, in fact, have done some research and much training, we do not see that replicated uniformly across the country. To date, there has not been an opportunity for these bodies to learn from each other, to learn what other foundations are doing. So I am pleased to be able to report to the Senate that, just this month, key organisations from different states came here to Canberra to meet and to look at ways that they collectively can pool their resources, their knowledge and their approaches so that we can benefit from each state’s experience and have a more holistic national approach, whether that be in the liquor licensing area, in the area of law and punishment or, particularly, in the area of preventative work. The Step Back Think group from Victoria, the Sammy D Foundation from South Australia, the Matthew Stanley Foundation from Queensland, the Injury Control Council of Western Australia, the IF Foundation from Western Australia, STOP One Punch Can Kill from Victoria and the Queensland Homicide Victims Support Group were the groups that met, and I understand that, since then, there have been discussions with groups out of New South Wales. They came to an understanding that there was a real benefit in coming together and establishing a national framework for collaboration on research and best practice in terms of education, and in having a national strategy to make sure there is the best use of the resources that are applied.

As the Prime Minister indicated in his article and in subsequent comments, this is largely an issue that falls within the remit of state and territory governments because the laws to do with both crime and liquor are made at that level of government. But that should not stop us seeking to work collaboratively with the private sector and all three levels of government to make sure that the groups who are doing this research and this education have the very best possible chance of applying best practice for the benefit of our children.

This new collective put out a document, Stop the punch—a collective and national response to violence, which sets out the three-phase program they are seeking to implement. One is to get evidence based national research which will underpin both the reactive and proactive approaches to violence. Another is to produce resources that can be drawn on nationally in terms of education and prevention programs. The approach would be similar to the National Drug Strategy, where there is coordination and a national view about how each state and territory will work towards controlling drugs. Certainly, COAG, through something like the proposed council on law, crime and community safety, may be one vehicle for bringing the states together from a government perspective to replicate or work in parallel with the work that these groups are doing.

I think it is important that as senators representing each state and territory in Australia we look at this issue and understand that this is an opportunity for us to support not only different levels of government through COAG but also the foundations that are working at the community level and bring together the best of their knowledge and best practice so that we can have a holistic approach that, where possible, will avoid rather than just punish the actions and consequences of alcohol and drug fuelled violence. I commend this new national collective to senators in this place and ask that, as appropriate and as possible, you get involved in supporting these types of groups in your state to make sure that we do indeed provide a better future for our children.