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Peter Miller and Dan Keating: We need a plan to combat violence

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Start with managing alcohol and watch the human cost drop, write Peter Miller and Dan Keating.

Boys who face violence at home are more likely to become brawlers.
Boys who face violence at home are more likely to become brawlers.

The start of 2014 has seen a tragic, but sadly predictable discussion around Australia about lives lost or hanging in the balance due to violence. All of the high-profile cases involved alcohol. These are the tip of a horrifying iceberg.

Family violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, gang violence, sexual assault, bullying and many other forms of violence erode our community day by day and destroy lives. When a young man is brain-damaged in a bar fight, his loved ones often lose a part, if not most, of their lives to a senseless act.

Many offenders' lives and those of their families are also ruined. Children who survive family or domestic violence are three times more likely to become perpetrators and twice as likely to become victims. Boys who are abused physically by their fathers are twice as likely to be perpetrators of bar-room violence as adults. They often destroy their own lives as well as others' before they really begin.

By not acting on this cycle of violence in all its manifestations, we are perpetuating and worsening the situation.

Our society is clearly no longer willing to pay the huge financial and devastating emotional costs associated with violence.

Harsher responses feel desirable. They give us a sense of justice when such senseless tragedy makes us feel powerless. But tough penalties seldom affect actions in the heat of the moment, especially when alcohol or other drugs are involved.

Violence doesn't comply with the labels we impose. When you are a victim or observer of violence as a child your world will be tainted, and for many this means perpetuating the cycle.

Yet we also know some people do not repeat this cycle. Research is continuing to identify the protective factors at play. The life-course research field has been identifying many factors we can and should be acting upon.

This is important work, but it is also far more effective and preferable to prevent violence, rather than trying to fix victims.

Alcohol and other drug use has been found in every study to influence the likelihood of people experiencing violence. These drugs alter our state of mind and play a role in people indulging impulses they would not normally entertain. The substance they are using reduces inhibition. It helps them not to think of the consequences of their actions, makes them focus entirely on the moment or increases their adrenaline.

But drug use is not a defence for violence and never should be.

While there are many causes and effective solutions to violence, acting on alcohol is the only one that can have an immediate impact.

There are solutions at hand and an international framework ready to adopt. The large body of work in this area clearly shows what works, and what doesn't.

Closing pubs earlier has been found to consistently reduce assaults and emergency department attendances. Strict enforcement of existing licensing laws has also been found to be a key element in any successful management of alcohol-related violence. Education campaigns and vague references to personal responsibility have been found ineffective at best.

The Global Campaign for Violence Prevention, co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has identified key goals towards which efforts can be directed, including identifying violence prevention as a health issue and building foundations for ongoing violence-prevention efforts.

The strategy promotes evidence-informed programmes that focus on parenting, life skills, social norms, alcohol, the risks of firearm-related deaths and injuries, and services for victims.

Our estimate is that since 2003-04, Australia has committed more than $5.8 billion to educational, social and community programmes in which tackling violence in one form or another is a significant element.

The costs of violence in the community indicate a poor return on that investment. The human costs are unfathomable and unacceptable.

The global action plan calls specifically for the development of national plans. Measures to reduce violence currently sit in many different silos and often fall under different jurisdictions. Many excellent strategies do exist, which would ideally work with the broader strategy.

There is no clear voice about the links between different types of violence and the risk and protective factors that contribute to different types of violence. Most importantly, there is a lack of clarity about which interventions can work.

Australia has successfully and sustainably reduced traffic deaths through compulsory seat-belt and drink-driving legislation, the effects of smoking by packaging controls and weapons-related deaths through gun controls. The current wave of violence - whether it involves alcohol, is domestic in nature, sport-related, involves indigenous communities or any other form of violence - demands a national strategy to change our attitude to violence, its perpetrators and victims.

Peter Miller is Principal Research Fellow at Deakin University. Dan Keating is a former Queensland police superintendent.

- NZ Herald

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