License article

Punch-drunk and looking for answers

Violent assault rates remain stubbornly high, writes David Humphries.

Raging bulls on the footy field, drive-by shootings, a glassing epidemic with women the perpetrators, nightclub bouncers accused of viciousness, old women bashed for their pension change, battered wives, English mayhem, authorities sinking under the weight of terrible child abuse. It's easy to suspect we're going to hell in a handbasket, that we've abandoned respect, that we're doing unto others precisely what we'd hate done to us. That violence - the starkest emblem of incivility and chaos - is multiplying quicker than a bookmaker's clerk.

While we celebrate steep declines in most crime categories - including homicide - the most extreme form of violence, assault, remains stubbornly high. According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the people of this state are twice as likely to be assaulted than in 1990. Assaults stopped rising a decade ago and have dipped slightly since, but they are the exception rather than the rule of crime trends.

''Why has assault hardly budged while property crime has fallen through the floor?'' the bureau's director, Don Weatherburn, asks. ''I suspect there's more to it than alcohol, but alcohol has a big part to play.''

Seventy per cent of police engagements on the streets - with victims, offenders or witnesses - are tied up with alcohol abuse, and not just in pubs. Domestic-related assaults are up 44 per cent over the past decade.

In 2009-10 alone, 564 police were injured in alcohol-fuelled confrontations. ''We need to change Australia's binge-drinking culture and we need to fall out of love with alcohol,'' the NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, said last year. ''This is not an issue we can arrest our way out of. People have to change.

''I believe the community needs to reassess our celebration of alcohol abuse, to reassess our infatuation with drinking to get drunk and our claim to the right to have yet another drink, any time of day, any day of the week.''


Glassings - often women drinkers on other women - have been of special concern to Scipione. As a result of alcohol-induced violence, police targeted offending licensed premises with trading restrictions. As a result, he says, alcohol-related assaults at those pubs fell 17 per cent in two years and glassings 43 per cent.

Evidence suggests that, while the rate of violence has tapered off since a peak in 2002, when one in 100 people in NSW reported being assaulted, the ferocity of attacks has intensified, due mainly to the use of weapons. Guns, knives, machetes, bats, bars and boots have displaced the clenched fists that once sufficed as an assailant's tool of trade. And, once a fight has started, aggressors seem more intent on ensuring they inflict real pain.

The trend is even more worrying with other crimes of violence. Sexual assault, for example, more than doubled in the past 20 years and is the only category that continued to rise over the past decade. Other sexual offences rose by 67 per cent.

Any escalation of violence is not restricted to Australia, of course, and is probably worse elsewhere. ''In its most extreme forms, aggression is human tragedy unsurpassed,'' Iowa State University psychologists Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman have written.

''Hopes that the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust would produce a worldwide revulsion against killing have been dashed. Since World War II, homicide rates have actually increased … in a number of industrialised countries, most notably the United States.''

Causes of increased violence, Anderson and Bushman wrote, included access to guns, violence against children and ''the widespread exposure to violent entertainment media''.

However, Weatherburn's judgment is that we're not more violent. ''The homicide rate is half what it was 10 years ago, the robbery rate is a fraction of what it was and armed robbery is way down.'' That's a function of the heroin trade. ''Violent robberies were always about heroin,'' Weatherburn says. ''When heroin started to disappear, so too did violent robberies.''

But he concedes that assaults haven't followed other crime categories downwards. ''They remain the main problem and alcohol is the biggest contributor. They're up in summer and 50 per cent of assaults are alcohol-related, in that police identify the intoxication of offenders in half the assaults they attend.''

Weatherburn says that assaults climbed in the 1980s, levelled off for a few years and then began rising again. ''One academic view is that better reporting of assaults explains the rises, but that doesn't tally with hospital admissions, which rose accordingly.'' He says the jumps coincide with vigorous marketing of alcohol, targeting young men, and escalation of drinking opportunities, such as happy hours and late-night trading.

''In the '60s and '70s, men drank at the bar but now the culture is changing into high-intensity late trading with crowding and noisy music.'' Today, 80 per cent of pub-related violence occurs in or around less than 10 per cent of pubs - the late-openers. Weatherburn says: ''Shift-working wharfies would drink late at night or at early openers but they were usually too tired to fight.'' Not unwilling, however.

But there's something more at work than grog's ability to diminish inhibition, to inflate confidence, to obviate the pain of a belt on the nose, to infuriate and to impair judgment. It goes to a question of community attitude, forged in part by media glorification of violence. We saw some of it this week in the aftermath of the spectacle of brawling rugby league players risking participation in finals football because they couldn't draw a line between legitimate hardness and machismo overload. Some sports fans were repelled, others rejoiced in what they saw as a welcome return of the biff.

But rugby league is locked in a potentially do-or-die struggle for supremacy. Its leaders know the necessity of building a fan base as broad as possible, and they've got a stack of research telling them that women aren't attracted to brutality - at least, most women aren't. ''There are many fans, families and commercial partners who will simply walk away unless we send a clear message that what occurred will not be tolerated,'' NRL chief executive David Gallop said.

Sociologist James Connor teaches at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, and was the 2006 Tom Brock scholar for research into sports history. ''Fifty years ago, sport was the outlet for our frustrations - participants and spectators. It allowed us to do stuff that was essentially prohibited elsewhere. But attitudes change - as they did towards domestic violence, drink-driving and disciplining children - and we've developed a more humanistic mindset. As a society, we're less violent, and so too is rugby league. It's just that saturation media coverage - cameras following every move at every match, and each of us armed with our own mobile camera - means we get to see a lot more of what there is.''

The world has a violent history and Australia's is no exception. Indeed, NSW was a very brutal place in its first 20 to 40 years, and not just in cases of ill-treatment of convicts. ''Our very roots are in violent society,'' Kay Saunders, a former professor of Australian history at Queensland University, says.

''Marauding gangs of ex-convicts, including women, would go about killing, bashing and plundering. But their progeny were much more law-abiding, as education, religion and the influence of free settlers got traction. Given the anarchy of the gold rushes, it was remarkably peaceful because Australia also had a very strong counterpoint in [the] temperance evangelism of the Methodists and Presbyterians, who emphasised self-control, hard work and thrift. Most bushrangers were pre-gold rush and the huge boom in prosperity that coincided and followed the gold rushes was a civilising force.'' Terrible poverty was entrenched again in the 1890s and early 20th century and gangs consolidated their hold on areas hardest hit, such as The Rocks and Surry Hills. Poet C. J. Dennis told of the violence in the back lanes of Melbourne.

''We take up what happens in America - we're about 20 years behind but the signs are here,'' Saunders says. ''Ethnic gang wars, urban unemployed and uneducated youth sometimes exhibiting a tribal warfare mindset.'' This was evident in the British riots, too, she said. ''Wars used to take a lot of that youth, but we've had 70 years of relative peace.''

Saunders says the Australian affluence of the 1950s and '60s facilitated an idealisation of suburbia after the Depression and war. But illicit drugs and their criminal facilitators upset the calm. In terms of public visibility, however, alcohol probably proved just as disruptive.

Increasingly, it lacked gender boundaries. ''The 'ladette' culture of binge drinking, women beating up on women, glassings, women behaving as badly as male louts and just as aggressively towards police'' is evidence of this, Saunders says. ''Many of these women are from middle-class situations and they probably see it as fun. But it's not one of the finer consequences of feminism.''