Crime reporter, The Age
Digital Illustration: Joe Benke
There were no obvious signs the bouncer was about to turn nasty – at least not to the skinny 16-year-old whose sense of awareness (vague at the best of times) was further dulled by an under-age drinking session at a suburban beer barn.
Ten years older and 30 kilos heavier, the security man stood side-on chatting as the kid waited in the almost deserted car park for a lift to a nearby party.
The knuckleheaded about to go the knuckle never believes the sneak punch will kill.
He didn’t see the punch – a big right hand – that exploded on his cheekbone because he wasn’t looking when the man in the white shirt and black bow tie unleashed. There was no pain, just an explosion of white light as the teen stumbled backwards.
Yet he was one of the lucky ones. He escaped with a bruised face, an ego to match, and a sense of injustice that someone would launch such a pointless and unprovoked attack.
And yet it could have all been so different. If the blow had struck the temple or the kid had hit the kerb, he could have suffered a brain injury and the oaf a richly deserved criminal record.
That incident happened more than 40 years ago and we are still trying to find answers to deal with the fallout of so-called king-hit coward punches.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has weighed into the debate, calling on the criminal justice system to take on the fight.
”I think really, the police, the courts, the judges ought to absolutely throw the book at people who perpetrate this kind of gratuitous unprovoked violence,” he says.
And the PM is perfectly placed to brand these attackers cowards. After all, he won his Oxford Blue in boxing in the ring with an opponent of the same weight who could hit back.
Yet while his passion is welcome, his argument is flawed. Police and the courts can’t solve this – never could, never will.
It is typical of where we are as a society – always looking for an external bandage for a self-inflicted wound. Tax cheeseburgers because we are too fat, ban slurpees before our teeth fall out, and send peanut farmers to Alcatraz to avoid food allergies.
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s move to introduce a mandatory minimum eight-year jail sentence for alcohol- and drug-induced one-punch fatalities is just such a response.
The implication is that soft judges don’t get it and need to be forced by legislation to do their duty.
What if a drunk kid is confronted by a bigger man then blindly lashes out through fear and causes a freak death? Does he deserve a greater penalty than three men armed with iron bars who leave a victim crippled?
These one-size-fits-all laws are dangerous and inflexible. History shows that when juries fear the penalty will be unjust, they tend to acquit, which means the offender walks away unpunished.
These tough laws are based on the flawed premise that muscled morons, whose personality defects are inflamed by drugs and drink, have the capacity to make reasoned decisions. The fact is, the knucklehead about to go the knuckle never believes the sneak punch will kill.
Thousands of punches are thrown in anger and about seven a year prove fatal. So the offender is unlikely to think, ”New mandatory sentences will mean my lawyer will not be able to plea bargain if I kill this guy, so perhaps I should desist from my present course of action.”
This is snake-oil law, pure and simple. It tries to deal with the effect and not the cause. The question is, why do some young men out for a night’s entertainment end up wanting to punch other young men?
Respected neurosurgeon Professor Andrew Kaye deals with assault-related brain injury at least once a fortnight. He says that in most of these cases, the victim makes a recovery of sorts but, ”there is a significant change to their lives. They will not be as good as they were before.”
Long-term effects include physical disabilities, personality changes and memory loss.
Much is said about the nightclub culture but these vicious blows are thrown in pubs, private parties, streets, car parks and petrol stations.
We blame the courts, we blame the cops, but we never blame ourselves.
It’s the parents who accept the annual schoolies binge, who tolerate, and even help, their children procuring false identifications, who tolerate the idea of young adults going out near midnight and getting home near breakfast and who don’t seem to care if they are popping pills made by crooks who think hygiene consists of washing their underpants once a month in the kitchen sink.
Increasingly, police are confronting young men off their pinheads on steroids, ice and speed – their tiny brains shrivelled further by chemical cocktails that would make Gandhi want a punch-up.
The truth is, without headlines, announcements, or even legislation, we have in effect decriminalised drug use. If police concentrated on arresting those carrying a couple of pills, the courts would collapse in a week.
This reporter’s son was approached at least three times in a club recently by strangers declaring, ”I’ve lost Charlie”.
As it’s unlikely they were referring to Hall of Fame night-shift police reporter Charlie Walker, nor the gifted 1970s Hawthorn high half-forward Charlie Grummisch, it could be fairly deduced they were using slang for cocaine and had no concerns about trying to score from a stranger. They know they can break the law with impunity.
The present debate centres on party precincts such as Kings Cross and King Street (this is partially because we in the media can get plenty of mood shots of girls in short skirts and men with short tempers close to our offices).
Nightclubs and bars are not intrinsically bad. Thousands of young people head to them every night and return safely without incident.
But we have a problem with binge drinking and drug taking that’s a significant health and crime issue.
It is as much a part of our history as the stump-jump plough and the Hills Hoist. In his book Drug Traffic: Narcotics and Organized Crime In Australia, international expert Alfred McCoy wrote: ”Australia has had a demonstrated capacity for consuming vast quantities of drugs of all kinds, both legal and illegal.”
The beauty of writing a newspaper column is that between cursing the photocopier and fabricating expense claims, you can breezily suggest solutions in a few hundred words that have baffled experts for decades.
So here goes.
1) Clubs to display a sign at the entrance. ”This is a drug-free environment. Anyone seen with drugs will be photographed, evicted and reported to the police.”
2) Reintroduction of the ”supper ticket”. Patrons pay a $30 entrance fee that’s refundable if they leave before 1am. Staggered exits (not to be confused with staggering ones) are designed to break down the flood of patrons leaving at one time. As an aside, back in the days when late-night venues provided food, we watched Fairfax foreign correspondent Lindsay Murdoch consume an estimated 38 crumbed sausages at the Chevron. No wonder he survived Afghanistan.
3) To thwart ”pre-loading” (drinking excessively before entering a club), breathalyser machines should be set up at entrances. Green (under .09) gains entry, while red (intoxicated) means automatic refusal. Curfew lockouts, in which no new patrons are admitted, also work. No entry after 1am is a no-brainer for patrons with no brains.
4) Police to review CCTV footage from major clubs. Drug dealers to be identified and banned from licensed premises. Their photos would then be sent to all other clubs. (We once planned to publish pictures of repeatedly convicted street dealers through Melbourne with a map of their local beats. Senior police were enthusiastic but the plans were thwarted on the grounds of privacy. Simply madness.)
5) Annual awards for clubs that make real efforts to help deal with the problem. Those deemed to use skilled security staff, are female friendly, deter drug use and crack down on drunken conduct are granted five-star status and receive a 25 per cent discount on their licensing fees. Those that fail receive lower ratings and increased fees. Star ratings to be displayed prominently at the entrance to allow patrons to make informed safety decisions. (Five stars indicate a good night out; one star would suggest a mouthguard and surgical gloves are required.)
6) The Prime Minister to put his money where his mouth is and contribute funds for all-night trains to move patrons out of trouble spots. Much of the violence occurs after clubs close and people can’t get home.
7) Troublemaker training at schools. Teach young people what happens to a brain when someone suffers a blow, and show them how to read the signs of trouble before violence occurs. In most cases, there are harsh words before a punch is thrown.
8) Advertising. Yes there is irony in asking an industry that thinks cocaine should be on the National Health to deal with issues of excess, but it works. Drink-driving campaigns changed our culture for the better. No longer can dad pile the kids into the Holden and cheerfully drive home after drinking eight longnecks at a barbecue without a word being said. We must all condemn violence – street, domestic, drunken, premeditated, random, and verbal. Those who throw a punch must be shunned by the rest of us.
9) User pays. If you have a party that gets out of control because you haven’t taken basic precautions, the police will bill you for their time.
10) Have the conversation. Talk to your kids. Don’t leave it to the police, politicians and publicans to do your job.
Oh, and the 16-year-old smashed in the face all those years ago? That was me.