Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bill Ralston: Try a new pill for old ills

Bill Ralston: Try a new pill for old ills

The Government's willingness to give some of the country's top businessmen a big hug and bring them in on finding solutions to the recession is a refreshing change of mindset from that of the last government.

Labour always distrusted big business and, rejecting most of the private sector as too right-wing, it carefully selected its own small elite of moneymen to do its bidding, so long as they never challenged the Government's ideological position.

Remember the Knowledge Wave? It turned out to be barely a ripple. Labour largely ignored the outcomes from that talkfest because some of the suggestions were impure in terms of its ideological outlook.

For the past few months National has largely followed a Labour-like "me too" approach to government. At last it is beginning to look as if it's developing its own ideas, style and an independent approach.

After a near decade of Labour rule, a fresh way of doing things is long overdue and may help the Cabinet save money.

If National is willing to change the mindset Labour adopted when dealing with business and the economy it might also want to look at changing how the last government approached social policy.

The thick streak of political correctness that underlay Labour's approach to social issues is worth reappraising. It often produced illogical, inefficient, wasteful and downright silly outcomes.

For example, take one of my pet hates, the "It's Not OK" campaign against domestic violence in which a collection of earnest men smugly entreat other men to not give their partners and kids the bash.

This campaign followed an earlier series of commercials depicting thuggish blokes battering their way through the household.

The last government's strategy was to place the burden of responsibility for domestic violence always on men. To suggest otherwise was heresy, so the bureaucrats produced advertising campaigns solely targeted at stopping men being violent towards women.

Sadly, domestic violence continues unabated. This may well be because the government doctrine of "Blame the Bloke" ignores some very real scientific research that questions the conventional thinking on the issue.

For years, Professor David Fergusson from the University of Otago, Christchurch, has been responsible for a longitudinal study of 1265 children born in Canterbury in mid-1977. As part of that research, he studied the issue of violence, ranging from psychological abuse to serious physical attack between partners.

Professor Fergusson found that, among young adults, men and women are equally violent towards each other.

The research also showed the range of violence committed by men and women is similar and the consequences, in injury and psychological effects, are also much the same for both sexes. This is no oddball piece of academic research. It is backed by the findings of similar international studies.

Fergusson concludes the root cause of domestic violence is not solely bullying men.

He reckons violent partnerships are more likely to be associated with childhood adversity, mental health disorders and other life traumas.

In other words, violent partnerships are more likely to spring up where people have experienced serious difficulties and disadvantages in life.

In 2006 he advised government agencies that his study "suggests the need for a broadening of analysis of domestic violence away from focusing on male perpetrators and female victims to examining violent couples who use aggression in their relationship". Fergusson was ignored.

Multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns stressing male aggressors and female victims continued and intensified even though the Fergusson study would suggest this approach was ineffective and a waste of money.

The only rational explanation is that Fergusson's advice was politically unacceptable to Labour. They were cemented into a blindly feminist position of "women good, men bad".

The truth is, both sexes can be bad and trying to attribute blame to just one sex is senseless and futile.

If the huge budget currently being spent on targeting violent males and trying to convince them to change their nasty ways was, instead, used to treat the real cause - social disadvantage, deprivation and mental illness - we might start seeing some results. The cost to taxpayers from domestic violence might reduce.

A change of government is a chance to reappraise not just the approach to combating domestic violence but an opportunity to challenge the accepted methods of doing things all across the board in social policy.

Ministers should learn to question every long-accepted philosophical approach in their departments.

Not only might it reduce costs, it could mean that the taxpayer starts seeing some real value for money for a pleasant change.

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