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They might come from completely different parts of Deakin University but Dr Craig Parker and his mentor Associate Professor Linda Hancock have a lot of shared experiences.
And the most notable of these are the paradoxes that impact on their individual research streams.
In Associate Professor Hancock’s case it is governments that affect to be doing something about problem gamblers while at the same time creaming billions out of the pokies every year into State treasuries.
In Dr Parker’s case it is governments who won’t introduce environmental regulations targeting small business due to concerns about losing votes, yet his research and international studies show that most operators will only engage in environmental responsibility if forced to by regulations.
“Yes, from that point of view, even though we’re in different faculties, Linda and I do have a lot in common,” Dr Parker said.
“I really admire her for the way she has taken on all the vested interests involved in gambling.
“I am also thrilled that she agreed to be my mentor.”
Associate Professor Hancock, from the School of International and Political Studies, and Dr Parker from the School of Information Systems, came together under Deakin University’s Developing Research Leaders Program (DRLP) set up by Professor Maree Gladwin.
“It was my idea to ask Linda to be my mentor for the program,” said Dr Parker.
“I had been talking to Linda about the excellent work that she had been doing for a while. Not just on gambling policy and regulation, but also her work over a number of years developing programs to engage small business in environmental responsibility. Linda is highly respected in industry within the environmental area, as well as gambling.
“It was our common interests which led me to suggest to Maree Gladwin that Linda and I should link up, and we did.”
As a public policy specialist Associate Professor Hancock’s research encompasses both social and environmental sustainability. Her role as Chief Investigator on two Deakin University (Victorian Department of Transport) TravelSmart projects means she has developed research expertise in the area of community engagement for GHG reduction. And her five years as Director of the Corporate Citizenship Research Unit mean that she has focused on corporate social responsibility both at larger corporate and small and medium enterprise (SME) levels.
“If I only focused on gambling it would be very frustrating,” she said. “The intransigence of governments in this policy area and their dependence on gambling taxes, stands in the way of more responsible regulation.
“Craig and I established contact really because of my climate change policy work and my Australian Research Council funded research on the role of local government engaging with communities on carbon emission reduction – in particular with small business. Compared with the approach to larger corporates, SMEs have really been ignored in terms of regulation and community engagement.”
Dr Parker said Associate Professor Hancock’s mentoring, and the whole program itself, had been a great success from his perspective.
“It has all helped enormously in terms of understanding things like how to formulate my research directions and research plans,” he said.
“Through the program I have had a lot of exposure to and practice in articulating my research objectives and getting great feedback from quite experienced people, such as Linda and the other mentors who are part of the program.
“My only concern is that I don’t believe I have been offering much back to Linda in return for everything that she has been able to do for me.”
Despite Dr Parker’s concerns Associate Professor Hancock says the mutual benefits have been outstanding.
“Craig and I continue to meet on a regular basis, we’ve become good friends; and we’re working on a jointly authored piece that unpacks some of the theoretical debates on climate change policy, community engagement and SMEs,” she said.
“We have also scoped up a grant application and will continue to grow our collaboration. I really enjoy the fact that we are from different faculties and disciplines.”
Dr Parker’s current research interests involve looking at ways to encourage small business to be more environmentally responsible.
“Over the previous 10 years I had been focussing on ways to encourage small business to adopt and see the benefits of having a website,” he explained.
“A couple of years ago I decided to change my research focus so it has more of a social benefit. I saw an opportunity to apply my past research findings to the challenge of engaging small business in environmental responsibility.
“I believe this is critical because most small businesses individually have a minor impact, but collectively two million Australian small businesses have a significant impact. Every entity – government, household, individual, large business or small business – has a responsibility to reduce their impact.
“But the small business sector is idiosyncratic. Governments and industry associations find it difficult to engage with what is such a diverse group of business operators.
“Many operators are concerned about the environment but they will only change their practices if it is mandatory because, understandably, their priority is the day-to-day running of their business.
“I am looking at how governments and industry associations can engage this sector in environmental responsibility. I am indebted to Linda for helping me to turn my new passion into this new research direction, resulting from our many discussions and sharing of ideas during the mentor program.
“To a large extent I believe it will come down to government intervention in the form of regulations to be completely effective.
“And that’s where you come across these paradoxes like the one Linda finds.
“She’s battling governments on gambling reform while these governments are making a lot of money out of gambling revenues. Also, her local government research shows there are lots of competing demands that can relegate SME engagement to a low priority. “
“In my case I have discovered that the majority of small businesses will only engage in environmentally responsibility if forced. Yet governments don’t want to introduce regulations because they are concerned about losing votes from this sector.”
Dr Parker has qualified support for market mechanisms such as an Emissions Trading Scheme that target only very large carbon polluters.
“Such mechanisms will only engage small business in environmental responsibility if the scheme counts not just the carbon emissions of large polluters, but the polluters’ smaller suppliers and those suppliers’ suppliers and so on.
“The policy view appears to be that counting emissions across the supply chain is not necessary because energy price increases will encourage small business to engage in environmental responsibility.
“My research and international studies show this is unlikely. Most operators will absorb price increases, seek cheaper energy or pass the increases onto customers instead of addressing their own barriers to change.”
Dr Parker believes that gradually strengthening regulations that target all businesses is a critical component of an effective response to society’s environmental concerns.
“This involves phasing in regulations which prohibit harmful practices, initially targeting large business and then all businesses over time. For example, gradually banning non-biodegradable or recyclable packaging would stimulate innovation leading to environmentally responsible alternatives that are also cheaper.
“Instead, Linda and I have often discussed how governments tend to have a mentality ‘we will raise awareness through television advertising and pamphlets and that people will change their behaviour’.
“Linda calls this policy approach ‘Information Dump’. While education campaigns raise awareness and might encourage attitude change, they do not change behaviour. Her local government ARC Hobsons Bay pilot has gone in there and conducted energy audits so that SMEs can see how much sometimes small expenditures can improve both their carbon footprint and GHG emissions.”
“We saw with water shortages that reducing consumption required a combination of education and strictly enforced water restrictions. I believe the same approach is needed to engage small business in environmental responsibility.
“Small business studies have also found that environmental education can raise awareness, sometimes change operator attitudes, but does not change behaviour. It is known in this literature as the value-action gap.”
Yet another one of those paradoxes, perhaps.