Ask Peter Miller why he has chosen to delve deeply into the dark underbelly of Australia’s drinking culture and the answer is instinctive: “I wanted to make a difference.”
“I was doing a lot of research around harm reduction for heroin use, particularly the theory behind it,” said the Associate Professor in Deakin University’s School of Psychology.
“I just felt that it wasn’t getting a lot of traction, particularly here in Australia.
“There was also a lot of time spent writing, and really I just wanted to be involved in doing something tangible, something where I could really make a difference.”
Around 2008, just after returning from a four year stint in London, Peter found the issue of alcohol-related violence was rearing its head in his old home town of Geelong.
He already had an interest in this area, not as an academic, but from the 12 years he had spent as a bouncer.
“Obviously, over those 12 years, I had seen a lot of things involving alcohol and violence,” Associate Professor Miller said.
“There was that and the fact that I was knew some of the police involved in trying to deal with alcohol related violence.
“While there was some research around, there really was a lack of evidence about the causes of and ways to reduce alcohol related violence.
A lot of people who were working in the area at the time hadn’t been in a night club for ages.
“So really, the whole thing just spoke to me!”
Since 2008, Associate Professor Miller has spent almost as much time in and around night clubs and pubs as a researcher as he did as a bouncer, particularly in Geelong.
“The past five years we have done five studies into nightlife,” he said.
“We have interviewed over 12,000 people and carried out 1100 observations.”
These entailed spending anything from a couple of hours in a club or pub to right up to the whole night, depending on the nature of the research project.
His reputation as a leader in the field has grown over the years, topped off this week when he won The Excellence in Research Award presented at the 2013 National Drug and Alcohol Awards at Parliament House in Canberra.
Associate Professor Miller shared the prestigious award with Associate Professor Adrian Kelly, Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research.
The largest study ever taken into patron behaviour was the project that won Associate Professor Miller the award – Patron Offending and Intoxication in the Night Time Entertainment Districts, or POINTED.
This collaboration between law enforcement organisations and six universities, with 7000 interviews and 900 observations across five sites, represents a landmark addition to the evidence around the risks and harms associated with attending licensed venues.
POINTED stands as an example of high impact, collaborative research which is methodologically innovative and ethically sound.
Professor Brendan Crotty, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Health, congratulated Associate Professor Miller on his achievement.
"This is a great achievement for Peter, and good news for the Faculty and the University," he said.
The 2013 Awards are a collaborative initiative involving the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA), the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD), the Australian Drugs Foundation (ADF) and the Ted Noffs Foundation.
There is an irony in that award being presented at the seat of the nation.
The results of Associate Professor Miller’s work will make both Federal and State politicians wince.
“The key thing is that what really works in improving things is State and Federal government policy,” Associate Professor Miller said.
“It is very hard for local communities to act when the State and Federal Government are clearly in bed with the alcohol industry and refuse to implement the measures that the evidence repeatedly shows reduces alcohol related violence such as reducing pub trading hours and restricting advertising to our kids.
“So if I can summarise five years of work in a sentence, the findings are that we can do a lot about reducing alcohol related violence but it requires State and Federal governments to stop selling out to big alcohol.”
This “sell-out” is now taking Associate Professor Miller off the late night streets and down the corridors of power.
“The alcohol lobby is very well connected,” he said.
“What we are doing now is research into the way policy is made.”
No doubt, that will lead to Associate Professor Miller bumping up hard against some industry heavyweights.
They should be warned, he has the CV for that, too.
He didn’t like Australian football as a schoolboy because of the the way people ran at you, then away from you.
“If they came at me, I really wanted to finish off the business,” he chuckled.
“Then, in year 10 at Geelong Grammar, someone thought I had the right build and personality for rugby union.”
One look at that build is enough to know he was press-ganged into rugby football’s famous masonry of the front row, of which he remained an active member until he was 43.
“I just loved it,” he said.
“There is a real test of wills at the end of which you shake hands and walk off together.
“It was really about testing yourself.”
He played both in Australia and in London for the famous Kings College Hospital club, one of the oldest in the world.
These days in his spare time you are more likely to find Peter Miller at Splashdown in Whittington with his young son than testing the strength of some burly front row forward.
But as his research reveals more and more that the only thing missing from a genuine fight against alcohol related abuse is the will of politicians to do something, you sense he’s well and truly up for another test of his own will and strength.
It's how you make a difference.