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Questioning the norms of consumerism

"What underpins all of my research is helping people live better lives."

Dr Paul Harrison, co-director of the newly established Centre for Organisational Health and Consumer Wellbeing (COHACW) is always on the lookout for any opportunity or idea, to make a great discovery.

‘I think what underpins all of my research is helping people live better lives,’ Dr Harrison says.

‘I have an inquisitive mind. So using my experience, and our research and evidence to achieve positive outcomes for people is a good thing.’

One of Dr Harrison’s research projects investigates a ‘double opt-in’ process for contractual agreements.

It was born from a policy recommendation for consumer protection, which he arrived at when he undertook research into consumer decision making in the area of high-pressure selling of credit contracts in 2011.

‘In cases, where people sign contracts, instead of a “cooling off period”, we have recommended a “double opt-in” process,’ Dr Harrison says.

‘A consumer would initially show interest and then a secondary confirmation would be agreed upon, before the contract is signed. This way, there is minimal potential for detriment to the consumer.

‘The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and other government regulators showed interest in our proposals, and I am working with my colleague at the centre, Dr Joshua Newton to investigate whether the recommendation has efficacy. Although we gained external funding to do this research, having the backing of the new Centre has given us a real advantage to talk about our research to government and industry.’

Dr Harrison’s passion for studying consumer behaviour, however, wasn’t his first calling.

He worked as a public servant in the federal government after leaving school, but changed careers and studied opera at the Victorian College of the Arts and became a professional singer for 15 years, before he moved into arts and administration at the Melbourne Theatre Company and Victorian State Opera, while completing an arts management course at Deakin.

By sheer serendipity, he landed a permanent role at Deakin in 2002.

 ‘I felt I had achieved everything I wanted to as professional singer over 15 years and then reached a point of thinking “what else interests me”?’ he says.

‘I realised early on that academia was where I wanted to be. Deakin has given me the freedom to explore so many ideas and map out my own path, which I love.

‘And I don’t necessarily restrict my research and teaching to one context. Once you realise that pretty much everything we do is a form of consumption, you can spread your remit quite wide, which is something I try and tell my students. I teach them that they have a responsibility to be “conscious students of life”. It’s not reasonable to wander through the world like a zombie – question the norms and question the way things are done.’

In addition to his busy teaching schedule, Dr Harrison leads projects on smoking cessation, aged-care choices and telecommunication contracts.

He is also the director of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) and the former chair of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), as well as a member of both the VicHealth's Social Marketing Expert Panel and Essential Services Commission's Consumer Insights Panel.

There is a lot to keep up with and Dr Harrison wouldn’t have it any other way, claiming a plethora of responsibilities is vital for an active researcher.

‘I feel that I am just so privileged to be working with really interesting and incredibly smart students. Forming relationships is critical for me. In fact most of the projects I work on stem from relationships I have formed with students, academics, business people, and organisations. They constantly challenge your thoughts, and you can watch their growth and see the future potential,’ Dr Harrison said.

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