Government attempts to control the behaviour of the citizenry can have unforeseen, ironic consequences, writes Fred Pawle.
Walk past any old pub in Australia today and you will see one of the physical legacies of an attempt a century ago to control people’s drinking. Tiles.
Ceramic finishes on the walls of pubs became necessary after 1916, when laws were gradually introduced in most Australian states to shut pubs at 6pm, and remained part of pub decor long after the laws were lifted in the 1950s.Historian Diane Kirkby notes that the laws - commonly known as the 6 o’clock swill - transformed pubs from places of entertainment for both men and women into stark rooms designed to accommodate a daily, messy binge sessions for men.
“For functional purposes, linoleum, chrome and tiles replaced oak, cedar and brass, especially in the public bar, to facilitate the easy hosing down of the drinking area once the drinkers had gone home,” she says.
“Billiard tables, dart boards and dance floors were removed, as were interior walls to create a larger front or public bar to accommodate the mass of drinkers who surged in for a drink in the rush period between 5pm and 6pm.”
Pubs became male domains. “Reduced trading hours meant it was no longer possible to provide refreshments for social gatherings and club meetings in the evenings. But most importantly the impact of these licensing laws was to create a masculine pub drinking culture in Australia. The pub became a segregated place for drinking in both the popular imagination and in actuality. As the spatial economy of a pub changed, so too did the social geography, especially for women.”
In 1951, the NSW government established a Royal Commission into Licensing Laws, headed by Justice AV Maxwell. The commission investigated the rise of sly grog and the corruption of the liquor industry as a result of the swill. He was also concerned about the laws’ wider cultural consequences. Maxwell said the convention of “women waiting outside on the footpath while their husbands drank in the bar with their mates” was an “unedifying spectacle”. He proposed making pubs more comfortable for women, who could then help “civilise” the space.
Or, to take the wider view, make them as civilised as they were before lawmakers butted in.
But if those outcomes were unforeseeable, another was less so: the laws would have little success in reducing the amount Australians drank. Consumption dropped during the Depression and World War II, but was otherwise minimally affected.
When the laws were lifted in the 1950s, however, the alcoholic culture they had helped nurture was let off the leash. Australians responded to a period of unparalleled prosperity by immersing themselves in the drinking culture in which they were raised. Australian alcohol consumption peaked at 13.1 litres per adult in 1975. The decline since then has been mostly steady, to 9.7 litres in 2016.
A term seldom used since the early days of the 6 o’clock swill reemerged last year, for distressing reasons. Researchers from James Cook University found that “sly grog” merchants were profiteering at “dry” indigenous camps in remote parts of Queensland.
“Sly grog sellers circumvent retailers’ takeaway liquor license conditions, stockpile alcohol outside restricted areas, send hoax messages to divert enforcement and take extraordinary risks to avoid apprehension,” the researchers found. “Police face significant challenges to enforce restrictions. On-selling of ‘sly grog’ appears more common in remote communities with total prohibition.”
The plethora of unforeseen and counterproductive outcomes in the past hasn’t stopped the modern version of the temperance movement - a cabal of health professionals and social engineers - from trying to enforce the 21st century version of the 6 o’clock swill: higher taxes on alcohol and minimum pricing.
As reported last week by the MRC, the reasons for this social meddling are often flimsy and give little credit to Australians being able to make decisions regarding their own health, the appalling circumstances in remote indigenous camps notwithstanding.
Education, not legislation, is often more effective. Drinkwise, the liquor industry’s body to help improve drinking culture, launched a campaign in 2008 to help parents become better role models regarding alcohol, and another in 2009 educating kids about the perils of drinking.
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2016 found that the number of teenagers aged 12-17 abstaining from alcohol had increased from 56 per cent in 2007 to 82 per cent in 2016. The average age of kids taking their first drink had risen from 16 to 17. Drinkwise took credit for much of this. We at the MRC see no reason to dispute their claim.
Yet the draft report to formulate the nation’s drug and alcohol strategy for the next decade recommends that the liquor industry be left out of the Reference Group that will decide how to fine-tune Australians’ drinking habits.
The wowsers need reminding that their good intentions often have the opposite result, and that the liquor industry is a partner, not an adversary, in the fight against alcohol abuse.
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