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Our history seen through a glass

5 September 2009 1,145 views No Comment

IN August 1806 the newly appointed governor of NSW, William Bligh – he of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – made a tour of the Hawkesbury district.

He found to his dismay that “a pernicious fondness for spiritous liquors was gaining ground, to the destruction of public morals and happiness”.

Bligh’s concerns were shared by his superiors in Britain, the local clergy and many industrious free settlers throughout the colony. Soon afterwards, Bligh introduced tough measures to address the problem, including a total ban on distilling.

The governor made some powerful enemies. The liquor trade was controlled by a greedy military elite, comprising officers and former officers of the corrupt NSW Corps. Their unofficial leader was the pathologically ambitious John Macarthur, who had risen from the position of corps paymaster to become a wealthy merchant and landowner.

Macarthur had the ear of the corps’ commander, George Johnston. In January 1808, following his prosecution for breach of port regulations, Macarthur orchestrated Bligh’s arrest at Government House. This notorious incident came to be known as the Rum Rebellion.

Fast forward 200 years to 2008. The Rudd Labor government proposes a so-called alcopops tax to address high rates of binge drinking by the young, especially teenage girls. Alcopops are pre-mixed drinks containing a sweet ingredient, usually fruit juice, which masks the taste of beer or spirits. They are packaged attractively to appeal to the youthful but ostensibly sophisticated female market.

Between 2001 and 2004, the proportion of Australian girls in the age group 14-19 consuming these products increased from 14 per cent to 60 per cent.

Predictably, the mega corporations that market alcopops scream blue murder about the tax. The profits at stake are huge – billions of dollars – and that sort of money wields a lot of influence. The industry is backed for a good while by the opposition. When first put to a vote, in March this year, the government’s bill is rejected in the Senate.

But five months is an eternity in politics and Kevin Rudd is a far wilier operator than was the haughty, cantankerous Bligh. On August 14, the Senate passes an amended version of the legislation.

These two alcohol-related episodes in Australia’s past – and several others – are narrated in absorbing detail in Under the Influence. Authors Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan have produced an informative and thought-provoking book. Although the prose is somewhat staid, the book as a whole is a delicious cocktail of history, sociology, biography, science, philosophy and pop culture, enlivened by dozens of diverting colour illustrations.

Fitzgerald and Jordan’s strength is intellectual rigour. They are careful to avoid the propagation of stereotypes. “The claim that our level of alcohol consumption is a unique feature of our national identity is a myth,” they say. Only 50 per cent of Australians drink regularly, and 10 per cent do not drink at all. And, more or less, it has always been thus.

Australia is not, and never has been, a “nation divided between boozers and wowsers”. The history of alcohol in this country, as elsewhere in the West, has been one of sapient compromise, of striking “a balance between freedom and regulation”.

The Rum Rebellion ultimately failed: Johnston was court-martialled, and Macarthur sought exile in England for eight years. Bligh’s successor as governor, the estimable Lachlan Macquarie, restored order in NSW.

Ever since, as Fitzgerald and Jordan show, the responsible authorities here have wielded various “prominent tools”.

Taxation and licensing have been chief among them, together with laws governing workplace safety, advertising, and product-labelling. Nowadays a lot of public money is spent on education programs about safe drinking levels, alcoholism, and drug use generally. We’ve come a long way. Just a few decades ago, Australia did not have a flourishing world-class wine industry, yet production workers at Tooth’s breweries were entitled to guzzle four free schooners a day. And in a poster from the same era, which is reproduced in the book, a rugby league star of the time could laud beer for its medicinal qualities: “(It) renew(s) one’s energy, builds body and muscle, and ensures perfect fitness always.”

For the most part, Australian citizens have supported sensible but not draconian measures to regulate alcohol consumption. Prohibition referendums of the 1920s and 30s never produced a yes majority in any state. (The closest result came in the Victorian poll in March 1930, when 42 per cent voted yes.)

But during World War I the electorates in most states endorsed six o’clock closing of hotels, and these remained in force until the 60s. Such laws may seem quaint to us, but they were a considered response to critical social problems, similar to the drink-driving laws of the 70s and 80s.

The temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries was strongly supported by women and the Protestant churches.

They recognised, in Fitzgerald and Jordan’s words, “an incontrovertible link between longer trading hours and increased violence”.

In the light of today’s binge-drinking problem, is it time to reconsider such measures?

Perhaps, though I tend to agree with Fitzgerald and Jordan’s central thesis that “alcohol has been more a reflector of Australian culture than a major determinant of cultural change; its patterns of use and abuse reflect other influences: social, economic and cultural”.

As the authors demonstrate, the worst periods of alcohol abuse in Australia have coincided with deep-seated “dislocating effects”: the hardship and loneliness endured by the earliest settlers and convicts; the soulless rigours of industrialisation; the ennui of postmodernity.

Interestingly, the periods of lowest consumption have coincided with large-scale economic downturns: the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s. Drinking is expensive and, contrary to the ocker stereotype, wealthy Australians have always consumed more grog than the working class.

The best chapter in this book is devoted to indigenous issues. The authors proffer a thoughtful analysis of the long-term relationship between alcohol abuse and Aboriginal disadvantage. Although comparatively few Aborigines are regular drinkers (33 per cent against 50 per cent in the population), chronic male drunkenness is unquestionably a problem in numerous communities.

Fitzgerald and Jordan cite evidence that this phenomenon is not physiological: Aborigines drank alcoholic beverages long before 1788. Rather, “the problems facing the control or prohibition of alcohol in indigenous communities are the same as elsewhere. The demand for alcohol is rooted in stressful environmental conditions that influence individuals to choose to take up drink”.

Most of us who drink do so to brighten our mood or to relieve the pain. Incontestably, indigenous Australians have suffered worse stress than most.

The catastrophic effect of white settlement and endemic material deprivation have been exacerbated by two unique factors: the ancient tradition of “demand sharing” and (in the post-war era) a demoralising culture of passive welfare dependency. On these vexed subjects, Fitzgerald and Jordan quote approvingly from the hard-headed speeches of Noel Pearson.

Under the Influence tackles these issues with deadly seriousness.

But there are also passages that will evoke fascination, nostalgia, even wry laughter.

By Roy Williams, The Weekend Australian, 5 Septermber 2009. Roy Williams is the author of God, Actually.

Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, by Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan, ABC Books, 322pp, $35

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