Doling out drinks to the 100m long queue
There was a single sentence in the news coverage of this weekend’s Byron Bay schoolies brawl which was buried at the bottom of the story, but could have been a story in its own right. “The schoolies congregated in the park because the lines to get into Byron’s four main pubs and clubs were 100m-plus long.”
The decision to get drunk and act like a jerk is a personal decision. But without excising personal responsibility from the debate, it is also worth examining the environment in which young people make the sort of choices which end up with them sleeping in their own spew in a park, sleeping with someone for the first time while bordering on comatose, sleeping in a police cell because they’ve punched someone for looking at them the wrong way.
It’s an environment which has been created by adults who have a massive commercial interest in Australia’s youth drinking culture.
On Saturday night, the 100m-long lines at Byron’s four main pubs and clubs would have been replicated at the bigger suburban drinking barns in our major cities and in the booze-soaked beer gardens and bars in our CBDs. I am certainly not suggesting any criminality on the part of these pubs and clubs – as a general rule they are at pains to avoid violence on the premises or to admit underage drinkers because they know the penalties they will incur.
But with drinking hours being the way they are, and with the commercial incentive being so strong to make sure your pub is chocker-block until closing with people who are (hopefully) on the right side of 18, we are now at a point where these joints are operating on a wholly impractical knife-edge where the scenes we saw in Byron last Saturday will be repeated with monotonous regularity. If you’ve got the equivalent of 400 metres-worth of young revellers lined up in a tiny town, the impetus to cash in on the bonanza will eclipse any community-minded sensibility about whether you are in fact providing the requisite fuel for an all-in brawl in a few hours’ time.
Australia’s drinking culture is at a strange point where it has never been more under siege, but is mounting a spirited comeback.
For the first time in years the latest statistics on alcohol consumption showed that there’s been an increase in our grog intake. Rehab centre Odyssey House reported this week that until recently alcohol abuse represented one-quarter of its work but has now jumped to one-third. In his Daily Telegraph column City Heartbeat, Sydney accident and emergency specialist Dr Gordon Fulde provides a wrap-up of the weekend’s atrocities, most of them booze-related. And then there’s nights like Saturday in Byron.
We have seen artificial government-led increases in the price of alcopops, calls for bans on alcohol advertising and sporting sponsorships, but the core of the problem is one of massive over-supply. At any minute of the day or night, in any major Australian city and in most tourist towns, you will have no trouble whatsoever finding yourself a drink, or a dozen of them.
The Australian Hotels Association is going to have to start boxing smarter if it is to win the alcohol debate. At present it often sounds like the dissembling front organisation for cashed-up super-pubs which have the worst record of violence on account of their determination to cram younger drinkers in until the small hours of the morning. Under its former leader John Thorpe, who famously opposed the introduction of Melbourne-style small bars in Sydney on the grounds that Sydney people “don’t want to sit in a hole drinking chardonnay and reading a book”, the NSW arm of the AHA might as well have been led by Sir Les Patterson in trying to deny drinkers any variety in the way they chose to imbibe.
The result of its obstinance is that we are now seeing campaigns by the likes of Deborah Cameron on ABC 702 for the adoption of the old English-style drinking rules where pubs would be required to close at midnight.
At one level this campaign reflects the bourgeois appetites of an ABC audience –people gushing on about how when they lived in Notting Hill they loved nothing more than going to the organic market then having a single pint of artisan-crafted twig-flavoured ale at their picturesque local before heading home to listen to the new Belle and Sebastian album.
This mythologising of European drinking culture ignores the fact that grog is just as big a factor in problems such as soccer violence as it is in the youth violence we saw in Byron last Saturday. It also fails to recognise that England changed its licensing laws in 2005 because of problems associated with uniform midnight closing. These included the fact that many drinkers developed the habit of speed drinking to down as many pints in before staggering out onto the streets. The fact that everybody staggered out onto the streets at precisely the same time resulted in massive spikes in violence the moment every pub closed.
While Europe and specifically the UK might not be perfect, Australia is hardly the model either. I am not sure if I want Deborah Cameron to be put in charge of licensing laws but the AHA has been doing such an ordinary job of managing the debate that it has now lost control of the agenda. The fear for those of us who enjoy a beer (or seven) every so often is that we might end up with much more prohibitive rules, such as limits on the number of drinks you can order, because the laws are currently skewed in favour of those who have grown rich catering for 100m-long queues.
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