From the Rum Corps to the alcopop

A review of Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia by Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan

In the special episode of ABC TV’s Q&A in February this year, Kevin Rudd was asked whether he would like to raise the drinking age to 21: ‘of course’. Rudd quickly backed away from that definitive statement when the audience responded negatively. (The Q&A audience was limited to those between the ages of 16 to 25. Raising the drinking age would no doubt have been a more tangible disenfranchisement than if he had taken away their right to vote.)

In Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan explore Australia’s long and stormy relationship with our drinks. Australian culture reserves a prominent place for alcohol and where alcohol is consumed. And Australian history has no lack of social reformers who opposed alcohol’s cultural prominence.

Fitzgerald and Jordan nominate three moments where alcohol has played a part in three critical episodes in Australian history: the Rum Rebellion (the attempt to shut down the spirits trade being the immediate cause of the revolt against Governor Bligh), the Eureka Stockade (where a fair number of the rebels were drunk on the last night of the stockade and probably underperformed in the battle at dawn the next day), and the Dismissal (John Kerr enjoyed his drinks, and Gough Whitlam claimed in 2002 that he never would have appointed him Governor General if he’d know just how much he enjoyed them).

But Fitzgerald and Jordan back away from saying alcohol was anything but proximate to these events. They conclude that the Rum Rebellion wasn’t really about rum at all, but more about the governing style of Bligh. And if some miners were drunk at the Eureka Stockade, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. Gerard Henderson has argued that the claim Kerr was a drunk is contradicted by no less an authority than his own physician, and to claim, as Whitlam has, that the Dismissal wouldn’t have happened without Kerr’s drinking is to ignore the rather significant political events that led it.

Nevertheless, if alcohol has had little direct impact on the big historical events, it has been a major part of Australian culture. Fitzgerald and Jordan describe the economic and cultural development of domestic wine and beer industries. They detail how what we drink has always been a marker of social status and cultural position, and the regional variations across the country. The regulatory framework that governs alcohol has also governed its cultural place-from the nineteenth century victories of the temperance movement, to the mid-twentieth century closing limits and gender discrimination laws in bars, to today’s Nanny State campaigns.

Fitzgerald and Jordan describe an eighteenth century attitude towards alcohol that was similar to today’s. The twin characteristic virtues in this period were ‘usefulness and amiability’. Usefulness was, in the early industrial revolution, of obviously value. But that usefulness had to be tempered by amiability. This amiability was more than just the agreeableness of good manners it was, in the words of one historian quoted by Fitzgerald and Jordan, ‘a genuine loving regard for other people’.

The authors argue that without understanding those twin virtues, we might mistake the eighteenth century attitude to alcohol as hypocrisy-the men who, for instance, damned John Macarthur’s role in the spirit trade, also enjoyed their fair share of alcohol. Fitzgerald and Jordan point out that there is a substantial difference between drinking to be amiable and drunkenness, and this difference was well-recognised at the time.

But that distinction has never been without its own hypocrisies. We see it today clearly-what constitutes good drinking and bad drinking is often just as much about the class of the drinker than the volume they drink. The alcopops furore of 2008 increased the tax on canned rum-and-cokes, which are consumed more in Frankston than Carlton North, where wine is drunk. Wine remains a protected and coddled industry, part of an idea of what Australians ought to drink.

By providing a sociological history of alcohol consumption in Australia, Fitzgerald and Jordan allow us to unpack the origin of the Nanny State, and the ideology that supports it.