A Single Drink Puts Media Over The Limit

Tony Abbott skolled a beer this weekend.

The Australian press made sure this skol received the hyperbolic, wall-to-wall coverage it deserved.

No doubt you read about it in the Herald Sun, The Australian, the Canberra Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Courier Mail, the Guardian, the Adelaide Advertiser, or the West Australian.

You would have read that the Prime Minister was cheered on by a football team at Sydney’s Royal Oak Hotel. You would also have read that the act took him about six seconds, although whether this is a fast or slow pace for drinking a schooner in one go has unfortunately been left un-analysed.

And finally, you would probably have read that this was a bad example for a prime minister to set to young people. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education expressed concern that it sent the wrong signal.

Journalist Judith Ireland said Abbott was “supposed to be a vocal advocate against binge drinking”, and that this sort of macho behaviour seemed to go against his claim to be “also the Minister for Women”.

Another writer, Andrew P Street, immediately connected this single skol with the binge drinking”scourge that’s destroying Australian society, turning our young men into animals”.

It would be hard to invent a better symbolic clash between the Australian self-image as larrikin and the po-faced posturing of the media than Abbott’s drink.

It is now apparently impossible for any public figure to stray outside the incredibly tightly prescribed rules of behaviour – prescribed, not by the public, but by the press, who of course would be horrified if those standards were applied to them.

The idea that a politician’s personal behaviour influences the behaviour of the public is pretty dubious.

Nevertheless, Abbott violated no cultural norm, his actions pose no ethical dilemma, they were neither reckless nor self-harming, and they had no political, economic, or social consequences. It was one beer. Abbott is a fitness fanatic. He’s famous for having once ordered a light beer shandy with 60 per cent lemonade. The weekend’s skol would be barely worth mentioning in a colour piece.

Yet once we hear from earnest prognostications of public health lobbyists, downing a single drink in one go becomes symbolic of a deeper, dangerous, threatening moral panic about alcohol consumption.

Alcohol consumption and risky drinking has been steadily declining, as the statistics from the Institute of Health and Welfare have consistently shown. The proportion of Australians drinking daily is at a 20-year low, and young people are taking up drinking at a later age than ever before.

These facts contrast with the frenzied, and well-funded, anti-booze movement who pop up in the bottom half of every news story tangentially related to alcohol.

Take the suggestion aired over the weekend that the Abbott Government might make a step towards volumetric alcohol taxation in the May budget.

If you were designing an alcohol tax from scratch, you’d want it to be volumetric – that is, levied on the alcohol content, rather than the type of drink. But we’re not designing a tax system from scratch. In the middle of a budget crisis what is really being proposed is a simple tax increase on one specific good.

Yet the story was quickly filtered through a paternalist prism: “Cheap cask wine is a serious health issue in many communities,” one public health activist said.

Thus the Government might be able to dress up a tax hike that disproportionately affects poorer Australians as if it were a compassionate health measure.

Last week the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR) released research suggesting the Sydney liquor licence lockout had achieved its stated goals by dramatically reducing the number of assaults in Kings Cross.

Determining cause and effect in a complex system is incredibly hard. But BOSCAR found that one of the possible reasons that the assaults declined is because the number of people visiting Kings Cross declined dramatically. Business groups say revenue in Kings Cross is down 20 to 50 per cent. The City of Sydney says footpath congestion in Kings Cross is down 84 per cent. And BOSCAR says foot traffic at night from Kings Cross station is down too.

Obviously shutting down Kings Cross was going to reduce assaults in Kings Cross. But this is an extraordinary disproportionate response to what was a policing problem.

HL Mencken thought that one of Australia’s best contributions to the English language was “wowser”. The word’s origins are obscure but some wowsers at the start of the 20th century liked to say it stood for “We Only Want Social Evils Remedied”.

Yet in going after social evils, Australia’s wowsers have rarely been able to avoid attacking the harmless, knowing choices of people who are perfectly capable of making decisions about their health, and who can distinguish between a prime minister having a joyful, boisterous single drink and serious alcohol abuse.