Land of the Rum Rebellion


After relatively little interest in the topic during the Howard years, the first months of Kevin Rudd’s Government have seen a big focus on alcohol policy. Now Victorian Premier John Brumby has joined the party, so to speak, with a proposal for a late-night nightclub lockout in Melbourne’s CBD. But the newfound interest in tempering the harmful effects of booze also reveals just how important alcohol is to Australia’s cultural and economic life.

Australia has always had a close – if ambivalent – relationship with alcohol. This year is the 200th anniversary of one of the most colourful episodes of our colonial history, the NSW Rum Rebellion, which incidentally inspired the very first Australian political cartoon.

A couple of centuries later, Kevin Rudd has faced rather less opposition to his peremptory decision to raise the Commonwealth excise on so-called "alcopops" – the premixed spirits supposedly so loved by students and young women.

Rudd’s tax hike will gain Wayne Swan something in the order of $500 million in extra revenue annually, but the fiscal aspects of the decision have been little remarked upon. Instead, the debate has focused on the social policy implications of a decision which pits libertarians and party-goers opposing a "nanny state" against health policy experts, doctors and police opposing the damaging effects of Australia’s love affair with the bottle.

Rudd’s decision was supported by many in the community and media who are worried about the impact of rising alcohol use among young people, particularly women. Among them was the Australian Drug Foundation’s John Rogerson, who was quoted in The Age saying "we’ve been waiting a long time for this. It’s the start of redressing the balance and making some significant inroads to changing the culture in our community and reducing the harm caused by alcohol misuse."

The Daily Telegraph quoted statistics from the Australian Divisions of General Practice which suggested that "Forty-five per cent of girls as young as 12 … said their last drink was an alcopop, compared to eight per cent saying it was beer and 11 per cent wine."

Meanwhile, Health Minister Nicola Roxon played politics with the issue, accusing the Howard government of fuelling an "explosion" in binge drinking among teenage girls.

But the decision has also focused attention on Australia’s complex system of alcohol taxes and restrictions. As several commentators from conservative think tanks quickly observed, Australia’s Federal alcohol taxes favour wine over other types of alcohol – the result of decades of special treatment for the wine industry. Another contributing factor was the raft of changes to alcohol taxes the Howard government brought in after the introduction of the GST in 2000, which created the alcopops tax loophole in the first place.

The Wine Equalisation Tax, as it is known, means that if a product is at least 70 per cent wine and at least 8 per cent alcohol, it will be taxed as wine. Clever alcohol companies are now gearing up to take advantage, by creating a new class of wine-based alcopop that will be just as intoxicating, but enjoy lower taxes.

Meanwhile, provoked by rising levels of alcohol-related violence in inner Melbourne, John Brumby has announced a Queensland-style lockout for licensed premises after 2:00am. The idea behind the lockout – modelled on the 3:00am deadline for entry in Brisbane and the Gold Coast – is to prevent late-night drinking and so reduce the level of alcohol-related harm.

"It will not affect people already in venues or change opening hours, but it will reduce what we call ‘venue hopping’ by large groups of young and often drunken people, which police tell us is the major cause of violent behaviour on Melbourne’s streets," Brumby told The Age.

But, just like Rudd’s alcopops tax, the Victorian lockout includes get-out clauses and inconsistencies. Crown Casino, for example, is exempted from the decision – without explanation from the Premier. And unlike Queensland, Victoria allows 24-hour bottle shop trading, which means that intoxicated revellers will be able to walk to one of the Melbourne CBD’s late night bottle shops and buy alcohol – which they will presumably drink on the streets. Melbourne also has 24 hour nightclub trading. So what time in the morning will the punters be let back in?

Nightclub owners and late-night partiers are not impressed. A Facebook group protesting the lockout decision already has nearly 20,000 members, and there is an "official" protest website which includes a long statement by the General Manager of some of Melbourne’s most prominent bars, Augusto Braidotti. "This will mark the end of Melbourne CBD as a 24-hour city," he writes on the site.

The licensors are right: there is an inconsistency between policies that promote Melbourne for its bars and "night-time economy" and a 2:00am lockout policy. The Melbourne City Council’s website boasts of Melbourne’s "cool bars" while Tourism Victoria’s major Visit Melbourne campaign celebrates the city’s "alleys leading to opulent bars."

The problem for both policymakers and publicans is an age-old one of conflicting priorities. Lockout restrictions are targeted at harm reduction. Meanwhile, Melbourne’s famous bars and clubs bring as many as 300,000 people into the city on a Friday night – revellers whose custom supports thousands of jobs in the hospitality, retail and music sectors.

The issues of the night-time economy are becoming increasingly important in the modern 24-hour city. As working conditions become more deregulated and casualised, demand for late-night leisure services has soared. With it has come increasing levels of violent crime. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, as both Australian and British research confirms. As the University of Western Sydney’s David Rowe wrote in 2005, "In a few generations, Australia has moved from the ‘six o’clock swill’, through the late-night rage, to the round-the-clock party."

But while lockout policies apply broad-brush restrictions to licensed premises, research demonstrates that the problem of alcohol-related violence is confined to a small number of large nightclubs. Suzanne Briscoe and Neil Donnelly’s pathbreaking 2001 study looked at NSW Police data and found that "in inner Sydney 12 per cent of hotels accounted for almost 60 per cent of all assaults on hotel premises, in Newcastle 8 per cent of licensed premises accounted for nearly 80 per cent of all assaults on licensed premises and in Wollongong 6 per cent of licensed premises accounted for 67 per cent of all on-premises assaults."

The real story here is one of missed opportunity. Now is surely the time to enact broad reforms to Australia’s alcohol policy. A good place to start would be to standardise Australia’s State-based licensing regimes and Federal alcohol excises. The academic evidence for the positive public health impacts of higher alcohol taxes is now incontrovertible. Last year, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Institute at Curtin University published an authoritative study of the local and international evidence in this regard. Citing an academic review by Canadian researcher Tim Stockwell, they found overwhelming evidence that raising alcohol taxes and reducing trading hours will reduce alcohol-related harm. In the face of this evidence, it’s time we saw the Wine Equalisation Tax for what it is: a tax break for a special interest group.

But there is an even bigger hypocrisy at work in Australian drug and alcohol policy. This is the relationship between alcohol and illegal drugs like cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy.

Unceasing demand from Australia’s millions of drug users and fierce competition in the black economy means Australians have more access to illegal drugs than ever before. The logic of raising the price and restricting the sale and supply of dangerous drugs like alcohol breaks down when applied to illegal drugs, for the simple reason that governments have lost control of drug supply. In doing so, it – and we – miss out on the lucrative tax revenues that could be levied on legalised drugs; revenues that could be directed to a health system that currently struggles to provide adequate treatment and rehabilitation services to Australian drug users.

Forget about rationalising alcohol taxes. Only when Australian politicians face up to the failure of prohibition will we be able to move towards a comprehensive national strategy to reduce drug and alcohol harm.

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