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Under the influence: speech

2 September 2009 2,672 views No Comment

This evening I’d especially like to welcome Professor Gail Crossley from the Australian Catholic University, where I am proud to be a Professorial Fellow at the North Sydney campus.

As I was listening to the news of John Della Bosca’s resignation as Health Minister, yesterday I walked into South Sydney library to borrow my favourite P.G Wodehouse novel, ‘Love Among the Chickens’. As I stood in a queue, I overheard a young woman say to a friend, “I’ve just finished reading ‘Under The Influence’.

When her friend asked, “What’s it like? my ears pricked up.  “It’s absolutely brilliant, she said. “Superbly researched and wonderfully well written.  Wowsers!

“If you don’t mind me asking, I intervened, “I didn’t know that ‘Under The Influence’ was yet on sale?  “I didn’t buy it, the woman said. “I borrowed it.

Gee whiz I thought, the libraries in New South Wales are really on song.  But starting to smell something of a rat, I shy inquired, “That Under The Influence book is about alcohol in Australia, isn’t it?

“Oh no, she replied. “It’s a new biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. You should read it.

So there we are!

Even though Scott Fitzgerald was himself an alcoholic, our book ‘Under The Influence’ isn’t about the author of that American classic ‘The Great Gatsby’.  It is a history of alcohol in Australia. Indeed it is the first history of the role of alcohol in Australia ever published.

It is pleasing that in today’s THE AUSTRALIAN LITERARY REVIEW the Melbourne-based historian John Hirst concluded that: “UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a substantial and comprehensive work: a book for policy makers to ponder.”

This evening we have three important apologies.

One from Tony Abbott.

The second from NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos, who is now Acting Health Minister.

And the third from that sturdy NSW Labor backbencher, Frank Sartor, who said he would have loved to come, but something rather urgent has come up for him to organise.

Or is it count?

In many ways it’s a shame that Della couldn’t make it tonight because, along with the NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione, he has been at the forefront of countering the insidious effects of the booze culture in Australia, and especially in the state of New South Wales.

A disturbing fact is that in this nation, which was from the outset launched on a sea of spirits, while alcohol per capita consumption is declining, alcohol abuse and misuse is increasing exponentially in drinkers between the ages of 16 to 24. Especially disturbing is the dangerous level of binge drinking among young women.

One side effect of this is that helping agencies, including Alcoholics Anonymous, are seeing an increasing number of young women and men seeking help for their alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

It is no accident that alcohol-fuelled violence has become the focus of concern especially in New South Wales, where Commissioner Scipione, himself a teetotaller, points out that extremely violent cities like Los Angeles have fewer alcohol-related assaults than Newcastle and Sydney.

Clearly Australia faces a huge problem that urgently needs to be addressed. And there is a good reason for New South Wales to be the focus on new initiatives to foster responsible alcohol consumption. Of the six hundred or so 24-hour drinking licenses around Australia, 60 per cent of them are located in NSW, the vast majority in Sydney and Newcastle.

Faced with the reality than tens of thousands of drinkers are admitted to our hospitals each year, we urgently need to explore a number of measures, including a freeze on new 24-hour licences and 2am lockouts in violent and high-risk pubs, as well as increased restrictions on alcohol advertising, especially those targeting the young.

According to a recent federal government report, partial bans on alcohol advertising would reduce drinking by 16 per cent; road fatalities by 10 per cent; the yearly social costs of alcohol abuse by $2.45 billion; and road accidents by $310 billion.

A total ban on alcohol advertising in Australia is predicted to reduce drinking by 25 per cent; road fatalities by 30 per cent; the yearly social costs of alcohol abuse by $3.86 billion; and road accidents by $960 billion. In particular, bans on advertising targeting the young would have significant benefits.

While such measures might seem drastic, since 2000 the biggest increase in alcohol-related hospital admissions has been among 18 to 24 year-olds, with an overall increase of 130 per cent. Female admissions in that age group have increased by 200 per cent. Whereas advertising bans would have garnered little support in the not so distant past, more than 72 per cent of Australians over 14 now support a ban on all alcohol advertising before 9.30pm, and more than half support banning alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.

The relationship between alcohol and sport is pivotal to our culture. It is not surprising that all major sports codes in Australia have seen the writing on the wall and signed up to be part of the federal Labor government’s $53 million national alcohol code for sports. The Australian Football League (AFL), the National Rugby League (NRL), Netball Australia, the Football Federation of Australia (soccer), the Australian Rugby Union and Cricket Australia have all supported a uniform code, which asks players to behave in a dignified and professional manner when drinking and not to put themselves or others at risk of injury or social harm.

According to Andrew Demetriou, the courageous head of the AFL, promoting healthy alcohol environments helps “ensure our clubs are family-friendly. He takes pride in the leading role that Aussie Rules players are taking in “driving the responsible alcohol message, citing in particular the ‘Just Think’ campaign at Geelong, where, in response to problems at local nightclubs, the team is leading a campaign to promote a responsible attitude to alcohol.

David Gallop, head of the NRL, has this year weathered a storm of alcohol-fuelled controversies, including another unsavoury series of incidents this week involving the Sydney Roosters, whose coach Brad Fittler, not so long ago had to fine himself $10,000 for drinking excessively!

The truth is that if sport addresses its own issues it can play a leading role in changing attitudes. Abuse of alcohol, David Gallop rightly says, is “never someone else’s problem. Coupled with recent government moves to break the nexus between alcohol and sport, these are perhaps encouraging signs.

But we must never underestimate the power of the liquor industry in Australia and the pivotal role that booze still plays in our culture.

Recently at a function in Redfern I overheard a bloke say, “Watch her, she doesn’t drink.  Abstainers in Australia are still greeted with considerable suspicion.

That is why Sir Leslie Colin Patterson’s song, “Never Trust A Man Who Doesn’t Drink, is so telling and so powerful:

“Never trust a man who doesn’t drink,
Though he may not throw up on your kitchen sink.
I’d rather be half-hearted
Than a blue-nose wowser bastard
So never trust a man who doesn’t drink.

Thank you all for coming.

Now I’d like to introduce the co-author of UNDER THE INFLUENCE, my friend Dr Trevor Jordan who, auspiciously, was married in Brisbane during the beer strike in 1975.

Ross Fitzgerald’s speech was given at the launch of Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan, UNDER THE INFLUENCE: A HISTORY OF ALCOHOL IN AUSTRALIA (ABC Books) 110 Trafalgar Street, Annandale, 7.30pm Wednesday September 2, 2009. The author of 31 books, PROFESSOR ROSS FITZGERALD, Professorial Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, North Sydney, is a member of the NSW government’s Expert Advisory Group on Alcohol and Other Drugs and a member of the NSW State Parole Authority.