Chapter 22 - The Drink Problem

Posted in The Forgotten People

Recently a great deal of discussion has been occurring both in Parliament and Press in Melbourne, and perhaps elsewhere, in relation to the undoubted abuses of intoxicants which are taking place in the large centres of population.

Unfortunately, as it seems to me, a great deal of the debate has been made up of allegations and of charges and counter-charges, some of them probably of an extravagant kind. The heat which results tends to obscure the real problem.

It is true that the licensing laws of the nation have been and are controlled by State Parliaments and administered by State Executives. But the Commonwealth, in time of war, has certain responsibilities which it cannot escape, and has within its power certain courses of action which, in my opinion, would come nearer to the root of these troubles than most of the suggestions that have been made.

To me the outstanding fact is that three years ago drunkenness was diminishing in Australia, the standard of hotels was being raised, and the general public attitude was pretty accurately shown by the fact that in my own State, for example, the no-licence vote receded. In other words, public opinion, so far as one can judge it, was not acutely dissatisfied with the character or administration of the licensing laws.

Today, after three years of war, there can I think be no doubt that there is acute public dissatisfaction and an insistent demand for reform.

This short history surely demonstrates that the war is responsible for those additional causes which have produced additional and noticeable abuses.

What are these causes? Personally, I do not believe that they are to be found in a sudden degeneration of the character of the average citizen. It is true that the ultimate cure for the abuse of drink is to be found in the character of the individual and his capacity for moderation and self-restraint, self-discipline. But to state this is to state an ideal, and not to grapple with the immediate problem.

If, then, I am right in saying that the national character has not suddenly degenerated, what is the reason for this quite sudden development of excessive drinking, particularly in the capitals? No doubt it can be to a substantial degree attributed to wartime social conditions.

Men of the fighting services come home on a few days' leave; somewhat foolish notions of entertainment prevail, and the result is that the consumption of drink goes up. Standards all round are a little loosened, and the community becomes a little more noisy, so to speak, in its habits.

But, having said all that, we have still not reached what I believe to be the fundamental cause of the trouble. The fundamental cause (apart, of course, from the defects of human nature) is in my opinion to be found in two associated facts. One is that the very substantial increase in the national income as a result of war expenditure is being steadily diverted from essential commodities - which are increasingly in relatively short supply - to luxury commodities, one of the principal of which is drink.

If you increase the wages bill of a country like this by something of the order of £150,000,000 a year and take no adequate steps to draw off for purposes of war a substantial proportion of the added purchasing power and if, at the same time, you ration clothing, tea, sugar and other commodities, you must expect that people will have more cash in their pockets and that, having more cash and being normal and comparatively unthinking people, they will buy two drinks instead of one, or three drinks instead of two.

There is a second cause, directly related to the first. It is that the reduction in the total supply of liquor has been relatively small, while there has been no reduction whatever in the number of places licensed to sell it. If you bring into conjunction very large supplies of liquor and very large sums of spare spending money it is quite inevitable that you will have an increase in drinking and an increase in drunkenness.

To seek to cure such a problem by ignoring these root causes and talking merely in terms of stricter penalties or more police, desirable as these latter things may be, is to miss the whole point of the contest.

I speak to you about this matter from the point of view of a man who is, like many of you, neither a teetotaller nor an addict. My chief objective has always been the prevention or abolition of privileges for any class of business. For the life of me I cannot understand why the quite legitimate and useful hotel business should be any more immune from the impact of war conditions than the quite legitimate and useful business of selling sugar or tea or sardines.

We have heard a great deal about the rationalization of industry. We know that many hundreds if not thousands of small shops and businesses have been compelled to close, and that hundreds of branches of banks have been forced to close. We know there has been a very substantial reduction in the consumption of newsprint, of paper for wrappings; that the whole position of clothing supply has been revolutionized and the quantity of clothing for sale reduced. We know that all these and a hundred other things have taken place.

All that I ask, as a plain and sensible citizen, is why it should be thought that some rule applies to the selling of beer which does not apply to the carrying on of banking, or why tailors and shopkeepers should be asked to accept losses, and sometimes abolition, while those who sell the things we drink go relatively free except for some mild - very mild - reduction in the quantity of their turnover.

My view, then, can be summed up in two propositions: First, that we shall be playing with this problem, which is essentially one of dangerous extravagance with deplorable social results, unless and until we attack extravagance by diminishing the capacity of people to be extravagant; which means that there must be a far more thorough-going diversion of spending power to real war needs than an we are witnessing.

Austerity campaigns are insufficient because, if experience counts for anything, they will succeed with the austere and leave the irresponsible and the extravagant unmoved. There must be a compulsion to frugality, and when we have frugality, intemperance and extravagance will automatically be subdued.

The second proposition is that, both in point of the rationalization of industry and the reduction of goods available for sale, there is no earthly reason why the Australian liquor trade should not be required to submit to the controls and limitations that we quite cheerfully impose upon other and very frequently much more useful civil industries.

In brief, we have here a most important economic and social problem, which ought to be dealt with on its merits, without wild talk and certainly without fear, favour or affection.

4 September, 1942