in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, May 19, 2008

Melbourne: the world’s most liveable city (under siege)

If I said ‘city under siege’, where would I be talking about? I might be talking about somewhere like Baghdad, Khartoum, or Harare, all places where different kinds of curfews have been imposed as a tactic of martial law. What about Melbourne? Could ‘the world’s most liveable city’ be described as a city under siege? Hardly, you’d think, but then again, the state government has just taken a step in this direction with the 2am lockout. I have no doubt it will bring some positive side-effects in its wake, but I’m not going to talk about those here. Nor do I want to argue about the effective impact on us punters, which might actually be milder than a lot of alarmist (business-owning) commentators have suggested. All I want to ask is why has an issue – binge drinking – become a crisis?

No doubt you remember the ban on smoking in bars and pubs last year. A reasonable move, you might say, justified on the basis that it was a public health matter. We’ve been experiencing the direct benefits (less cancerous air) and the side-effects (toiletty smells, empty, empty dancefloors and smokay corrals) ever since, but the reason that I draw the comparison is that, as with the smoking ban, the government pushed through an agenda by framing an issue as a ‘crisis’ –‘cos crises, as we know, require immediate and exceptional action, which these days usually goes by the name ‘intervention’. In the case of the lockout, a second (but not secondary) argument has been tacked on: not only is binge drinking causing a ‘health crisis’, it’s also a ‘security problem’. And if a health crisis requires immediate action, then a security problem necessitates that an intervention be made ASAP using whatever force necessary.

We should also remember that governments never claim that there’s a crisis without talking about how it’s going to be managed by the experts… who are, surprise surprise, the government, its agents, or people authorised to do the work on their behalf. You gots to remember, folks: in politics, any claim of a crisis is also a play for (even more) power.

Under the Howard regime, the ‘crisis’ to be managed was immigrants, an issue that was connected with the spectre of Islamist terror, thanks to the opportunity presented by 9/11. It’s a textbook classic of politricks: create an internal enemy; demonise it in the press for a few months; wait for a crisis/event in order to declare ‘war’ on it; request exceptional powers; crackdown; appear tough, decisive and effective. Oh, and if the opposition says anything? Wedge ‘em, denounce them as unpatriotic, or even suggest that they’re on ‘their side’. Stay on message, and watch your numbers soar in the polls. There’s nothing voters love more than a spectacular crackdown by a government who appears ‘tough on [insert enemy object]’, which is why all effective politicians these days love (and need) jackboots as often as rubber stamps. Politics is all about stamping.

Thankfully for Australian Muslims, the Rudd regime appears to have substituted stamping on stigmatised minorities with stamping out alcopops. At the very least, this change of direction might prevent a re-run of the Cronulla ugliness (or, at the very least, confuse some bogans), and surely this is a good thing. But nonetheless, two things are striking: the first is how quickly any PM can galvanise one of many issues into the Problem that all Australians must be concerned about. The second is how quickly most people will bend over and accept whatever measures the self-appointed ‘problem managers’ suggest.

But, going back to the beginning, does it really make sense to say that binge drinking in Australia has reached crisis point? Lest we forget, almost exactly 200 years ago in wild colonial Sydney, the government was overthrown in the Rum Rebellion. According to legend, the Rebellion happened because Governor Bligh interfered in the enormous profiteering going on among NSW Officer Corps, who were running a tidy informal economy with rum as the currency. In actual fact, it wasn’t a matter of rum, although this was the view that Bligh tried on, and one made popular retrospectively by Christian historians hell-bent on portraying the ‘evils of alcohol’ and ‘the bad old days’. There was a lucrative business going in bootlegged rum, sure, but it wasn’t the cause of the rebellion, which was actually all about… guess what? Turf wars and power plays between the interests of business and government. Michael Duffy wrote this about it in the Sydney Morning Herald two years back: “The early governors wanted to keep NSW as a large-scale open prison, with a primitive economy based on yeomen ex-convicts and run by government fiat. In contrast, a growing number of entrepreneurs wanted to build a vigorous economy, and sought political influence for themselves… the rebellion is important as the first major crisis in the fight between government and capital in Australia.”

Don’t believe the hype: it wasn’t about booze then, and it isn’t about booze now. Just as the 1808 Rum Rebellion wasn’t really about rum, the 2008 lockout has precious little to do with alcopops, and a lot to do with tussles between political power and business interests. The government needs to stay (alco)popular to keep power; publicans need to sell booze to stay in business. Any of you goddamned cocksuckers thinks otherwise? Please watch Deadwood and report back. Basically, Australia has always had to deal with the hangover of its alcoholic romance, but if you ask me, it’s one problem among many, and certainly nothing like the kind of ‘crisis’ that the government, the Hun, ACA and TT would have you believe. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t pissed idiots occasionally picking fights and generally causing mayhem on the otherwise liveable streets of Melbourne. There are arseholes out there – it was always thus. Some of these arseholes are the ones stumbling pissed witless in the CBD of a Sunday morning. Then again, some of them are respected business owners and popular politicians. And if you ask me, it’s the stampier of the two groups who are the ones besieging our good city in this case. Perhaps it’s time we rose up and repelled these barbarians? No? Too pissed to care? Yeah, me too.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.