Alcohol Markets and Violence

28 Feb 2014

The media, particularly in Sydney, has been running a campaign highlighting the deaths that have come about because of violence in the late night economy of inner Sydney. We have seen distressing images of the results of what has been termed the ‘coward’s punch’ or ‘king hits’: single blows from behind that generally result in someone (almost invariably male) falling and hitting their head, causing massive brain damage. Interestingly, the everyday violence that is partly a result of alcohol consumption—such as brawls and homicides between young men outside licensed premises, or more widely, the domestic violence and homicides in families—does not rate a mention. Victimisation studies have shown that alcohol is implicated in almost half of all murders and assaults, whether on the streets or in homes, by men on other men who do not know each other, or by men on women who do.

By concentrating on the characteristics of individuals, we risk missing the wood for the trees. Alcohol is cheaper and more available in most places in Australia than since the First World War. There is a particular confluence of variables going on here: we have a culture that has historically reified the heavy-drinking man, and now a rabidly consumerist society in a deregulated neoliberal economic environment. This has led to large areas dedicated to all-night hedonism, and an alliance between the alcohol, gambling and sex industries that has produced a very specific, historical and cultural moment.

Consider this. In a prominent inner-Melbourne intersection, above a series of connected Victorian terraces that have been converted into a brothel, there is a huge rotating sign. At times it has carried a message to voters about the importance of electing Fiona Patten of the Sex Party to the Senate. At other times it has advertised lap-dancing and ‘gentleman’s clubs’. Currently, the message on one side is that ‘alcohol does not cause violence’; the other exhorts us to ‘blame and punish the individual’. All these messages are linked; not just geographically, but ideologically and financially.

The Sex Party is a libertarian party that is also linked to the owners of the legal sex industry in Australia via the Eros Foundation. The rise of the so-called gentleman’s club is central to many of the areas in which the night-time economy thrives. But there is no night-time economy or sex industry without alcohol. It lubricates all the relationships that flourish there. And perhaps if it stopped there, it might be small enough to be ignored. But along with the loosening of licensing laws and conditions that allowed the proliferation of late-night clubs, bars and restaurants (as well as the strip clubs, casinos, brothels and so on), came the explosion of take-away or packaged alcohol outlets.

Here we see another interesting alignment. In the past fifteen years, the two big supermarket chains have laid claim to the majority of the packaged liquor outlets in Australia. These include not only the bottle shops attached to the supermarkets themselves, but also the stand-alone behemoths such as BWS, First Choice and Dan Murphy’s. These economies of scale have led to cheap and easily available alcohol only dreamed of forty years ago. There is also a tie-up with gambling, because Woolworths has a huge stake in poker machine outlets. And can anyone imagine a pokies venue or casino without alcohol?

So, you ask, how do we go from a young man dying on the street in King’s Cross to Woolworths? Well, we have a culture that slams home the importance of the big night out and the alcohol that goes with it. We have areas in our cities that are a siren call to the young. They have the bright lights, the music, the tension and the all-night parties. Large groups of young people are milling around, and many of them are already drunk, since the alcohol they bought from the packaged liquor outlet is so much cheaper than the drinks in the venues. The venues are protected by security guards, many of whom have been seriously working out in the gyms (with the steroids that accompany them), and some of whom belong to outlaw motor-cycle gangs. Aggression builds up between men who are primed to fight, so it is not surprising that violence follows.

As has been stated before in Arena Magazine, there is clear evidence of what can ameliorate the situation relatively quickly. It has been shown in many countries that limiting availability of alcohol and higher pricing have worked to a large extent. There is no need to have alcohol available twenty-four hours a day. Most countries do not have this, so why has Australia, with our specific culture of violent masculinity and drunkenness, hurtled down this road so blindly? The entrenched belief in the market and deregulation is clearly one reason. It is as a result of deregulation that in Victoria the number of alcohol licenses exploded from 4000 in 1985 to almost 20,000 currently.

The other part of the alcohol problem is price. A newspaper account of one of the Sydney incidents in which a young man died outlined how the man who felled him had begun a drinking binge at home where he and a friend had bought a case of twenty-four cans of a double-strength mixed vodka drink. Looking at the website of a very large retailer, I find that a two litre cask of vodka and orange costs less than $20. For the young women out there, they were selling 750ml bottles of pink lemonade vodka for $33 (37 per cent alcohol by volume).

Strong vested interests fight to keep the situation as it is. The supermarkets do not want infringements on their supposed right to sell huge amounts of alcohol at bargain basement prices. The venues do not want to close earlier because they know that the drunker people get, the more likely they are to splash money around. Private security firms are making a fortune providing men with muscles. There are also the companies that sell CCTV, and the private firms that monitor them, as well as those that sell the biometric ID cards that some venues have introduced, ostensibly to keep trouble-makers out. There are also the owners of the casinos, pokies and sex venues, who fleece the drunk and the desperate.

No government really wants to close down the night-time economy because every time it tries it runs into a chorus shouting ‘individual responsibility’. The O’Farrell government in NSW will introduce some measures that might work, and others that just pander to a belief in greater punishment, which surely won’t work.

So the new laws will treat inner Sydney as a single area and impose a lock-out at 1.30am, which means if someone leaves a venue after this time they will not be able to get back in, or get in anywhere else; and last drinks will be called at 3am. This may work to a certain extent. O’Farrell has also answered the call for blood by proposing a minimum sentence of eight years for causing a single-punch death. However, manslaughter sentences are already fairly harsh, and seem to have done little to stop this kind of action.

There have been some interesting natural experiments going on, one in Newcastle, NSW and one in Geelong, Victoria. For various reasons earlier closing times and a lock-out were introduced in Newcastle in 2009, with a corresponding drop in assaults of about 30 per cent. By contrast, a series of individualist measures such as biometric ID cards, ad hoc policing and an education campaign in Geelong brought very little change in assault and hospitalisation rates. The researchers who studied these two cities argue that part of the difference in response was that in Newcastle people were forced to go out earlier and had less time to drink before leaving home to go to the venues. In Geelong there was plenty of time for ‘preloading’, as they call it, because nothing gets going before midnight.

When Victoria’s licensing laws were dramatically opened up in the 1980s, the argument was that if we wanted European-style drinking and ‘cultural change’ (a more cosmopolitan lifestyle), then we needed to have European-style licensing laws (whatever that might mean, since I don’t think they were considering Scandinavian- or Russian-style drinking). The government of the day argued that cultural change would come with a change in alcohol availability (an argument repeated not that long ago in England). Well we did get cultural change—though not the sort implied. And now, when the same kind of argument is put in reverse, it is howled down by those who are in the business of alcohol: ‘Punish the individual’. The response has already started in Sydney from the owners of the clubs (one of whom is that stalwart of the community John Ibrahim) and others that the new laws won’t work and that they infringe the rights of people to drink. Of course, there are also those burghers who like the idea of the $8 bottle of Shiraz.

As I write, Australia Day is looming. The morning after, the hospital emergency departments will look like the surgical tent in MASH, and it will not only be because of someone felled by a single punch. It will also be those with alcohol poisoning, those who have drowned because of drinking too much and, of course, family members assaulting each other after a hard day’s drinking. Can someone tell me why we need the $8 Shiraz again?

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