Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund ‘Toby’ Barton, was many things: A leader, a visionary and as one of his obituaries summed up, “a great Australian.”
And, according to author Matt Murphy, he was also “an outright drunk.”
“If you look at our early parliaments — drunkenness was just accepted.”
And Barton is far from an exception. Since colonial times, Australia has been a country soaked in booze, as drinking has been both a national pastime and a source of untold harm and tragedy.
But is it finally starting to change?
When the First Fleet set off from England 235 years ago, its cargo was indicative of the kind of country Australia would become.
The first governor of the NSW colony, Arthur Phillip, insisted on bringing two years’ worth of carefully rationed food for the new settlement, in case conditions were inhospitable for agriculture.
He also took along four years’ worth of rum.
“The marines, who came to escort the First Fleet, insisted and insisted and finally got their way — to have four years’ worth of rum on board … [But] it didn’t last close to four years,” says Mr Murphy, who wrote the book ‘Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia’.
It’s hard to overstate how important booze was in the first few decades of the colony.
“Alcohol was a currency. If you wanted something done, you had to pay for it. How were they paying for it? With booze,” Mr Murphy says.
“There’s lots of records of people buying and selling things for rum. For example, buying land in [the Sydney suburb of] Pyrmont for rum or selling your wife for rum.”
The NSW Corps, or the permanent regiment of the British Army, became known as the Rum Corps because they controlled the access to alcohol.
As the colony grew, rum was made locally and imported. But this wasn’t the kind of rum we know today.
“rum [became] a generic term … People were making ‘rum’ from potatoes and making ‘rum’ out of peaches. There was hooch, backyard rubbish. People died on the spot drinking some of this, they went blind. It was pretty nasty stuff,” Mr Murphy says.
“[But] people would need rum to start their day, like people need their coffee today.”
During these early years of the colony, grog was also introduced to First Nations people, which had incredibly destructive effects.
As the 19th century progressed, demand for rum dropped, but people kept turning to other varieties of alcohol.
The social, economic and health tolls of this much alcohol across Australian society prompted various governments to try and curb drinking habits.
But this came with mixed results.
The six o’clock swill
Starting in 1916, states adopted rules where bars had to close at 6pm.
“It partly came about because of the temperance movement, because they were wanting to cut down on alcohol consumption,” says Richard Midford, an adjunct professor at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute and a clinical psychologist.
“But it came into place during the First World War, in a major part, because people felt that the homefront shouldn’t be having a good time while the boys were away fighting in France.”
But the ‘six o’clock swill’, as it became known, had an unintended consequence — a culture of extremely heavy drinking developed, where workers would drink as much as they could between clocking off at 5pm and the 6pm bar closures.
It was not pretty. Bars would lay sawdust on the floor to soak up patrons’ urine and vomit, while many were refitted with tiled walls and floors (a feature which remains today) to make cleaning easier.
“It lasted from the time of the First World War right through, in some states, to the 1960s,” Professor Midford says.
In 1965, an unlikely invention was introduced to try to reduce drinking—the wine cask.
“The wine cask was invented to preserve wine, not to drink it more quickly,” Mr Murphy says.
“When you take the cork out of wine, it immediately starts to oxidise, it immediately starts to go off. And so the average person would rather drink it than tipping it down the sink tomorrow.
“[Cask wine] doesn’t rust.”
But, he says, “it quickly became just a convenient thing to stick under your arm and take to a party.”
Booze and politics
Alcohol and politics has long been a noxious mix in this country.
According to Mr Murphy, the fact that Australia’s first prime minister was “an outright drunk” isn’t even the most outrageous example. Not even close.
“John Norton was elected in a [NSW] by-election in 1898. When he entered parliament, he was drunk every day,” Mr Murphy says.
“Really, I mean disgustingly drunk, apparently. To such a point that about two months later, he downed his dacks and pissed on the parliamentary carpet.”
Mr Murphy also points to then-governor general John Kerr’s drunken speech at the 1977 Melbourne Cup, which he calls “disgusting”.
An inebriated Kerr rambled on in front of the racetrack audience, noting “life is wonderful for all of us,” before presenting the cup.
“[Bob Hawke] said himself that his most endearing attribute to all Australians was his world record for drinking a yard glass,” Mr Murphy adds.
Hawke entered the Guinness Book for World Records in 1954 for finishing a yard of ale in 11 seconds while he was studying at University College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. But he gave up drinking when he went into parliament and stayed off the grog when he was prime minister.
Mr Murphy says the attitudes of politicians have had a major influence on our drinking culture over the generations.
But recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about how this is actually playing out in Canberra.
“The stuff that’s come out of parliament … is another example of a boozy workplace culture [without] restrictions put in place,” says Nicole Lee, an adjunct professor at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute and CEO of drug and alcohol consultancy 360 Edge.
She says parliament and other workplaces need to become spaces where “we do think about women; and people from culturally diverse backgrounds; and people who don’t want to drink; and people who don’t want to be around people who are drunk at work”.
Part of the culture
Experts say the centuries of heavy drinking have meant booze is now closely interwoven with Australian culture.
“We’ve got that sense that if you go anywhere in Australia, socially, that there’ll be alcohol there and you’re expected to drink it,” Professor Lee says.
Professor Midford adds: “There’s a very strong culture of going out and deliberately getting drunk. If you have that sort of culture, the sorts of harms that are going to occur, in terms of violence and sexual predation, are going to be much higher “.
Today, there’s a patchwork of drinking habits across demographics.
“There is some indication that people in middle age are actually drinking more — and a lot of that is driven by women drinking more,” Professor Lee says.
People in the country drink more than people in urban areas.
“The further you go away from a major city, the higher the drinking levels and the higher the risky drinking,” Professor Lee says.
And there are different drinking habits among Indigenous Australians, who often get lumped into one group.
“Fewer First Nations people drink, compared to the general community, but those that do drink tend to drink at higher levels,” Professor Lee says.
“Factors of colonisation, of the stolen generations, of trauma — all of those things are linked to higher alcohol consumption.”
On the decline
Yet there are cracks appearing in our close relationship with booze.
We’ve recently seen the rise of the ‘sober curious’, as Dry July has become increasingly popular, along with zero and low-strength alcohol products.
As perceptions around alcohol are slowly starting to shift, overall drinking rates are starting to go down in Australia — thanks to one particular demographic.
“[The fact that] drinking rates are going down is nearly entirely driven by young people,” Professor Lee says.
“People in their 20s are still the heaviest drinking group, but fewer of them are drinking. Those that do drink are drinking less [than previous generations] and they’re starting later… It’s a really big shift.”
So what’s behind this shift among young people? Experts say it’s thanks to a mix of education, awareness and different priorities.
“There’s a lot more talking about [alcohol consumption]. It’s a lot more visible when there’s problems — those problems are more often reported on,” Professor Lee says.
“[Young people] are being healthier, they’re probably more conscious of their appearance — alcohol is really the only drug that makes you fat by just taking it … Also I feel like young people are much more ambitious than my generation.”
Or, as Professor Midford puts it: “Young people are much more savvy, I think, about the effects of alcohol than those 20 or 30 years ago.”
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