One of the many reasons why I, and countless other tourists, love visiting Australia is that I can take my wife out to a restaurant or a film of an evening and walk back late at night unmolested, and without fear of being molested. Or at least that is how it has always seemed, though apparently things are changing: Tony Abbott himself has lamented that popular areas of leading Australian cities have become ‘hot spots’ for violence because of a binge-drinking culture that has taken root in Australia. In the last year with reported figures, 88,100 people reported assaults in New South Wales alone. To Poms such as me, that is a familiar story, although even by British standards the per capita figures are alarmingly high. We have had the same problem in Britain for more than 20 years.
Also familiar is the Abbott prescription for dealing with it, a prescription that has tried and failed in Britain and which is why we in the Old Country still have a problem. The Prime Minister says that there needs to be a ‘community solution’ in which police, pubs, clubs, residents and local government all team up and decide what to do about it. Victims have spoken of the need for someone in groups of men who go out drinking to exert some leadership and talk anyone violent out of rash and foolish behaviour.
We first identified the problem of what a British politician called ‘lager louts’ in the late 1980s. The cause was clear: a toxic combination of young people with too much money using it to buy huge amounts of alcohol, the drinkers increasingly from backgrounds where they had not been brought up to behave responsibly. It was argued at the time and subsequently, not least by politicians keen to do favours for the drinks industry, that one of the causes of binge- drinking was that in Britain at that time the pubs closed for the afternoon and tended to be open between 6pm and 11pm — so people tanked up while they could, having ‘front loaded’ on drinks at home on the way out. So the last British Labour government allowed pubs to open whenever they wanted; with no discernible effect on reducing aggressive and unpleasant British boozing.
In our branch of the Anglo-Saxon culture it seems that most rowdiness — to use a nice, cosy 19th-century term — stems from excessive alcohol. Most of our Friday-night drug abusers go quietly, or use it in the privacy of their own homes to avoid arrest. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Australia, with Mr Abbott himself talking about the problem caused by amphetamines.
However, having a tea party where everyone agrees that such antisocial behaviour is a bad idea is pointless. Removing the scope to offend will happen only when all the pubs and clubs are banned from opening, no shops are allowed to sell alcohol and drug dealers are shot in the back of the head in the Chinese fashion. Since such remedies are probably not available — and the first two did not work in 1920s America, and would not work now — others must be tried.
In Britain, there are occasional suggestions, so far unsuccessful, that a minimum price will be set for alcohol. This is ideologically offensive and almost certainly completely fatuous. Private sector businesses, even brewers and distillers, should not be told what they may charge for their products. Also, minimum pricing would probably penalise the wrong people — the very poor for whom a beer is a cheap treat. Those in Britain who cause trouble because they are aggressive drunks tend to be aggressive drunks with high disposable incomes. In the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings they spill out of clubs where they have consumed their alcohol at premium rates: putting another 20 per cent on the cost of cheap beer will be irrelevant to them.
However much liberals may disdain the notion, the only way to stop aggressive drunks is for the state to become even more aggressive with them in its determination to punish them when they behave badly. And the same, of course, applies to those who choose to use illegal drugs, with or without alcohol, and then behave aggressively.
Mr Abbott would be wise to drop his notions of a talking-shop to try to treat this problem and see that existing laws are enforced with maximum severity. Imprisoning people from the class that regards prison as an occupational hazard tends not to have much of a deterrent effect on other members of that class. Locking up a few well-paid white-collar workers who, while their minds are altered because of a decision they have made to become drunk or to consume illegal substances, find it entertaining to punch innocent passers-by senseless, would quickly send a message to their peers.
Such people have a lot to lose, but perhaps need to be reminded just how much. Employers should be told that sacking hitherto well-paid staff who go to prison will attract no legal redress from the person dismissed. All these measures are part of creating the right sense of stigma in society towards people who conduct themselves in this antisocial and destructive fashion.
By the same token, bars that serve drunks should be warned not to do so. Those that persist after a formal warning should be closed down and their managers and owners banned from working in the business again. And as for illegal drugs, the laws affecting them need to be enforced in a zero-tolerance fashion. There is no point in punishing dealers unless the state also punishes users, whether or not they bash someone else while under the influence. Punish users and the drug becomes less attractive, and some of the dealers go out of business.
Both branches of the Anglo-Saxon culture, in Britain and in Australia, used to have mechanisms to control not just drinking, but behaviour and self-responsibility too. They were called families and, more specifically in the case of testosterone-laden young men, fathers. Fathers provided a role model that in most cases did not routinely get drunk and bash people. They took their boys to the pub when they were old enough to drink and taught them how tao do it in a social context, and not in order to acquire a different state of mind in which out-of-character acts such as hitting people are not merely possible, but desirable. Permissive parenting, or little parenting at all, has helped make too many young men reckless in their drinking and aggressive in their consequent behaviour.
So the conclusion is straightforward: if the traditional means by which young men are brought up no longer apply sufficient restraint on their behaviour, then the state must intervene to protect society and assert the rule of law. And if that means locking up a lot of drunks and junkies and making their lives a misery, so be it.