05:43pm Tuesday 12 December 2017

Regulating Schoolies: What do we learn from Alcohol history?

Dr Andy Ruddock

Media commentaries concede that the problem is too deep to be solved with single measures, such as restricting access to balconies. In the face of a complex issue, which everyone recognises as being about a whole range of things, some have suggested that the best solution is for young partygoers to look after themselves. Short-term, this is probably sage advice. But we shouldn’t let it distract attention from the factors that make it easy for teenagers to make the wrong choices, especially when alcohol is involved. That’s why it’s worth looking at British studies on the history of drinking. This research tells us why it’s so difficult to un-mix the heady blend of booze, leisure and fun, but also indicates how it’s possible to start asking the right questions about the role of alcohol in society.

Historian James Nicholls argues that drinking debates have encapsulated deep, society-wide hopes and fears since the late 18th century. In Europe, during this period, arguments over the virtues of democracy revolved around two drinks; coffee and gin. The burgeoning coffee house culture of the time, where drinkers enthusiastically discussed issues of the day, indicated that people could be trusted to make their own choices. On the other hand, the ravages of the unlicensed gin trade seemingly proved that, left to their own devices, people would consistently do the wrong thing in pursuit of pleasure, and could not be trusted to govern themselves. The idea that you can’t really understand Schoolies without understanding Australian culture fits within this historical panorama.

The problem with designating an issue as ‘cultural’ is that the term is frequently understood as a synonym for ‘intractable’. Drinking is so deeply ingrained in Australian culture that it’s difficult to see how anything can be done about schoolies. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t think about how things got this way, and that having this discussion might indicate how we can do more than tell teens and their parents to sort themselves out. In particular, it’s worth thinking less about drinking choices, and more about the places where those choices happen.

Nicholls argues that the drinks industry has thrived on inventing traditions, and places to house them. He points, for example, to the way the ‘traditional’ British Pub was an invention of 19th century brewers determined to win customers back from the gin distillers. Fiona Measham’s work on binge drinking points out that the creation of drinking spaces that blend with the political concerns of the day has probably been the determining factor in Britain’s 21st century penchant for intoxication.

Measham argues that since the 1990s drinking has wormed its way into the heart or urban renewal, leisure spaces and night-time economies.  It has done so through sophisticated commercial strategies that make drinking cheaper and more attractive, by creating products and places that embraced a wider range of people. Where the pub had once been the solution for alcohol retailers, by the 1990s it was the problem; too male, too white, too middle-aged. To tap into the spending potential of young, multicultural Britain, drinks manufacturers needed new drinks, and new places to quaff them.

Strangely, Measham contends that 21st century British binge drinking is a by-product of drug harm minimisation policies. Licensed venues were cornerstones in efforts to make 90s rave culture safer, by luring young people away from fields and disused buildings into commercial venues where people could keep an eye on them. This also, of course, created a huge new market for new products-the infamous ‘alcopops’, designed to reacquaint ravers with drinking. Carefully managed through new drinks, new décor, and new music policies, the pub was reinvented as part and parcel of new urban consumption spaces, where people could spend all day and all night indulging in hedonism. It’s difficult to control yourself when even the buildings you stand in scream ‘do it’, and the idea that binge drinking was somehow encouraged by initiatives to make young people safer graphically demonstrates the perils of making schoolies safer.

When having these discussions, then, we should be alert to the fact that the alcohol industry sees commercial opportunities in harm minimisation, especially when it comes to students. In the UK again, the student theme night operation Carnage defends its organised pub-crawls through the argument that students are chaperoned as they visit bar after bar; so it’s safer than leaving them to their own devices. At the same time, this practice creates a steady stream of customers for the chain pubs affiliated with the operation, not to mention a flow of free advertising from the students who upload pictures of wild times to social media.

So the schoolies issue is complicated indeed. If the UK is anything to go by, it can only be addressed by thinking about the urban design of Australian leisure. So we can’t just leave it to the kids.

Dr Andy Ruddock is a senior lecturer for the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.


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