Politics of the unmentionables, part 2: Drugs

Like sex and death, drugs and alcohol are historical facts of life that have been zones of hot-blooded political debate, but also of genuine bipartisanship. Part 2 of the ‘Politics of the unmentionables’. 

1600-1788: Indigenous communities already harvest and chew nicotine-containing plants (‘pituri’) when Europeans begin arriving. Indonesian fishermen introduce tobacco to the continent’s north.

1788: Sir Joseph Banks sends hemp seeds (Cannabis sativa) with the First Fleet. The provisions also include five puncheons of rum and 300 gallons of brandy.

1788-1800: Rum is an essential commodity among British settlers and the military. All echelons of colonial society use tobacco. Army officers sometimes hand it over in early encounters with Indigenous people.

26 January 1808: Backed by the colony’s nascent pastoral and mercantile elite, soldiers march to Government House and depose the notorious governor, William Bligh. He’d stopped the trade in spirits, and this decision is blamed for the so-called ‘Rum Rebellion’. (Other causes are also implicated, including a disagreement between Bligh and John Macarthur.) The sole successful armed takeover of government in modern Australian history, this event will not be the only removal of a top government figure.

A propaganda cartoon created within hours of William Bligh’s arrest, portraying him as a coward. Wikipedia

1835: John Batman fraudulently ‘purchases’ land around Port Phillip from the Wurundjeri people in exchange for everyday goods and trinkets. A later painting by John Wesley Burtt depicts some of the items Batman offered, including mirrors and beads. Tobacco, too, may have been in the mix; it soon becomes a mainstay of trade between Europeans and Aborigines.

1850s: In the gold rush, beer and spirits are everywhere. Majestic hotels spring up in Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and other centres. Faced with rapid social change, temperance organisations mobilise: not a ‘war on drugs’ but a ‘war on grog’.

1854: Victoria introduces liquor-control laws.

1878: Despite liquor-licensing laws and bans on Sunday trading (with the exception of sales to hotel lodgers), rivers of grog continue to flow. Victoria alone boasts 4,320 hotels, 334 licensed grocers, 113 wine saloons, 500 spirit merchants and 104 brewers, for a population of fewer than 880,000 people.

1881: Victorian parliamentarian and future PM Alfred Deakin moves a motion at the inaugural meeting of the temperance Victorian Alliance group in Melbourne, which happens to be chaired by fellow parliamentarian and future Premier, James Munro. Deakin moves that ‘the traffic of intoxicating liquors for consumption as beverages is detrimental to the best interests of society’. The ‘liberals’ had begun what could be regarded as one of the most interventionist drug policies in Australia, one that would last five decades with bipartisan support.

The Fun Police. “Mr Deakin pursues his enigmatic methods of action”: Alfred Deakin at his desk, date unknown. National Library of Australia

1896: Statistics show smoking causes cancer. ‘Men in NSW are getting tongue cancer at twelve times the rate of women, and lip cancer at sixteen times the rate.’

1 January 1901: Edmund Barton (nicknamed ‘Toby Tosspot’ because of his fondness for long dinners and good wine) becomes Australia’s first PM.

Early 1900s: The Federation debate feeds turmoil in Australian politics. Protectionists, free traders, nationalists, liberals, unionists and independents compete for control. There is much breaking and fusion of parties. Against this background, the temperance movement calls for early (six o’clock) closing for pubs.

1911: Victorian Liberal Premier John Murray is quoted as saying there is no reason why hotels should be allowed to stay open after the shops have closed. A ‘wave of public opinion’ is needed to sweep away the evil of late-opening hotels. Despite the backing of the Premier, there is no change – yet.

1914: Both sides of politics struggle with the idea of regulating liquor. Temperance groups press the issue. Victorian Liberal Premier Sir Alexander Peacock is returned to power on a promise not to interfere with the liquor licensing law. States across the US declare prohibition. There are local news reports that the Czar of Russia has abolished the sale of vodka. In Europe, smoking and drinking are soon ubiquitous in the trenches of World War I.

1915: King George V bans all wines, beers and spirits from the Royal Household. Labor Member for Bendigo West David Smith leads a delegation of the temperance movement to meet Liberal Premier Peacock. A referendum in South Australia produces a clear majority vote for six o’clock closing. At the same time the United Labor Party (the precursor to the ALP there) led by Crawford Vaughan defeats the Liberal Union government of Premier Archibald Peake.

He would, wouldn’t he. King George V. Photo: Corbis

1916: Liberal MP Alfred Farthing (also a publican) asserts that the teetotal party has unfairly seized on the tense feeling caused by the war. He describes the six o’clock agitation as a ‘wave of Puritanism sweeping across Australia’. The social reforms have ‘reached the stage of hysteria’.

September 1916: After much toing and froing, and opposition from Liberal MP Alfred Farthing, the Victorian parliament under the Liberal Peacock Government passes a bill providing for six o’clock closing of all hotels and clubs, until the end of ‘the greatest war the world has ever seen’.

25 October 1916: Six o’clock closing. Drunken young men sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ before being ejected.

1920: The Victorian localities of Camberwell and Nunawading vote to close all their hotels and become ‘dry zones’.

1927: Parliament House opens in Canberra. It has a Members’ dining room and a dreary Members (only) Bar that cannot serve alcohol.

1 September 1928: Prohibition on the sale of alcohol is put to a plebiscite in the Federal Capital Territory. The vote is close: 2281 to 2161 in favour of drinking. The Members Bar in Canberra is rapidly stocked and suddenly less dreary. Canberra embarks on a journey towards becoming one of the most promiscuous cities in Australia.

Nice to meet you! A speakeasy in the 1920s. Bliss from Bygone Days

3 September 1928: Sorting through Petri dishes at St Mary’s Hospital in London, Professor Alexander Fleming notices something has inhibited bacterial growth. The antibiotic age has arrived and will save millions of lives (a much more significant achievement than the moon landing).

1930: Our Don Bradman appears in a Melbourne advertisement for Country Life cigarettes.

1930s: The ‘six o’clock swill’: pub patrons order six drinks and skol them at five minutes to 6. Others shout and fight to be served. ‘The smell of liquor, the smell of human bodies, the warm smell of wine, and on one early occasion even a worse smell, as a man, rather than give up his place at the counter, urinated against the bar.’ (‘Caddie’, A Sydney Barmaid). The design of pubs reflects the fast-paced drinking culture. Due to the closing-time rush, drinks can no longer be served through a window. Out go the billiard tables and in comes the long bar, plus tiled walls for easy cleaning. There is much competition to have the longest bar. Captains Flat in NSW and the Mildura Working Man’s Sports and Social Club T-bar in Victoria are contenders.

1935: Hard-drinking Labor leader of the Opposition and future PM John Curtain promises to give up alcohol.

1937: Tasmania under Labor Premier Albert Ogilvie ends the six o’clock swill, extending opening hours to 10pm.

July 1941: British PM Winston Churchill signals V for Victory while smoking one of his famous cigars.

1947: A referendum in NSW produces a clear majority of voters wishing to retain six o’clock closing. The state’s Supreme Court allows private clubs to trade after 6pm. Institutions such as the NRMA and leagues clubs will benefit greatly from this special treatment.

1954: The Labor Cahill Government in NSW holds a second referendum on closing hours, which passes. The following year, pub hours are extended to 10 o’clock.

1954: Young Bob Hawke sets a drinking record at University College, Oxford, when he skols 2.5 pints of beer (a yard of ale) in 11 seconds.

Bob Hawke is immortalised by the Guinness Book of Records in 1954 for sculling 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds. This record was at the same English Hotel where President Bill Clinton smoked a joint. Twisted History

1956: Melbourne hosts the Olympic games. Liberal Country Party member for Swan Hill, John Hipworth argues that Victoria’s antiquated liquor laws would make it a ‘laughing stock of the world’. A referendum in Victoria to extend the closing hours is defeated.

1960s: A story circulates that PM Robert Menzies loves Sunday-night Martinis and will stir up a large pot at the parliament house Members Bar for members to enjoy.

1966: Closing hours are extended in Victoria when Victorian Liberal Premier Henry Bolte finally gets his way. Queensland, under Country Party Premier Frank Nicklin, follows suit that same year.

1967: South Australian Labor Premier Don Dunstan (one of Australia’s first LGBTIQ Premiers) introduces legislation to extend closing hours. After six months the law is passed and Adelaide loses its reputation as a wowser city.

July 1969: After the successful return of the moon landing astronauts, mission controllers light up celebratory cigars.

1970s: The band Skyhooks sings ‘I need another pill to calm me down’. Many soldiers in the Vietnam War tuck a pack of cigarettes under a T-shirt sleeve, or clip one to their helmet. Illegal drug use also surges on the battlefront and the home front.

1973: The dangers of smoking now well known, the first printed health warning appears on cigarette packs. The Labor Government under Gough Whitlam introduces bans on radio and TV tobacco advertising, to be phased in between 1973 and 1976. (Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser sees the bans through to completion.)

1970s: Smoking rates continue to rise, particularly among girls and women, with the rate peaking at one in three females smoking in the mid-1970s, by which time smoking among males has started to decline.

Anything you can do, I can do better. MAD MEN

1980s: Big Tobacco targets Australia’s youth. You can buy a fifteen pack of ‘Peter Jackson blues’ for around $1.20. FOREST (‘Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco’) is set up in Victoria. Passive smoking starts to receive public and media attention.

1983: Formerly a heavy drinker, Bob Hawke gives up the grog because it doesn’t fit with his new role as PM. Federal Treasurer Paul Keating links tobacco excise (tax) to CPI increases. Taxes on booze and cigs will become regular features of the annual federal budget.

1986: The Commonwealth Department of Health implements a smokefree workplace policy. Other departments and workplaces follow.

1987: After a series of failed attempts across Australia to ban tobacco advertising, Victoria introduces legislation. Ads featuring the Marlboro Man and the crocodile man, Paul Hogan, begin to disappear. The advertising rules, combined with rising taxes and comprehensive education, start to turn the tide on smoking.

1990: The ACT Tobacco (Amendment) Act bans the advertising of tobacco products in all newspapers and magazines – and raises the age for sale to 18.

1992: The Commonwealth Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act provides for a national standard on tobacco advertising.

1996: The Federal Liberal Coalition Government exempts the Australian Formula One Grand Prix from the bans on tobacco advertising.

1997: Film stars used to love tobacco; James Bond and his girls were regularly seen smoking. But in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, Bond calls smoking a filthy habit.

You’re welcome.

March 1998: The Australian Medical Association criticises the Liberal Party for allowing tobacco company Phillip Morris to sponsor the dinner at the party’s convention in Brisbane. Both major parties continue to take donations from Big Tobacco.

1999: The Formula Grand Prix One Grand Prix at Melbourne’s Albert Park remains controversial, but in parliament there is bipartisan support for the event and the advertising exemption.

June 2007: The Howard government kicks off the controversial Northern Territory ‘intervention’ and receives bipartisan support. Measures include widespread alcohol bans and exemptions from the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

July-November 2007: The drama ‘MAD MEN’ depicts 1950s ad men and women drinking, smoking and up to no good on Madison Avenue. A Labor candidate experiences a boost in the opinion polls after being exposed for having made an intoxicated visit to a New York strip club.

2011: Australia leads the world with plain packaging legislation and new passive smoking laws that remove smoking from pubs, clubs and workplaces. Point of sale bans are introduced in Victoria (Liberal), NT (Labor), Tasmania (Labor) and Queensland (Labor). The Trade Marks (Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill) passes Federal parliament (Labor) after being debated by the Liberal opposition, which supported plain packaging laws.

1 December 2012: Tobacco products must appear in plain packaging.

2013-14: Most Australian men and women have stopped smoking (16.8% and 12.7% respectively report being regular smokers). But smoking is still prevalent among Indigenous Australians (39%).

2014: Senator Richard Di Natale (Green) co-sponsors a Bill with Senator Ian Macdonald (Liberal), Senator David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrat) and Senator Anne Urquhart (Labor) to establish the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis, with responsibility for regulating the production, transport, storage and use of medicinal cannabis products.

To be regulated.

2014: Liberal pair, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, are pictured smoking cigars in a pre-budget sojourn outside Parliament House. The following year, PM Tony Abbott skols a schooner of beer at a Sydney pub.

2015: ABS National Health Survey shows that daily smoking (among people aged 18 and over) has dropped from 28% (in 1989) to about 14%. This is a remarkable achievement in public policy and community wellbeing – the result of an integrated approach over a long period and with bipartisan support.

August 2015: The Bipartisan Senate Committee on medicinal cannabis produces a unanimous report recommending that a Bill be passed allowing medicinal cannabis products to be made available in Australia subject to our international obligations.

February 2016: After further toing and froing, the Liberal federal government and the Labor opposition agree on historic amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act, which are also welcomed by Richard Di Natale of the Australian Greens. Liberal Health Minister Susan Ley commends the ‘many advocates who have fought long and hard to challenge the stigma around medicinal cannabis products so genuine patients are no longer treated as criminals’.

April 2016: Victoria becomes the first state to legalise medicinal cannabis. Other states will follow suit.

July 2016: Queensland’s Labor Palaszczuk Government introduces designated ‘safe night’ precincts and ‘last drinks’ laws.

February 2017: The Federal Office of Drug Control issues the first Cannabis Research licence.

August 2017: Victoria bans smoking in outdoor dining areas. Former PM Tony Abbott confesses to falling asleep after a drinking session and missing key votes while in opposition in 2009.

November 2018: The Andrews Labor government is re-elected in Victoria with a policy to end hotel-free ‘dry zones’, such as Box Hill, Balwyn and Camberwell, where a local vote is needed to approve them. The Australian Hotels Association Victoria, a powerful interest group and significant donor to both parties, supports the change.

 February 2019: Smoking, high alcohol consumption and at-risk drinking remain challenges to closing the life expectancy gap for Indigenous Australians. Only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track – despite a decade of bipartisanship.

March 2019: Ferrari drops tobacco from its branding ahead of the Melbourne Grand Prix. Alcohol advertising is still prominent in sporting events, and $3000-per-bottle Carbon champagne is still popped on the Grand Prix podium. (In a different but related sphere, the Geelong Football Club shows leadership by banning gambling advertising on its LED signage and scoreboard.)

July 2019: The NSW Deputy Coroner visits the ‘Splendour in the Grass’ festival to investigate six pill-related deaths.

Splendour in the Grass 2019

Looking back: When the community’s will has been strong enough, and when politicians have been able to agree, Australia has made great strides in the public good, even in the face of powerful commercial interests. Laws against tobacco advertising and passive smoking are important examples.

Today: ‘Drug overdose’ (‘accidental poisoning’) is the second most common cause of death among Australians aged between 15 and 44. Legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are also major causes of death and preventable disease. The politics of drugs continue to divide groups and even families. In our parliaments we’ve seen genuine bipartisanship on matters such as alcohol access and medicinal cannabis, but there are hard limits to the consensus, as demonstrated by debates on safe injecting rooms and festival pill testing. More bipartisanship, plus effective community action, is needed if we are to cut the toll of legal and illegal drugs.


The politics of the unmentionables, part 1: Death

Politics of the unmentionables, part 3: Sex

Politics of the unmentionables, part 4: Love

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