In 1966, Victoria became the first Australian state to introduce random breath-testing. The blood alcohol level at which a driver could be charged was 0.05 per cent. Victoria was following the Scandinavian model, which had significantly reduced road fatalities.
According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, alcohol is a major cause of illness and injury. Naturally, it’s also enjoyable — 90 per cent of adults have tried alcohol, and 83 per cent have drunk alcohol in the last year. Consumption in small quantities may even be beneficial.
Removing alcohol from the Australian culture and lifestyle is likely to be a “bridge too far”. But when the Australian road death toll topped out at 3,798 in 1970, the authorities decided something had to be done.
Random breath-testing reduced the number of drunk drivers. Other measures, such as compulsory seatbelts, better vehicle designs, air bags and better driver education, have helped reduce road fatalities overall. Now the annual national road toll is around 1,500 — less than half of what it was in 1970.
Figures confirm that random breath-testing has made a big dent in road accidents. Young men who drink large amounts of beer, then drive home to show how “safe” they are as drivers, are likely to get pulled over.
And this brings me to my main point. The introduction and rigid enforcement of random breath-testing meant that one could no longer go to the pub Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. In the early days of the scheme, booze buses often waited until closing time, when they would soon entrap the unwary.
It could be argued that the police were acting unlawfully if they had no evidence of an offence; but that line of talk didn’t last long. As with seat belts, the benefits of compulsion were so obvious that no-one seriously proposed overturning random breath-testing.
Something had to change, and that was the pub culture.
Australia had a rich lode of pub culture. Folklorist Bill Wannan’s Folklore of the Australian Pub (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1972) is typical of the genre. It has a few yarns, some cartoons, a bit of history and some drinking songs.
John O’Grady’s bestseller, Aussie English: An Explanation of the Australian Idiom (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1965), put a book in many households where literature was scarce. O’Grady’s Aussie English was already an anachronism, more of an in-joke than anything.
However, writing under an ethnic nom de plume Nino Culotta, O’Grady penned They’re a Weird Mob: A Novel (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1957), reflecting the vision Australians like to have of themselves.
If there is one book that reflects the Aussie pub culture it is David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1976), for which the author won the Miles Franklin Award. The book was re-released in 2012 by Victoria Text Publishing as an Australian classic.
The pub is typical of the place where a lot of Aussie manual workers used to spend most of their time when not at work. There’s mateship and a few fights. Strangers aren’t usually welcome. There’s the camaraderie of the glass canoe, when in a drunken haze the drinkers can go anywhere they want in their beer glasses (the “glass canoe”). There’s the unavoidable “Jimmy Woodser” — the man who won’t socialise and always drinks alone. The pub is a community.
But the pub is no longer the hang-out for the man who works with his hands. The inner-city pubs have been gentrified — spruiced up, one might say.
Unlike in the old working-man’s pub, women these days are welcome — even encouraged. The suburban beer barns seem to retreat farther from the city centre every year. Young people go the city centre to drink in fancy “bars”.
Once upon a time it could be said that we were a lazy bunch who looked forward to little more than the next holiday and spent much of the remaining time boozing. It is certainly not true today.
Take universities. The university pubs that were once full until closing time hardly draw a crowd; students are too busy studying or working at part-time jobs. Many would like to leave home, but simply can’t afford it.
The salad days of Gough Whitlam, when university study was free, are unlikely to return. Arts faculties are shrinking as fees increase. Students pay more and work harder. Faculties such as law and medicine gain favoured treatment because the university authorities can charge more for them.
Australians now work hard. They have a good reputation with overseas employers. The days of alcoholic stupor have gone.
Jeffry Babb is Melbourne-based writer.