Society has taken a wrong turn with our city streets filled with self-obsessed thugs bent on violence — and the answer is so startlingly simple. Let’s blame it all on alcohol, close the hotels early and the problem will disappear as quickly as a yard of beer down the gullet of Bob Hawke in his Oxford days.
Any politician who believes this cant should give themselves a swift uppercut. The emergence of lethal violence on Australia’s streets is not so simple, nor is its remedy. It is a result of the culmination of the best efforts of libertarians, legislators, the judiciary and educators to mould a more progressive society over the last 50 years — and we are now paying the penalty.
This is a complex issue, and to correct it will take more than a knee-jerk reaction to hotel opening hours. While there can be no doubt alcohol is a contributing factor in street violence, on its own it is probably the least significant — and certainly not the primary cause of the random nature of many of the attacks. It is society’s attitude to drugs and public behaviour that has provided the pivotal point.
In South Australia, Royal Adelaide Hospital senior emergency department clinician Dr Michael Davey in an interview with the Advertiser prior to New Year’s Eve drew a link between drinking, drugs and violent behaviour. This centred around the use of methamphetamines, which enabled users to consume 30 or more drinks and stay conscious. The use of this form of drugs also increased the risk of violent rages.
‘The change in drug culture in recent times has dramatically altered the dynamic in the emergency department,’ Dr Davey told the Advertiser. ‘Where we used to have to wake people up to check on them, now we have to call security to help physically or chemically restrain them for their own safety and ours.’
The most interesting aspect to this debate comes from such people as Dr Alex Wodak, who blame the demon drink and turn a blind eye to drug use. Wodak, the director of Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital Alcohol and Drug Service, says blatantly that violent behaviour on Sydney streets is because alcohol is ‘too available and too cheap’.
In an opinion piece in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph Wodak writes: ‘Research from around the world tells us what works best to reduce alcohol-related problems. Reducing the availability and increasing the price is consistently found to be very effective.’ An interesting viewpoint, considering Dr Wodak has exactly the opposite view on drugs. As a harm minimilisationist, he supports the decriminalisation of drugs — which does nothing to reduce supply — and for society to treat its legacy as a health issue.
In terms of increasing the cost of alcohol, former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd also proved Dr Wodak wrong. The master of the knee-jerk, Rudd introduced a 25 per cent tax on so-called alcopops, or pre-mixed alcoholic drinks, to price them out of the youth market. Sales figures afterwards showed instead a spike in spirits, which teenagers would drink before going out, a process known as ‘loading up’ — itself a contributing factor to antisocial behaviour and violence.
This brings us to the legislators, who at the instigation of the civil libertarians have eased back on legislation that allowed police to take action against drunken or dangerous behaviour. Libertarians perversely seem to believe that the right of an individual to offend outweighs the rights of the majority to walk the streets without fear of incurring abuse or assault.
In NSW, the Summary Offences Act prior to the election of Neville Wran’s Labor government in 1976 enabled police to arrest people who were drunk, disorderly or posed a danger to the public. While it remains on the statutes, it has been relaxed by successive governments to the extent that it is little more than a slap on the wrist.
Justice Stephen Campbell, of the NSW Supreme Court, noted as much when sentencing Kieran Loveridge for the fatal, unprovoked ‘king-hit’ on 18-year-old Thomas Kelly in Kings Cross last July. Justice Campbell said in his judgement that police had encountered the offender when he was involved in an affray later on the night of the Kelly assault. ‘The officers requested and received the offender’s details, and subsequently he was served with an infringement notice for a summary offence,’ he wrote. Such is the power of police in dealing with violent street offenders.
With the erosion of respect for people and property through more liberal laws, self-respect has been supplanted by self-gratification — with disdain for anyone who gets in the road of this objective. This includes the use of drugs, which has reached such a level of acceptability that terms like ‘recreational drugs’ have been coined to give it tacit endorsement. With tolerance of drug use, there has been a corresponding acceptance of the antisocial behaviour that follows it, to the extent that it has been put forward in some cases as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
There has also been a significant psychological shift in community attitudes. Post-war, disadvantage led to an ambition to do better; to create a more prosperous life; it did not lead to a generation of yobs with no regard for the law. Today dysfunctionality is the new norm, disadvantage merely an excuse in the courts for bad or aggressive behaviour, and underachievement is rewarded through the welfare system.
Melbourne-based psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last year that, increasingly, he was seeing a new breed of extremely narcissistic, underfathered adolescent males. They displayed ‘no respect for authority, little exposure to tradition or ritual and few, if any, skills in anger management’. ‘A culture of self-indulgent thuggishness is being incubated, primarily in broken families, and fuelled by alcohol, drugs and the normalisation of violence in popular culture,’ he said.
To overcome this will require more than a hard line on the serving of alcohol. We need to restore proper values, teach respect for one’s self and others, and encourage the desire to contribute rather than take from society — a task that will take more than one generation.
Ian Moore is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun.
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