Flat White

Last drinks for the Canberra bubble

5 December 2021

4:00 AM

5 December 2021

4:00 AM

It’s ironic that a federal minister should again promote alcoholic abstinence as a cure for whatever allegedly ails (or should that be ales?) Australia’s parliament.

Liberal MP Karen Andrews from Queensland’s Gold Coast – the home of Australian hedonism – seems intent on reinventing the Canberra wheel, banning alcohol consumption in the ‘big house’.

It’s been tried before.

The first Canberra wowser was serial Section 44 offender King O’Malley, a possibly bankrupt American who, as Minister for Home Affairs, oversaw the initial development of Australia’s national capital on a site he did not approve.

An ardent temperance advocate against the evils of ‘stagger juice’, O’Malley’s prohibition on the possession, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the ACT lasted until 1928, creating vast fortunes for publicans in nearby, less prescriptive, Queanbeyan.

O’Malley was by this time out of parliament, out of new parties to form, and a political irrelevancy – though his legacy of dry, Government-run hostels only ended with their redevelopment into boutique hotels during the late 1970s.

Fortunately, he was silent on formication and his only legacies are an Irish pub and a suburb bearing his name.

History shows prohibition has been a ‘roaring social success’ wherever it has been imposed, though not without reward, as the US Kennedy dynasty fortune attests…

Even milder forms like restricted trading hours, early closing, and a ban on takeaways created opportunities for Sydney criminal queens Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. This was not without risk to the seller and their consumers.

Adelaide’s historic trams have a notice reminding passengers that women are forbidden from travelling after 7pm, no doubt lest they be assaulted by staggering aromatic males, or for simply failing to have their husbands’ dinners ready on time.

Canberra, however, has always been just that little bit more prohibitive.


The Kurrajong Hostel, which sits within walking distance of the old Parliament House, was once favoured by Labor politicians in opposition. It was a sober – though not necessarily celibate – existence for men like John Curtin, a former journalist once addicted to strong drink.

His successor, Ben Chifley – who managed to have three female companions simultaneously on the trot – died there in the company of his secretary and ‘confidante’ Phyllis Donnelly, whom he dissuaded from calling a doctor.

Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to discover he’d been drinking in his room?

Consumption was definitely allowed at Government House, Yarralumla, the Royal Military College officers’ mess at Duntroon, and in the Members’ and Strangers’ bars at Parliament House.

There was a noticeable exception in Duntroon’s cadet regulations which stipulated, a cadet shall not consume alcohol’. This was simply interpreted as a cadet shall not be caught drinking alcohol’. In response, enterprising cadets redefined the term ‘closet drinking’ for establishments that turned a blind eye to cadets jammed into a convenient room into which regular libations were delivered.

Nonetheless, drinking remained a career-ending infraction long after ordinary Canberrans were allowed to share in the privilege available to all other Australians. A group of cadets discovered this at their cost. Having been observed by a senior officer consuming alcohol while playing billiards in a private home, they were reported and processed for dismissal from the army.

Their dismissal notices were forwarded to the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, for his formal approval.

McKell rang the college commandant.

I’ll be buggered if I’ll approve that!’ thundered an enraged Governor-General. ‘They were at Yarralumla at the invitation of my daughter and her friends, and I offered them a drink! If I want to offer someone a drink in my own home then they can bloody well have a drink!’

College regulations were again amended, this time to read, a cadet shall not consume alcohol except, having been invited to a private residence and offered a drink it would be embarrassing to refuse.’

This loophole was conveniently exploited by one cadet’s entrepreneurial father who bought the Ainslie Hotel (now Olims), where he would greet visiting cadets by saying, ‘Welcome to my home, can I offer you a drink?’

Penurious cadets realised that an invitation from their local member to visit the Strangers’ Bar at Parliament House also provided a safe haven, as did visiting the old Back Bench Bar at Canberra airport on a Friday after parliament had risen.

Those pre-flight occasions redefined robust socialisation and political discourse.

In 1970, Duntroon’s hierarchy raised a white flag and college regulations were amended accordingly.

Canberra had finally come of age.

New Parliament House is a sterile, abstemious environment – except in the confines of members and senators’ offices, where what happens inside its walls doesn’t always stay inside.

Alcohol is certainly served on appropriate occasions in the Great Hall, though the opportunity to stroll hand in hand by moonlight through the Old Parliament Rose Garden is but a distant memory.

Now, Ms Andrews wants to turn back the clock to when abstinence made the heart go wander, though not in search of quiet waters.

In Canberra particularly, what goes round comes round.

As the world turns, they know the bleakness of winter, the promise of spring, the fullness of summer, and the harvest of autumn—the cycle of life is complete.

Like sands through the hourglass, and wine from a bottle, so are the days of their bleak and temperate Canberra lives.

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