Thursday 6 May 2010

Return of the Wowser

Wowserism Redux: Neoliberalism's greatest selling-point was its championing of "Freedom". The Law Commission's report on the supply and sale of liquor, presented by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, attempts to stuff the libertarian genie back into its bottle.

Wowser: A pious prude, one who condemns or seeks to curtail the pleasures of others or who works to have his or her own rigid morality enforced on all. – The Australian National Dictionary, 1900.

SIR GEOFFREY PALMER is a wowser. If he bridles at that description, then let him find a better one. Certainly, his long-awaited Review of Regulatory Framework for the Supply and Sale of Liquor, released last week in tones of moral absolutism that would have done Moses proud, can only be described as wowserism reborn.

For quarter-of-a-century the fast, free-flowing currents of liberalisation have scoured out the authoritarian foundations of New Zealand society. But now Palmer and the Law Commission propose to stem the libertarian flow by erecting a mighty dam of wowserish regulation. It will not stand.

That Palmer genuinely believes the genie of social freedom can somehow be stuffed back into its bottle, simply shows how little he knows about the neoliberal revolution which he and his Fourth Labour Government colleagues unleashed.

Does Palmer really think all those job-shedding, community-shrinking, expectation-shifting neoliberal reforms would have "stuck" if they hadn’t been accompanied by the wholesale destruction of the nay-saying, red-tape-entangling, fun-suppressing culture that made Sir Robert Muldoon’s economic authoritarianism possible? Has he forgotten David Lange’s iconoclastic wit? Sir Roger Douglas’ rigour? Richard Prebble’s wrecking-ball?

Come to think of it, wasn’t it Palmer himself who delighted the nation with plans for a "Great Quango Hunt"? (The Dr Seussian title Palmer invented to describe the necessary culling of dozens of "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations".)

Neoliberalism’s greatest selling-point has always been its association with "Freedom". So long as the voters construed their Government’s policies in terms of "freeing things up" the neoliberal revolution was safe. That these freedoms were almost always freedoms "to" – rather than freedoms "from" – didn’t seem to matter.

In theory, requiring all workers to join a union freed them from low wages and long hours. In practice, however, any institution upon which the neoliberals could pin the label "compulsory" got a one-way ticket to History’s dustbin.

It is, therefore, very easy to predict how much damage this Government’s reputation will sustain if it’s foolish enough to suddenly execute a 180-degree turn in the direction of those who believe "Nanny knows best".

Oh sure, it will garner armfuls of votes from those whose solution for every one of society’s ills is to do something unpleasant to "young people". They forget, of course, that when they were "young people" the supply and sale of liquor was regulated to within an inch of its life.

These were days of the "Six O’clock Swill", when New Zealand’s "mature" attitude to alcohol was reflected in the tiled walls of the nation’s public bars. (It made them so much easier to hose down after the punters had fled!)

The deep affection and respect in which those anti-liquor laws were held by the ordinary jokers and sheilas of that era is captured beautifully in Peter Cape’s 1958 composition Down the Hall on Saturday Night:

I had a schottische with the tart from the butchers
I had a waltz with the constable's wife
I had a beer from the keg on the cream-truck
And the cop had one too, you can bet your life

An ever-quickening sequence of liberalised liquor laws – beginning with the 1967 legislation that ushered in ten o’clock closing, and culminating in the 1999 Act lowering the "drinking age" to 18 years – put paid to that sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, "sly-grogging" hypocrisy. And no one deemed old enough to vote, marry, sign a contract, fight for their country and enjoy all the other rights of New Zealand citizenship is going to thank the political party that tells them they’re not old enough to buy a drink.

So, what on Earth possessed Palmer and the Law Commission to disinter the wowser’s long-dead corpse?

The simple answer, of course, is the enormous harm alcohol inflicts upon New Zealand and New Zealanders. It costs people their jobs, their marriages, their health and, all-too-often, their lives. Alcohol also absorbs billions of dollars every year from Vote Health, Justice and Corrections, and costs the nation billions more in terms of lost production. If alcohol had appeared on the New Zealand scene suddenly, like Ecstasy, the Ministry of Health would’ve classified it as a Class B drug – it would be illegal.

But it didn’t – and it isn’t. Indeed alcohol, in one form or another has been the drug-of-choice for most of humankind for more than five millennia. It’s as old as the domestication of animals; as old as agriculture; and without it civilisation would be much more difficult to sustain.

As the ALAC ads say: "It’s not the drinking. It’s how we’re drinking." But "how we’re drinking" cannot be remedied by either legislation or regulation. In fact, as the Prohibition Era in the US made clear: forcing people to stop being "bad" only makes them worse.

On the positive side, there are countries where people do seem to be able to consume alcohol without turning their streets into battlefields and their emergency rooms into field hospitals. According to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with those countries where high levels of social inequality have induced correspondingly high levels of individual and social anxiety.

But that was not what the Law Commission wanted to hear. Unlike the players in the Monty Python sketch, Palmer and his colleagues never considered indicting the socio-economic drivers of alcohol abuse to be "a fair cop".

Significantly, the most important of the Commission’s recommendations: the measure which all the researchers agree reduces alcoholic consumption most effectively – raising the price – was immediately ruled out by the Government.

It’s one thing, you see, to propose restricting the number and hours-of-operation of liquor outlets in the poverty-stricken suburbs of South Auckland – but quite another to seriously investigate the reasons why the neighbourhood bottle-store has so many eager customers.

Send a happy man into a pub for a few beers, and by the end of the evening you’ll have a happy drunk. Send in a stressed and angry man, and in no time the booze will have him frothing. Alcohol only amplifies the emotions we mix with it.

The fault, dear Wowser, is not in our jars – but in ourselves.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 6 May 2010.


RedLogix said...

If you add up the crime, the health, the accidents and the lost productivity, the demon booze costs this country between $10b and $20b every year. That's something like 10% of GDP. The wowser in me would so love to ban it.

But you are right, the way our civilisation is wired we NEED the damn stuff to antidote the fears and anxieties it creates.

The critical insight came to me once when I asked a friend why he drank so much, and the honest answer was "It makes me feel better". At that moment the obvious response came to me, "But why did you feel so bad in the first place?".

"Because I'm so frightened" was the naked open answer he gave me.

Alcohol is a simple chemical. It's effect on the body is also simple, it is an almost perfect antidote to the physical symptoms of fear. Fear and it's more insidious pale cousins anxiety and worry, saturate our society. Of course we need it, as you suggest, our power-based hierarchial world would not be stable without it. It does almost beg the question of which came first, the abuse of power by the powerful, or the drug that enables the powerless to tolerate the abuse.

Olwyn said...

There is an attitude, which you see sometimes in letters to the editor, that anyone who is enjoying themselves is doing something wrong; that you ought to be (a) subsisting, (b) trying to get ahead, or (c) both, and that practically all enjoyment is dereliction of these duties. Enjoyment like rigorous sport is OK, because it involves a struggle. With little or no conceptual space for pleasure, people anaesthetise themselves in lieu, then take their punishment with a hangover.

Nick said...

Im glad you mentioned the things eighteen year olds can legaly do or be expected to by the state. I had the same issue with the drinking age when I was 18 (back in the 70s) and rejoiced when the age was dropped to 18.

I do question our drinking culture, but to raise the age to 20 wont change that in the slightest, nor will it stop 18 year olds drinking. Palmer reminds me of the type of people I work with who demand of me as their manager that I punish their workmates for non performance etc. Experience tells me that punitive and restrictive measures dont work, Palmer of all people should know this. So the inner authoritarian in Palmer and his cohort reappears. Sad, when will we grow up and move on?

Cactus Kate said...

Funny you mention Muldoon.

Without alcohol 1984 may never have happened....

Tauhei Notts said...

I welcome any criticism on my interpretation of history.
Alcohol was the birth of the women's suffrage. At that time in N.Z. there were huge numbers of male larrikin drinkers that might vote for the liberals. Arrests for drunkeness had reached alarming numbers in the late 19th century. The conservative female wowsers could see that the easiest way to beat those hoards of drunken larrikins was to give the vote to temperence minded women. And the male conservative politicians could see it too. So they created a heroine called Kate Sheppard to get the deed done.
Alcohol has been a problem in N.Z. since Kororareka (Russell) was the hell hole of the Pacific. The only way to change that awful attitude is emphasise personal responsibilty. But, as a casino operator's liaison man with Government told me, emphasising personal responsibilty is the last thing any N.Z. politician would want to do.