COMMENT by PETER TAIT
I’ve just read Kieran Finnane’s book Trouble: on trial in Central Australia (UQP, 2016) and have written this response to take the stories told so compellingly into the next phase – thinking about what can be done instead of just putting up with more troubles.
A complex of troubles emerges in the book: historical, racial, class and educational tensions playing out as clashing world views. Fuelling the explosion of these troubles onto the front pages, into people’s consciousness and into the courts is alcohol. Not only an accelerant, alcohol availability blocks and undermines all attempts to construct a solution.
But the issue really isn’t alcohol and its availability and use. The real culprit here, not just in the NT (despite Northern Territorians being renowned in song and statistics, as Ted Egan puts it “bloody good drinkers”) but throughout Australia, is a failure of government in its duty to care for its citizens.
Why is government failing? Several intersecting factors contribute.
Alcohol control here is very similar to gun control in the United States. Alcohol use is generally and widely accepted in our daily lives. Sparingly used it is enjoyable, relaxing, helping us have fun. For a minority, guns provide an avenue for fun and personal achievement through sport and recreational use. A smaller minority need guns in their work.
The major difference between the US and the rest of the world is that every other nation has transferred the duty of civil protection to the state not left it in the hands of the citizen. The US has a dual system. Consequently firearm mortality there is an order of magnitude higher than elsewhere outside of failed nation states.
But the underlying assumption that an individual has a right to bear arms or to buy and consume alcohol rests in the same historical libertarian tradition. This sees the role of the state to only protect property and facilitate a market economy. It argues for small government and ridicules any unnecessary government intervention as ‘nanny statism’. Of course the rub here is the definition of ‘unnecessary’. This is not, however, how the argument is usually posed.
Two fascinating consequences of this worldview pertain to our discussion of guns and alcohol.
Firstly, despite resistance to regulation of guns or alcohol because of a person’s rights to exercise liberty in using either within a market economy model, linked as this is to demands for small government, the strife caused by the use of guns and especially alcohol in the Northern Territory actually requires bigger government in terms of policing and health care, rehabilitation services, social and other services as the immediate and cross-generational harms unfold.
Secondly, similarly to the aftermath of the global financial crisis when we were told the banks who had triggered the chaos were too big to fail and the tax payers had to bail them out, opponents to government intervention in the firearms or alcohol markets are the ones calling for increases in policing and security, and, in the case of alcohol, for rehabilitation services to be provided by tax payers or charitable institutions.
I recall one of the withdrawing Republican candidates summarising this neatly as he called on remaining candidates to continue to uphold Republican values of small government and a big military. It exposes the inherent internal contradiction in the neolibertarian philosophy, which is just not visible to most of us and especially those espousing it.
Apart from a philosophical or ideological position, why would alcohol or gun sellers contest restriction to sales of their products? I think the answer is pretty obvious. At a local level, like all business, they need to have sales to make an income to pay their workers and derive a profit. Behind the local businesses looms a large industry of manufacturers who also depend on local sales of their product. In our current economic model this means building market share and that means increasing use of their particular product and building use of their product overall. Put simplistically, more gun ownership and more alcohol buying. Locally, it doesn’t matter if the bought alcohol is drunk or poured into the sand within two kilometres of a liquor outlet.
Logically to protect and build its market, producers and sellers need to oppose any restriction to use of their products. To do this they lobby governments, and they donate to political parties. Hard numbers are obscure; while middle order donors, identifiable alcohol and hospitality (excluding gaming) industry donations to the three major political parties Australia wide in 2014-15 were in the order of half a million dollars. The recent ABC 4 Corners episode (23 May 2016) on political donations showed how this works.
This is where government failure comes in. The political power of the industries unduly influences the decision-making within government. In our modern political system we accept this is how the system works unquestioningly; of course that’s what industries do.
But the consequences of this warping of decisions are the harms we are experiencing and the costs we are paying financially through increased government expenditure that robs government of capacity to spend on say health and education, and the personal cost we suffer directly from the harms of alcohol use here or gun violence in the US.
In effect a part of the profits of these industries comes from us accepting to pay these costs ourselves or through our taxes.
This raises a set of ethical questions that are of real practical importance for how we want our community to be. The answers will direct how we build stronger community and manage the historical racial and class tensions we are living with. I have my own answers to these but as a community we need to negotiate our own answers.
The questions go to the heart of our political philosophies. Focusing now on alcohol, the questions include: how much alcohol related harm do we as a community accept? What restriction to personal freedom do we accept so that everyone can benefit from a reduction in alcohol violence and strife? How does government protect its citizens from industries whose product, when used to excess, creates so much harm for everyone?
Only in teasing out these answers and as citizens requiring government to act on them can we together reduce our losses from alcohol harms, and enjoy its benefits sensibly. We can choose to just keep helping to pay the alcohol industry’s costs, or we can make our governments do their job and look after our, the peoples’, interests, and in the end have calmer and safer life.
Peter Tait is a general practitioner, now in Canberra, who worked at Congress in Alice Springs for 30 years.
Note: You can hear Kieran Finnane discuss Trouble with Paul Barclay on Radio National’s Big Ideas here.
COMMENT by PETER TAIT