The Good-Hearted Curmudgeon versus The Nanny State

By sheer chance, on Sunday I found myself listening on ABC Classic FM to part of the 18th century opera ‘The Good-Hearted Curmudgeon‘.  In her inimitable way, Jen couldn’t help suggesting that the opera might have been named after me. Little did I know that within an hour or so I would accidentally find myself rehearsing the lead role (though perhaps without the good-hearted bit).

We went for a family outing to a Darwin Festival concert at the Gardens Amphitheatre, featuring Kate Miller-Heidke and Megan Washington.  It was partly to celebrate Jen’s 50th birthday, so we took along a picnic basket including lots of yummy Greek cakes, candles, tucker and bottles of water.  We knew we couldn’t take alcohol and intended to purchase it at the Amphitheatre bar.

However as we went in we discovered that everyone’s bags were being searched, and we were required to empty out our bottles of water. Presumably the government organisers thought this might somehow stop teenage binge drinkers from smuggling in spirits disguised as water.  As neither of us look or act as if we’re likely to be secreting gin, vodka or similar beverages, I rapidly mounted my high horse (conveniently tethered nearby as Gore Vidal once memorably remarked).

 “This is outrageous,” I said. “I know it’s not your fault (to the flustered female security guard), but I can tell you I certainly won’t be voting for Hendo now!”((Actually I haven’t yet decided to put Labor candidate Natasha Fyles below her CLP opponent, but I’m certainly putting her below the two Independent candidates whom Labor has cynically smeared during the campaign.  Maybe if more people did so the major parties would stop the nasty smear tactics. ~ KP))

However that wasn’t the end of the story. At the interval between Kate Miller-Heidke’s and Megan Washington’s sets, our 17 year old daughter staggered up to where we were sitting, obviously worse for wear.  It turned out that a 16 year old friend had effortlessly smuggled in a huge bottle of Jagermeister and the entire teenage peer group was in the process of getting roaring drunk.

As is usually the case with oppressive Nanny State initiatives, this one had unintended consequences. Measures of that sort invariably penalise or inconvenience only ordinary law-abiding citizens. The people at whom they’re actually aimed have no difficulty evading them.

In fact Sunday’s Jagermeister binge by Jess and her friends is symptomatic of a seemingly large and very negative change in the drinking patterns of teenage girls especially.  It’s largely the fault of yet another Nanny State initiative, the alcopops tax implemented by the Rudd/Gillard federal ALP government.  As a recent UQ study found:

YOUNG binge drinkers have simply switched to cheaper booze to beat the Federal Government’s controversial “alcopop” tax.

New research shows 15 to 29-year-olds have dodged the 70 per cent tax on popular pre-mixed drinks by changing their drink of choice.

Large bottles of neat spirits offer more alcohol for significantly less money than a four-pack of Bacardi Breezers, so “adventurous” teenage girls just club together to buy the hard stuff in bulk.((A 700 ml bottle of Jagermeister costs $43.99 and contains 35% alcohol whereas a 4 pack of Bacardi Breezers costs $11.99 but contains only 4% alcohol. You can get a lot more drunk cheaper and much quicker by going quarters in a bottle of Jagermeister than on Breezers. ~ KP)) The phenomenon is also clearly reflected in NT alcohol consumption figures, which show no drop in overall consumption of spirits, but note that:

Since 2008, standard spirits has increased by 13%, while pre-mixed spirits has decreased by 14%. ((The population has hardly risen at all over that period. ~ KP))

That brings me to a related NT government Nanny State initiative that has rather wider relevance than my own curmudgeonly tantrum over being required to tip out a bottle of water as if I was a teen desperado cruisin’ for a bruisin’. The Henderson Labor government implemented a supposed anti-crime initiative called the Banned Drinker Register (BDR) a bit over a year ago. Every time Territorians buy takeaway alcohol we must produce photo ID not only to prove that we’re over 18 but that we’re not on the BDR. Every single licensed outlet has been supplied with a government scanner which scans and checks your photo ID (driver’s licence) against a central online database to check you’re not on the BDR.

It’s irritating for customers and bottle shop staff alike and slows down transactions significantly, causing queues in busy periods.  However, as you may have noted from the story I told at the outset, the BDR does little or nothing to inhibit under-age teens from buying alcohol.  They just enlist a friend who’s over 18 or has reasonably convincing fake ID.

You can guarantee that the adult problem drinkers at whom the BDR is primarily aimed have equally few problems in circumventing the law.  After all, almost by definition they’re alcoholics, and alcoholics will do whatever it takes to get a drink.

The CLP under Terry Mills has promised to repeal the BDR system if elected. The Hendo ALP team on the other hand condemns the CLP as not being serious about reducing crime.  Hendo is touting the BDR as the centre-piece of Labor’s anti-crime strategy, citing NT police as saying that it’s their best weapon in the fight against crime with more than 2,500 Territorians currently on Hendo’s banned list. However, can you recall any law that has increased police powers that police themselves have disliked?

What do the figures actually say? Well, shortly after the BDR was introduced, the Hendo team’s Deputy Chief Minister, Treasurer and Attorney-General Delia Lawrie was interviewed about the scheme on ABC 7:30 on 17 October 2011 and claimed:

DELIA LAWRIE: Early signs are good. Certainly our streets are quieter, our parks are quieter, our shopping centres are quieter. Early indication from police is that assaults have dropped about 15 per cent.

In fact that claim is almost certainly false, although the Hendo team appears to have done everything it could to stop us discovering this.  Although NT crime statistics have been published quarterly for the last few years and generally appear on the Department of Justice website within about 60 days of the end of each quarter (I keep an eye on them), the most recent stats currently shown there end at March quarter 2011. This is conveniently just before the BDR scheme started on a Territory-wide basis.  Those figures show the total number of assaults at 6,576 for the year to March 2011, an increase of just 2% over the horrendous figures for the previous year.  The NT’s assault rate is more than three times as high as any other state or territory.

However it appears that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has more privileged access to crime figures than mere ordinary Territory voters. The ABS report Recorded Crime – Victims, Australia, 2011 shows that for calendar year 2011:

1here were 6,701 victims of assault in the Northern Territory, with an overall victimisation rate of 2,909 victims per 100,000 persons.

In other words, over the first 6 months of the BDR scheme assault rates were actually rising compared with the year to March 2011, not falling by 15% as Delia Lawrie claimed. It’s possible that she didn’t know at the time that her claim was wrong, but to the best of my knowledge neither she nor any other government Minister has done anything subsequently to correct the record.

Although I can’t currently locate a link, I also recall a Minister recently claiming that there had been a small drop in alcohol consumption per head in the Territory in recent years, and that this was attributable to the Henderson government’s anti-alcohol policies including the BDR.  And indeed  NT alcohol consumption figures do show a small but steady per capita drop since 2005 (see figure 1 on page 2), albeit that we still drink one and a half times the national average per head, have three times the national average of alcohol-related deaths and double the rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions.

However it seems unlikely that the modest recent fall in per capita consumption has much to do with NT government policies.  It certainly has nothing to do with the BDR scheme because the most recent published statistics end at 30 June 2011. My best guess is that the fall is mostly attributable to young single construction workers leaving the Territory after the building boom hit the wall starting from around 2005, and that consumption will begin rising again from this year as they flood back for the huge Inpex gas project.

The sorts of policies that really DO make a positive difference to alcohol consumption and assault rates involve reducing the number of licensed premises and/or their opening hours.  Less nightclubs pouring grog down patrons’ throats until 4 or 5am every morning would be a good start, not to mention moving away from the present system where every corner grocery store is a takeaway liquor outlet and most of them rely heavily on grog sales to survive against Woolies and Coles. A sensible floor price on alcohol would also help, because it would inhibit teen binge drinkers from evading the alcopops tax by buying cheap hard spirits instead, and adult alcoholics from evading the ban on wine flagons and large casks (in some places) by buying dirt cheap “cleanskin” bottles instead.

However, neither major party is promising any such policies and neither is likely to do so. They would antagonise too many individual voters and too many vested commercial interests.  Far wiser (or at least more expedient) to implement a patently ineffective BDR scheme like Hendo and hope that people cop the inconvenience on the chin because they fondly if erroneously believe that it represents a genuine and conceivably successful effort to tackle alcohol abuse and associated anti-social behaviour. Or, like Terry Mills, make the populist move of promising to abolish the BDR and instead strike a mostly meaningless “tough on crime” stance by promising to build teen offender “boot camps”  despite research showing that they’re largely ineffective, and to employ 100 more police while trying to avoid discussing the fact that Hendo employed 400 more police over the last few years but violent crime still kept rising (although not as fast as Terry Mills claims).

I’ll dismount the high horse now and make some slightly more balanced observations.  I actually don’t think the BDR scheme should simply be abandoned without proper evaluation, as Terry Mills proposes.

It was also possibly a bit self-indulgent to employ the glib libertarian “nanny state” phrase.  I’m more a classical liberal than a libertarian.  Civil society is composed of a web of behavioural norms and sanctions, some of which are necessarily legally enforceable. However the burden of proof must rest on those proposing to restrict our liberties to justify their policies.  They must be directed at redressing a real and significant social or economic ill for a start.  The BDR certainly meets that criterion.  Alcohol abuse is undeniably one of the largest problems the Territory faces. It impacts every one of us on a daily basis, even though the great majority of both perpetrators and victims of assaults are Aboriginal (as the ABS report Recorded Crime – Victims, Australia, 2011 makes clear).

Moreover, although irritating to a good-hearted curmudgeon like me, being required to produce one’s driver’s licence before purchasing a bottle of red is a relatively minor imposition if it really assists substantially to reduce the scourge of alcohol abuse in our community. However that needs to be established by actual evidence.  It needs to be demonstrated that proposed liberty-restricting measures are having their intended effect, that they are not also having major unintended adverse consequences, and that there are no equally effective but less liberty-restricting measures available to achieve the same prime objective.  The Hendo team hasn’t even attempted to meet this burden of proof, in fact it has actively avoided doing so.

We need a proper evaluation of the BDR scheme in the wake of its first 12 months of operation. What are the assault figures for the full 12 months to 30 June 2012?  They are certainly available to government by now, it is simply choosing not to release them publicly. What is happening to the rate of admissions to sobering-up shelters? Or the rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions? Or the rate of alcohol-related deaths?  Statistics are compiled on all these things. With 2,500 problem drinkers on the BDR you’d expect to see some positive movement in these figures.  If they show even relatively small improvements then the BDR scheme should be given at least a further 12 months trial.  If not then it should be scrapped.

I also have some related questions for the mainstream media.  Why aren’t you asking these questions or undertaking journalistic investigations to find the answers? Why are you mostly just passively reporting the current election campaign as if it were a footie match?

The same observation applies to the complete failure of both major parties to tell us whether, when or how they intend returning the Territory’s budget to surplus, and the failure of media to make any attempt to hold them to account for this.((I should qualify that. Terry Mills has said his government would return the budget to surplus within 4 years, but hasn’t said how (which is what we really need to know). ~ KP))  Glib CLP “debt and deficit” horror slogans and equally glib ALP “they’re going to sack the public servants” scary messages are just meaningless propaganda.

It isn’t quite too late for the media to begin holding the politicians to account in a meaningful way.  Channel 9 apparently hosted a Leader’s Debate earlier this evening although I confess I missed it (is a recording available anywhere?).  I understand ABC 7.30 is running a similar event on Friday evening (election eve).  Will the interviewer (presumably Louisa Rebgetz) actually ask Paul and Terry the hard policy questions? Will the politicians answer? Will the interviewer persist or just run through a pre-prepared question script and allow them to obfuscate?  We can only hope.


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About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jennifer McCulloch
Jennifer McCulloch
11 years ago

You may as well just ride off into the sunset on that one.
As Scarlett O’Hara says, ‘tomorrow is another day’ and you are not getting any younger or any more tolerant.
Yup so you can just stay seated, right up there, on your high horse…. the view of Media Watch is excellent I hear.

Donna Stephens
Donna Stephens
11 years ago

Jen I love how your special birthday was mentioned. Happy birthday to you. We are both now in the 40 plus ten. Donna

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

Since when has any pollie cared about the effectiveness, let alone cost-effectiveness, of a lauranorder measure? They know that it’s the measure’s visibility, not effectiveness, they’ll be judged on.

Were I a pollie I’d be on the lookout for “security theatre” that doesn’t cost the budget much but, precisely because it interferes with everyone’s life, is extremely visible. If it delights the local Police Union and caters to the vindictiveness of not-so-good-hearted curmudgeons (eg teenage boot camps to “give them a good kick up the bum”) – a politically volatile subset of the voters – then so much the better.

On the last, a federal Minister once commented to me that “in this job you can never forget that some of the punters are deadshits. You have to do something for the deadshit vote from time to time”.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

A fair enough comment about deficits – in particular once your debt reaches the sort of levels the NT apparently has then it has clearly got above the level you can justify by long-lived infrastructure investment.

BTW all of the PIIGS except Greece ran budget surpluses during the boom – their fiscal policy was actually tighter than Germany’s. I only mention it because the austerians are doing a lot of rewriting of history at the moment.

11 years ago

… being required to produce one’s driver’s licence before purchasing a bottle of red is a relatively minor imposition …

Either I’ve doctored my online photo more than you have or they are seriously tough up North. Been a lot of years since anyone bothered asking me for ID… then again I often brew my own, maybe your daughter would benefit from switching from that corporate crap to something of her own creation?

If she ever gets around to asking about the rightful place of government and other deeper questions, this might help —

11 years ago

Great piece, Ken. I laughed out loud at the “closely tethered nearby”.

The new site layout is terrific too.


Re the PIIGS, presumably you’re talking about primary surpluses (although Portugal didn’t even manage any of those during the boom years).

As for general surplus/deficit figures, only Ireland stayed mostly in the black. Portugal and Italy didn’t manage any while Spain clocked up three surpluses in the peak boom years.