The trouble with alcoholic Australia


'Alcoholic Australia', by Chris Johnston Binge drinking and street fighting are baffling authorities, but should we really be so surprised? Two generations of disadvantaged males have failed to fit orthodox economic rationalist theory, with no Plan B in sight. They have become outsiders in their own country, while experts' early warnings of a social tinderbox went unheeded.

Sue Richardson, Professor of Economics at Flinders University, has charted labour market trends for men throughout the present lopsided boom. In 1978, only about 20 per cent of single Australian males aged 35-44 lacked secure full-time employment. By 2003, this had blown out to 35 per cent. Richardson has long predicted grave social consequences, as did Tony Nicholson, Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in 2004.

While the Howard Government boasted of record employment growth, data from the Workplace Research Centre tells a fuller story: 87 per cent of new jobs created in the 1990s boom paid under $26,000; around half paid under $15,600.

Australia's battlers were further assailed as a social security tradition unbroken from Menzies to Keating was radically commandeered for the Howard Government's tilt at the 2001 and 2004 elections. Families with dependent children received the most welfare support (35 per cent in 2005), although their numbers had been declining for a decade.

Conversely, age pensioners' share fell 4.6 per cent to 31 per cent, despite their swelling ranks. Unemployment and disability support accounted for only 25.4 per cent, up from 24.8 per cent, although the numbers locked out of the boom were soaring.

Criticism of middle-class welfare and pork-barrelling, at the expense of the disadvantaged, flowed like water off a duck's back. The poor became outsiders even in the welfare system, and were heavily policed for fraud.

In zealous, ideological pursuit of a 'level playing field', working class jobs were abolished, exported to cheap labour countries, or reinvented on pitifully low pay. Safety nets were snipped. A swathe of marginalised, unemployed and low paid men was created, even as John Howard claimed Australians had never been better off.

These men were locked out of the marriage market by their unattractive socio-economic status; or, if partnered, were statistically more likely to divorce or separate, creating a 'failed family'.

Should we expect second-generation, disenfranchised young people from ruptured and distressed homes to be quietly prospering? 'Losers' in a world where 'winners' take all, these youths have little hope of a job, or even a rented home. Conventional 'success' by extreme wealth is inconceivable.

Inevitably, young people locked out of a society will create new, accessible status and achievement systems. Often this can include crime and substance abuse.

Alcohol is pivotal to this unfolding crisis. For the rich, alcohol consumption marks fully-fledged membership of Australian society. For celebrities and movers and shakers, binge drinking is 'partying:' the acceptable, celebratory, sexy use of alcohol.

Not so for the poor. They are publicly stigmatised for 'abuse' of psycho-active substances, although alcohol, the perennial default for troubled individuals, provides mood relief, and its communality counters alienation.

The traditional glue which had sustained working class communities, including humour, mutual care, and a strong sense of community, is itself a casualty of our rapid transformation from a society to an atomised economy of individualistic pursuit.

Blaming, capsicum-spraying, punishing, and locking up already disadvantaged youth only further damages them, and exacerbates society's problem. They merely mirror the lack of socially intelligent planning which has shipwrecked the dreams of the young, and the security of all.

Had we cut our coat according to human cloth, we would never have forced vulnerable people into ill-fitting economic templates. We'd have moderated policy, maintaining traditional, fairly-paid working class jobs and the dignity of work so vulnerable children were reared in stable households.

We'd have identified and developed the best skills of vulnerable youth, opening basic doors to a future of hope and optimism.

Instead, ideologues severed economic lifelines for the disadvantaged, gutted poor schools, enshrined user-pays and mutual obligation, ostracised NGOs which advocated for the poor, and deemed welfare and training unsustainably expensive.

Greed extols great cost. The indicting symbol of our times is not the failed, addled youth living out their grief and hopelessness in a society that has sold its heart. It's the finely attired urban businessman who urinates on a homeless person asleep in a city doorway.

'Children and the world of work' (conference paper by Sue Richardson )

Barbara ChapmanBarbara Chapman is a writer, and has also been a teacher of English to adult migrants and refugees for over 20 years.

Topic tags: barbara chapman, binge drinkin, youth violence, low-paid employment, Sue Richardson



submit a comment

Existing comments

Oh, Jesus, I'm afraid she's right. Is it all too late?

Michael Grounds | 10 June 2008  

What a brilliant piece of writing - I hope this piece receives the wide discussion it deserves. I would like to read more from this writer who has researched well.

Vineta O'Malley | 10 June 2008  

Sacrificial attitudes to life are not just the province of the indentured fortune-earner wearing Prada.

Life is gift, and the Church is riding on the back of women whose commitment to their teaching and nursing may be injuring their own health and families.

Let us support but also challenge workers to live a spirited life, rather than a materially comfortable one.

Louise | 10 June 2008  

Splendid article, Barbara Chapman. The figures on the salaries earned in all those jobs created under Howard are shocking. Add to the mix that you've given the awful cruelties of the Welfare to Work program, and details of the savage withdrawal of payments from people who didn't satisfy welfare regulations and you see more clearly the extent of evils the man inflicted on Australian society.

But he got his AC yesterday! Pity about the knighthood.

Rudd's promises to humanise the system are of immense importance. I trust he will be faithful to them.

Joe Castley | 10 June 2008  

I agree with Vineta - a brilliant piece of writing to be reflected upon and discussed at depth.

Giovanni Farquer rsj | 10 June 2008  

Barbara has put her finger on an issue that has been brewing away in the background for many years. I hope this issue gets the attention it deserves.
It all makes perfect sense to me.

john bartlett | 10 June 2008  

What Barbara says makes sense to me - I would value her thoughts on what she believes can be done to address the issues that she raises.

Noel Will | 10 June 2008  

I was going to say that it's 'a sobering article' but, pun aside, that's exactly what it is! The article's deadly accurate portrayal of what really happened with job creation in the '90s and the consequences is I hope read by every member of the current Government. I know now why I felt that "gong" for John Howard was terribly insulting.

Peter Cowan | 11 June 2008  

Excellent analysis. Keep up the good work, Barbara.

bryan dunn | 13 June 2008  

Excellent article Barbara. Am I naive in asking can you get it into mainstream press? The Courier Mail has Perspectives which just occasionally gives some decent analysis. Unfortunately so many have no other sources of info than Commercial TV and politicised papers
and it is wearying hearing them repeat Howard's "wisdom".

Cath Courtney | 14 June 2008  

Dear God, who called this land 'the lucky country', words fail me.

Betty Kosanovic-de vries | 14 June 2008  

Too true. The great unspoken problem. Your 'marriage market' comment was especially revealing.

James | 16 June 2008  

Excellent article. Good work Babs! There's always more to it, which I'm sure you've elaborated on elsewhere, but you cover a lot of ground in this piece, which is so well-worded. Big admiration. As a 26 year old dude, who ticks a few of these boxes, there's no way I could have said any of this better.

Cat | 08 April 2013  

Similar Articles

Why Rudd commission won't stop the bomb

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 19 June 2008

Continuing the work of the defunct Canberra Commission, Kevin Rudd's Nuclear Non-Proliferations and Disarmament Commission is re-inventing a wheel that never worked. Preventing freelance scientists from following their career wanderlust is the real challenge in any post-nuclear framework.


Watching the watchdogs

  • Moira Rayner
  • 18 June 2008

Bodies such as the NSW Crime Commission and Victoria's Office of Police Integrity have proven either ineffective or vulnerable to influence themselves. Ultimately, we the people are responsible for keeping these bodies accountable.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up