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‘Proper’ drinking: elusive goal but how hard have we tried?

Can people learn to drink differently? There can be no argument that the level of harm from alcohol in Australia is too high and that some communities are disproportionately affected.

Dr Maggie Brady is an Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, and a social anthropologist who has worked with Aboriginal people in many different regions of Australia. She has long-term research interests in Indigenous alcohol and other drug use, alcohol policy, and the social history of drinking and temperance, and has produced diverse publications on these topics.

In her latest book, Teaching ‘Proper’ Drinking? Clubs and pubs in Indigenous Australia, Dr Maggie Brady examines two historical approaches undertaken with Aboriginal people that sought to minimise this harm by teaching people to drink in a ‘civilised’ manner. Were they successful?

Prior to its official release by ANU Press, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education earlier this week, journalist and arts writer Kieran Finnane, a long-time resident of Alice Springs, reviewed Teaching ‘Proper’ Drinking? for Alice Springs News Online.  

The following is an excerpt from that review.



“We are expected to drink it and we are expected to die from it, but we are not expected 
to have agency in it.” –  William Tilmouth, 2001

The “it” is grog, the “we” are Aboriginal people. The history of their attempts to establish agency in their drinking is traced in an important new book, Teaching ‘Proper’ Drinking: Pubs and clubs in Indigenous Australia (ANU Press, 2017), by Maggie Brady. This history of course has always involved interaction with settler Australians who, as we learn in this book, have been not always of good will and hardly ever of much help.

Their failings have been by omission and commission. Brady goes back to the earliest days of the colony and earlier, to the evolution of drinking habits in Britain, from the pre-industrial period, when drinking among labourers was daily (at every break and meal) and communal, to the industrial era when alcohol had to be quarantined from the workplace and the idea emerged that ways of more controlled or ‘civilised’ drinking could be learned.

However, on the streets of early Sydney Aboriginal people observed drinking by people of British and Irish stock that “was communal and collective, and it was very public; brawling and gambling were considered normal behaviours and disputes were settled in public, often in angry and violent confrontations”.

I fast forward from this fascinating early part of the book, with all of its obvious resonance for our own time and place, to pick up the story in the middle of the last century when, between 1957 and 1972, Australian states and territories lifted their ban on Aboriginal drinking. In the NT, this happened in 1964, when Aboriginal people ceased to be labelled “wards”, bringing to an end restrictions on their civil rights, including the right to possess and consume alcohol.

Brady writes that the transition to drinking rights took many Aboriginal people by surprise: in South Australia in 1965, for example, it was described as being “total prohibition one day, complete freedom the next”.

Unfortunately, it also coincided with changes in the drinking habits of mainstream Australia and in the alcohol industry. Between 1969 and 1975 per capita consumption nationwide increased by 20 per cent and there began to be a shift away from drinking in hotels to consuming takeaway alcohol. In this way, Brady writes,  Aboriginal people missed out on getting used to drinking in a sociable and to some degree regulated environment and there seems to have been little attempt to make up for this. There were few, if any, health education programs, about alcohol and its risks. On missions and reserves the main strategy was to ration supplies (of beer).

The industry promoted packaged alcohol with innovation: canned beer arrived in 1962, followed by the ring-pull can and later rip-top stubbies of beer. The wine cask, an Australian invention, appeared in the 1970s. “For reasons of cheapness and convenience, takeaway cask wine became the drink of choice for Aboriginal drinkers,” writes Brady.

The rise in public drunkenness in towns like Alice Springs led to suggestions of wet canteens being established on Aboriginal settlements, which also aligned with the shift away from assimilation to self-determination in Aboriginal affairs.

A Board of Inquiry into the sale and consumption of liquor conducted by the Northern Territory Legislative Council in 1973 was frank in its assessment of Territorians generally as “Australia’s biggest drunks and roundly condemned poor drinking facilities and the irresponsible behaviour of licensees”, writes Brady. Its main focus though was on Aboriginal drinking and it recommended that licensed social clubs for Aboriginal people be established.

The attempts to do so, both in settlements and in towns, is the focus of Brady’s case studies.

This article was originally published on Alice Springs News Online. Click here to read the full article.

Kieran Finnane

Kieran Finnane

Kieran Finnane is a journalist and arts writer who has lived in Alice Springs since 1987. A founding journalist of the Alice Springs News, she also contributes arts writing and journalism to national publications. Her book, Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia, was published by UQP in 2016.

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