Drink Tank

NAAPA 2015: Why we must act on alcohol

The following address was given by Rob McEwen at the NSW ACT Alcohol Policy Alliance (NAAPA) 2015 NSW Election Platform launch. Mr McEwen is the father of Bondi assault victim Michael McEwen and is well known in the community for his stance on alcohol-fueled violence.

The alliance launched their platform ‘Not one more’ at Sydney’s Parliament House in November 2014, urging NSW MP’s to take action on alcohol.

Each day in NSW alcohol results in 66 assaults, including 27 domestic assaults, 28 emergency department presentations, 142 hospitalisations and three deaths. One more harm from alcohol is one too many.

The upcoming State Election in March 2015 provides NSW with an opportunity to ensure that their next Government continues to work towards a comprehensive plan that addresses alcohol harms.

One Friday in December last year David Hona and Jamie Ennis decided to get drunk.

Both have a history of alcohol related violence. They were going out because on the Monday Hona was going to detention for a previous offence. He was under a good behaviour bond and as long as he behaved he would remain free. But he hadn’t so he was going away. So it was gonna be a big night. And it was.

They started at one o’clock in the afternoon and were still going at one o’clock in the morning. The two of them drank so much they got kicked out of a pub in Bondi for fighting. They went to a kebab shop and argued. Then walking outside still looking for trouble at about 1.30am they spotted a good looking, vulnerable young man and they couldn’t resist the temptation.

This is when Michael encountered the dark side of humanity. They harassed him, he wanted no part of it and tried to walk away. They followed him across Campbell parade to a bus stop. Ennis tore his T-shirt off and as he was being restrained Hona moved in and hit him with all his might.

My son Michael was out cold before his head smashed into the hard concrete ground.

If that was not enough he was then stomped on as he lay prone on the ground. The perpetrators slinked off into the darkness, their night complete. Meanwhile another family was left devastated.

Needless to say we were shocked when the doorbell rang at 3.30 on the Saturday morning and a police officer broke the news to us that our son Michael had been assaulted and was in a critical condition in St Vincent’s Hospital.

We learned the impact to the back of his head hitting the ground caused bleeding and swelling to the brain. Michael had to have a section of his skull cut out to relieve the pressure on the brain as it swelled. We learned later he was not expected to survive.

We spent the next few days coming to grips with what had happened.

It was surreal. You see these things on the news and read about them in the papers but it always happens to other people. Now we were the news. That was evident very quickly as within hours the media had located where we lived and were knocking on the door.

There was a lot to deal with besides Michael’s condition. The police gave the case high priority and they were at the hospital within hours seeking permission to swab Michael for DNA and take photographs so they could start their investigation.

We had to contact family members – it was breaking on the news but his name was not mentioned until late on the Saturday. People had heard early that a man in Bondi had been bashed and was fighting for his life and had no idea that he was a nephew or cousin or mate or the son of a mate. It was particularly difficult for Michael’s younger siblings, Liv and Joey. They live in an innocent world, a fairy tale life where the world is a safe place and people are good. Now they were confronted with the impact of this dreadful deed and part of their innocence died that day.

And then you wish you said the things to Michael you would have said if you had known this was going to happen.

The worst thing was not knowing whether he would survive or not.

Nobody would or could tell us because they didn’t know – every brain injury is different. But they told us that the first 48 hours were critical so we hung onto the hope that by Monday, if he was still alive he would survive.

We were only focussing on the very short term. But he was very unstable and it wasn’t looking good for him so needed a second operation on the Sunday morning. By then word had got out that he was our son and we had an army of people praying for him. Fortunately that operation worked, he stabilised on the Sunday and his recovery began.

The Offender

This is a crime that should never have happened.

Apart from the sheer randomness of the act, the perpetrator should not have been in a position where he could attack anyone. He had a long history of violence as a juvenile. He had started taking drugs at 14 and drinking heavily at 16. It wasn’t long before he came to the attention of the police and found himself before the courts.

In April 2011 he punched a man in the head several times and then picked up a glass coffee jug and hit him in the back of the head. He later punched a female police officer in the head and knocked her unconscious, she having been called to the scene. In September 2011, only two months after he had been placed on a bond he held a knife to a man’s throat and threatened to kill him and stabbed another man twice in the stomach. He then committed three further offences in March 2013. Time after time the court showed him leniency.

This guy was protected from the time warning lights were flashing. He came from a single parent family, he surrounded himself with people just like himself – the person he seemed to look up to most was his cousin who was the other guy who was involved that night and the instigator of the incident – he had a problem with alcohol and drugs but there was very little intervention. He was instructed to attend counselling but didn’t – he’d never demonstrated a willingness to comply with court orders. He was an accident waiting to happen.

The night he almost killed Michael he was under curfew but the police were unable to enforce the curfew, apparently due to an over-zealous lawyer trying to protect his client from the police.

We saw him for the first time in October. He had pleaded guilty to causing reckless grievous bodily harm and was in court for sentencing. He was placed in the dock, all alone, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights. We felt no malice or anger towards him. He is a young man who has made stupid choices all his life.

He has been sentenced – he got a minimum of about 5 years. Our only interest in this young man now is that he stops putting people’s lives in danger. He has expressed contrition but that’s part of his pattern of behaviour – remorse after the event until the next binge.

Alcohol and Society

Alcohol is a drug – a very powerful and addictive drug.

Too much of it changes your behaviour – it can make you happy, sad, friendly, angry or aggressive or a whole range of emotions in between. It can make you all of those things at once.

In moderation it’s fine. But in this country we glorify drinking to excess and every weekend too many young people go out to get drunk.

If alcohol were a newly discovered drug it would never be legalised. So of course we need regulations to control its access, particularly in this country where we have an immature relationship with this potent substance.

Anyone who suggests tighter controls is accused of being a wowser or a prohibitionist.

There is outrage from some parties about the suggestion they shouldn’t have access to alcohol 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and how dare anyone try to curtail their right to party all night long if they want to.

The fact is from the day we’re born we have to live with rules – if we break them too often we get ourselves into trouble. It’s unreasonable not to expect rules around access to alcohol.

Even before Michael’s assault I was concerned about the direction society was heading and wondered why young people were so intent on going out and partying so hard, week after week. This is a question we need to examine. I find it bizarre with the lockouts rules that kids don’t pull up stumps and go home instead of desperately trying to get to the next venue. I know that not many good decisions are made after midnight, unless one is to get in a taxi and go home.

I’m not sure why there was and is so much debate around lockouts and earlier closing hours. The results in Newcastle have spoken for themselves. I still think 1.30am lockouts and 3.30am closing times are generous.

Most people agree with me except some powerful lobby groups, minorities and stakeholders. But the fact is we are all stakeholders. Sure the laws need tweaking – it’s not a level playing field at the moment. But the early signs are encouraging. I think the first big test will be this Christmas season, we’ll be able to tell then just how effective the lockout laws have been.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that the alcohol industry has a significant vested interest in policy.

After all, the industry, quite rightly, wants to maximise profits. It can only do this by selling more alcohol hence longer trading hours and more availability.

So should this industry sit at the table with the policy makers and indeed influence the policy makers? I am not averse to industry in general having input into public policy. But in my view there should be exceptions when it comes to the alcohol, gaming and tobacco industries. Make submissions by all means, but do not have access politicians or input into any legislation or regulations.

When I was watching the rugby league grand final recently I was stunned at the number of alcohol and gambling ads. I wondered at the subliminal effect of these ads on kids, so many of whom watch sport on TV. Last year we won the Ashes. Did you notice the Australian team’s uniform? I thought it was a shame for the players that they had to share the Australian coat of arms with the VB logo.

Alcohol, tobacco and gaming industries are detrimental to society. They impose great costs on society in their own ways, firstly sitting at the same table as the policy makers, and secondly influencing our behaviour with clever and entertaining ads.

It’s time government got serious and asked itself what sort of society we want to live in. 

It’s time to depower the alcohol and gambling industries and it can start by reducing their prominence in advertising and sponsorship.

We need to ask ourselves what sort of society we want. Successful societies are made up of successful people. I am not talking about financial success necessarily, but people who lead good and productive lives. Successful people are also moderate in terms of their behaviour and particularly alcohol consumption. By definition therefore, a successful society is a moderate society.

I’d like to end on a happy note.

By Monday evening one of the doctors told us for the first time that she was confident Michael would survive.

The following Saturday, 8 days after he was struck, the nurses reduced the drugs and he awoke. He woke up as soon as the drugs were turned off which doesn’t always happen.

When I went in a few minutes later he held his arms out to me and that was the happiest moment of my life. He was alive and I had the chance to tell him the things I wanted to tell him.

View Rob McEwen’s presentation in full on Vimeo.

You can get involved in NAAPA’s Not One More campaign by sending an email to your local member calling on them to take action on alcohol. Find out more

Rob McEwen

Rob McEwen is the father of Bondi assault victim Michael McEwen and is well known in the community for his stance on alcohol-fueled violence.

Add comment

Join our mailing list