Drink Tank

Teaching ‘Proper’ Drinking?

For many years, social anthropologist, Dr Maggie Brady has been interested in issues of intoxication and temperance; availability and regulation; the social history of the Australian love affair with grog and how Aboriginal people fit into that; the role of women in temperance – Aboriginal women and the women of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; and the moral hazards that stalk any Indigenous social enterprise around alcohol (such as owning a hotel).

All these issues are woven into her latest book Teaching ‘Proper’ Drinking? Clubs and pubs in Indigenous Australia.

Launching the book at Parliament House, Canberra on Monday 26 March, Dr Brady, an Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, explained that although much of the book is a social history as well as an ethnography, its subject matter is surprisingly topical and relevant and “a reminder that there are echoes of the past in much of what we debate today.”

Below is an edited version of her remarks.

One of the case studies in the book tells of a remote settlement (many years ago) that had been officially declared a ‘dry’, alcohol-free community, but that began to have  problems with sly grog. Barges delivering other goods to the community also brought beer; the beer was consumed on the spot where the barge landed and widespread drunkenness ensued.

Concerned about this level of drinking, one community leader suggested that what was needed to deal with this illicit trade was a local licensed venue, where those who wanted to drink could do so more moderately, more sociably. What they needed was a facility owned and governed by local people themselves. The residents could have their say and the alcohol would be controlled – after all, it was said, if a man could get access to a drink locally, he would be much less likely to make a beast of himself’.

And instead of lining the pockets of some outside commercial operator, the profits from sales could be kept in the community for its use and benefit.  A proper manager employed by the community would be able to keep things under control, and that person could be paid a salary, so that he didn’t profit personally from sales.

The non-drinkers put up a fight. They argued that they were a dry community for good reason; that a community-run hotel would be no different to any other kind of hotel;  and that donations to local causes would give the sale of alcohol a ‘false respectability’.

But despite this opposition, a vote was taken and carried, and a licensed, community-owned venue was opened. It is still in operation 123 years later.

Yes, this all happened over a hundred years ago, in 1895, in Renmark, on the river Murray in South Australia.  Much as this history might be ringing bells for those of us with knowledge of Aboriginal communities – this story is not about an Aboriginal community at all. And if you read the book, you’ll discover why the story of the Renmark Hotel is highly relevant to what unfolded in the 1970s and 80s as part of government attempts to regulate Indigenous drinking, once restrictions were lifted in the 1960s.

Aboriginal spokespeople, and the Australian public as a whole, all supported the largely assimilationist idea that Aboriginal people should take their place alongside other Australians, and that with the right environment they would ‘learn’ proper, disciplined habits of drinking.  The Aboriginal activist then known as Kath Walker told Prime Minister Menzies that Aboriginal people had to ‘learn to live with alcohol’ now that prohibition was over.

As the self-determination era succeeded the policy of assimilation, it was hoped that self- determination, local control over outlets, and community governance of the drinking environment, would all allow for Aboriginal agency over grog.

My book is arranged around case studies of the clubs and Aboriginal-owned hotels that were designed in part to make this ‘living with alcohol’ happen. And I go back in time to examine the history of the idea that people can ‘learn’ to drink in particular ways.

The case studies in the book include Wadeye, then known as Port Keats, the first Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory to have a liquor licence in 1979. One of the Catholic brothers applied for the licence, as well as starting up an Alcoholics Anonymous group — perhaps there’s some irony in that. An interesting point to emerge from my research was that the Catholic missions held more liberal views on alcohol than did most of the Protestant missions – the Methodists for example – so that most of the past and still existing clubs in Territory communities, are in former Catholic missions.

The club at Wadeye eventually came to a spectacular end some years later when poor management meant the drinking got out of control. The non- drinkers (including a large contingent of Aboriginal women) stormed the premises armed with axes and crowbars, and smashed it up. The fact that the community had to take matters into its own hands, I argue, reflected poorly on the laissez- faire approach taken by the Liquor Commission of the day.

Another case study in the book is that of the Tyeweretye club in Alice Springs. Instigated by an Aboriginal organisation, Tyeweretye was a valiant and controversial attempt at creating a safe, non- racist venue for drinking on-premises, with food, entertainment and locally-made rules, where people could – it was hoped – learn to drink in moderation. Like the Renmark Hotel decades earlier, it wanted to wean its customers away from sly grog. Despite these aims, the women from many surrounding bush communities vociferously opposed the granting of a licence to the club.

Eventually the club was killed off by the ruthless competition and selling practices of nearby hotels. Despite some success in changing the culture of drinking, many believe that the club never had a chance to prove itself free of interference from outside competitors and free of the financial pressure to repay its loan. The club went broke and the original funders were unforgiving, so bringing about its closure.

The other case studies in the book are of Aboriginal- owned hotels. Considering the humiliations of being refused service in hotels during the years of prohibition, it’s not surprising that the Aboriginal leadership (such as Charles Perkins) was keen to buy hotels themselves.  My study was concerned with the moral and financial dilemmas of Aboriginal organisations selling alcohol, particularly to their own community, and how these difficulties were and are navigated. They came into play in the case of the wholly Aboriginal-owned hotel the Crossing Inn at Fitzroy Crossing, which forms a salutary case study in the book.

An organisation has to consider, for example, whether an Aboriginal- owned hotel should be run purely as a commercial business, or should it operate as social enterprise, with the social wellbeing of the community as a priority? If concerned community members want to cut down on opening hours, that means fewer sales and less revenue. Less revenue means smaller distributions to community beneficiaries. How should distributions be made?

This is where the example of the Renmark Hotel comes in.

If you remember, Renmark was originally a dry town with a drinking problem that opened the first community-owned hotel in Australia.  The hotel employed a salaried manager and devoted its profits to causes benefitting the local population.

These ideas taken up in Renmark had in fact originally come from Sweden. There, in the 19th century the city of Gothenburg had developed a model of alcohol control designed to improve standards of behaviour and civilise uproarious drinking. It offered an alternative to prohibition by emphasising moderation, and downplayed profiteering by employing ‘disinterested’ managers.

My book is about the echoes of this experiment that can still be heard today in the arguments for and against clubs in remote communities. So I use the Gothenburg system as an analytical lens through which to examine my data.

It is particularly relevant for the governance of rural pubs owned by Aboriginal interests. This is because when they try to de-emphasise sales of alcohol, improve sales of food, and use profits for local benefit, these Aboriginal-run hotels unwittingly echo the original hotel reform ideas from Sweden.

I say unwittingly, because neither the Aboriginal hotel boards and managers, nor the agencies that funded their purchase (such as DAA, ATSIC, ADC and IBA) knew anything of these overseas experiments. Neither did they know of the community hotel at Renmark and others elsewhere in South Australia. Unfortunate, I believe, as some cross fertilisation of ideas, experiences and lessons learned  might have been beneficial.

I said earlier that this history lives on in the present debates and policy discussions.

For example Clubs are (once again) a hot topic in the Northern Territory right now, where a new government is in the process of radically overhauling the existing alcohol policy environment and alcohol availability in communities is going to be part of that.

History also lives on in the activities of the anti-grog women. In the 19th and early 20th century temperance women led a rear guard action against the community ownership of hotels. They warned that the profit distributions from hotels were merely a ‘salve to their consciences’. The argued that the effect of alcohol is just the same whether it is sold from a bar owned by a private individual, or from one governed by the community.

Eighty years later the Aboriginal women of Central Australia voiced similar arguments against the opening of the Tyeweretye club. Like their 19th century counterparts, they were abolitionists who detested the notion of ‘social’ drinking. They said that even if a club was owned and run by Aboriginal interests for Aboriginal customers, it would still amount to yet another liquor licence in a town already awash in alcohol. Aboriginal women were also instrumental in the wrecking of the Wadeye club, and in the eventual bans on hotel takeaway sales at Fitzroy Crossing.

So what lessons and insights are there to be learned from all this?

One is that the desire to get people to drink in a more civilised, sociable and polite manner has been a desire of long standing. It started with the rituals of etiquette of the 17th Century and continued in 1933 after Prohibition in the US. It lives on today with the hope that social clubs will solve remote community drinking problems. And it lives in the minds of our politicians, who still fantasise about creating numerous little Mediterranean-style bars at which people would drink like – well, like the so called Mediterranean peoples.   When in the UK, 24 hour licences were introduced, designed to reproduce this imagined European drinking culture, one critic described them as a ‘fantasy based on too many Tuscan holidays’.

Several of my case studies reveal that the Liquor licensing agencies need to have greater ability to provide human resources, trouble-shooting services and outreach to support and monitor community- based clubs and rural hotels. It is not enough for them simply to deal with compliance issues. By the time these emerge, a club is probably already in trouble.

An important lesson from this work concerns the investment strategies of the Indigenous economic development agencies that resource these projects – agencies such as the ADC and IBA.  They have been excessively preoccupied with the commercial viability at the expense of the social impact of the commodity they sell: alcohol. Not an ordinary commodity. There needs to be a return to the principles that underpin true social enterprises.

I realised during the research that remote community Clubs are atypical venues, and they are also ‘separatist’. Not only are their customers primarily Aboriginal, but they fail to attract one whole section of the population – those who do not drink. Because they do not have the large dining rooms and kitchen facilities common to tradies or service clubs, they do not cater to families. By its very presence, a club reinforces the gap between the drinkers and the non- drinkers in communities. Clubs need to provide for everyone in a community.

A club also acts as a psychological tether. It can bring about a narrowing of focus and contribute to a sense of confinement to a community. A club can become the centre of peoples’ lives, to the exclusion of other cultural and social engagements so that peoples’ thoughts revolve obsessively around beer. This is indicative of the absence of other facilities and community centres in Aboriginal towns that offer social opportunities.

And perhaps the most difficult lesson of all: At its most basic level, the entire  project of providing licensed clubs in Indigenous communities and for Indigenous interests to buy and control nearby hotels is  about trying to get people to drink on regulated, licensed premises. It is trying to dissuade the unregulated and damaging consumption of takeaway liquor. The problem is that this endeavour runs up against a clientele that places a high social and cultural value on the exchanges, demands and sharing of commodities – in this case, the commodity that is alcohol. In its high volume, takeaway form, alcohol is a more malleable, more flexible, fluid than it is when it is in the form of a can or a glass, sold over a bar. The malleability of takeaway alcohol is what makes it so much more attractive to many Aboriginal drinkers: it can be exchanged, doled out, shared, asked for.  This is the challenge of encouraging sociable, on-premises consumption, and one that governments will undoubtedly continue to grapple with for some time to come.

[FinalTilesGallery id=’1′]


Maggie Brady

Maggie Brady is a social anthropologist with a background of fieldwork dealing with Indigenous health and land issues in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. She has worked primarily on alcohol misuse and other substance abuse such as petrol sniffing since the late 1970s. She has undertaken studies of drinking in Aboriginal communities, in Tennant Creek (1984) and Alice Springs (1999); examined licensing restrictions in South Australia (2001); and has created and tested practical resources to assist front-line drug and alcohol workers and primary health practitioners. She researched the diet and lifestyle of Aboriginal people on whose land the Maralinga atomic tests were conducted, and contributed to the (1985) Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia on behalf of southern Aboriginal groups, as well as the post-Royal Commission technical studies. In 1998 Maggie published the first edition of a book of community development strategies for managing alcohol problems - The Grog Book - winning an Australian Award for Excellence in Educational Publishing. A revised edition was published in 2005. Maggie is also a University Medal winner, receiving the JG Crawford Prize for her PhD thesis in 2000. Her interests include health and alcohol policies for indigenous peoples in Australia and internationally, the role of primary health care in alcohol interventions, and more recently, Aboriginal social enterprises and the liquor industry.

Add comment

Join our mailing list