No bandaid for drinking culture

Attempts to motivate the public into action cheapen the problem of violence, writes James O’Doherty.

Sydney has a drinking problem, and a drinking violence problem. Credit: cangaroojack (Flickr ID), licensed under CC BY 2.0
Sydney has a drinking problem, and a drinking violence problem. Credit: cangaroojack (Flickr ID), licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Kings Cross death of 18-year-old Tom Kelly last month has mobilised our apathetic city into action against the oft-derided scurge of Australia’s ‘booze culture’.

The sudden need to fix this systemic problem, and the pervading moral panic around drunk violence, are fuelled by tabloid, broadsheet, and broadcast media alike. But apart from repeated criticism of booze and violence laws, is anything actually being done?

The Sydney Morning Herald held a ‘Safer Sydney’ forum in Town Hall. News Ltd. responded with a ‘Real Heroes Walk Away’ campaign in its Daily Telegraph. Clover Moore jumped to propose tougher laws on clubs and pubs, and more transport to ship party-goers from the front line at the end of the night. Potts Point resident and general dilletant Paul Keating shot back, deriding the city as an “inebriate’s spittoon” with a drinking problem.

But the Cross is not the exclusive den of inequity that public outcry makes it out to be. On Saturday night, police investigated a fight that broke out in Rouse Hill. A glassing occured in Crows Nest. And, yes, someone was also glassed in the Cross.

To take the moral high-ground after the straw that broke the camel’s back is cheap activism, tapping into pervasive moral panic gripping a city in fear.

Indeed, Sydney has a drinking problem, and a drinking violence problem. So what can be done about it?

During the campaign for the last, Premier Barry O’Farrell proposed a trial of sobering-up centres to quarantine drunks who could run amock and cause harm to themselves or others, saying they would give police the powers they require to keep our streets safe from the unruly. But none of these centres have yet opened, and not everyone is pleased with the proposal. NSW Police Association President Scott Weber said it wasn’t the job of police to babysit people who have had too much.

If we can’t segregate the drunks, we could get tough on crime. But even after Tom Kelly’s death, most assault offenders have just received a slap on the wrist.

In exclusive statistics provided to Honi Soit, of the 173 cases of assault occasioning actual bodily harm that proceeded to the major Sydney courts, only 3 per cent of offenders faced prison charges.

Many were let off without charge, some were given fines, and many were given good behaviour bonds.

Even if we can’t get tough on assault in the courts, cops can get tough on the streets.

But Professor Gordian Fulde doesn’t think the threat of repercussions is enough.

“What we need is for people to grow up thinking assault is wrong, and knowing that if they get into a fight there’s a good chance they are going to seriously harm another human being,” he told Honi. “Sticking people in prison isn’t the answer.”

Beyond a safer Sydney, and asking real heroes to ‘walk away’, Sydney needs a rethink.

Kings Cross is a natural Mecca for kids hedonistically taking risks, drinking exessively, and living ‘on-the-edge’.

Public safety campaigns can’t be panaceas for an innate desire for this coming-of-age ritual. That can only be fixed by a cultural change.

James O’Doherty is on Twitter: