Reflections on Australia (from Italy)

I am sitting on a train that is gliding gracefully from Innsbruck in Austria to Bologna in Northern Italy. The day is Tuesday, and I have been travelling around Europe for the first time in my life for over four weeks now. Despite the outrageous scenery outside the window of this train – soaring craggy mountain ranges covered in bright green alien trees – four hours is a long train ride, and I figure now is as good a time as any to write.

And I guess the only thing I have to write about is the one thing that any new traveler (I assume) thinks about when first they wander overseas: how different things are on the other side of the world.

It’s a strange thing, comparing Australia to Europe. For years I have listened to conservative politicians and commentators (and some on my side, and some idiots too) rave on about our European (read: British) heritage and how it is from this tradition that Australia has evolved. If that is the case, things must have changed wildly indeed – and I’ll put it to you now that that’s partially true.

The first thing you notice upon arrival (in London, as it was for me at least), is that while England and Australia have a fair bit in common, Europe and Australia have a lot less than you might expect. And increasingly, England doesn’t either (though England is very different to mainland Europe also).

I’m 29 years old and single, so obviously my life articulates around the twin pillars of food and alcohol (alcohol being the larger of those two pillars). So it’s immediately obvious on arrival that the laws around service of alcohol, and smoking, and generally enjoying being social are radically different to the effective police state we have at home in New South Wales.

In London, for example, you are permitted to take your beers outside with you for a cigarette, as long as you are standing near the pub. This means you are literally able to stand on the footpath outside a pub drinking. This stands in marked contrast to the arrangement in New South Wales, where not only are you practically patted down for any possible alcohol taken outside of a venue, but where smoking is not permitted virtually within eyesight.

Taken even further, consider the case of Europe. In Spain, you are able to buy alcohol and virtually any time of day, and encouraged to drink it on the footpath – the tapas bars themselves are generally too small to accommodate the number of patrons. In Barcelona, street vendors wander up and down the beach with trays of cocktails and beers offering to sell it to you wherever you are.

Or Germany. Berlin, my god, I thought it was like alcoholic’s paradise: walk into anywhere, buy as much booze as you want at any time the store is open, and drink it on the street. Or in a park. Or underneath the Brandenburg Gate. Take your pick. You can buy wine and beer easily in markets without arduous licensing, and your drinks are served in glasses. Restaurants can sell you unopened bottles of wine to take home.

No lockouts. No zoning. Just a reasonable age limit.

All of this I have experienced during the past four weeks. I also experience absolutely no anti-social behaviour, no ‘alcohol-fuelled violence’, and I come to wonder: why do we have such oppressive laws in Australia.

I think there is a fundamental contradiction that sits at the heart of Australian cultural identity – as protean and nebulous as that identity is. And that contradiction has been hugely expanded since Australia ran headlong into the embrace of the United States.

I’ve long said that the problem with violence on the streets of Sydney (despite statistically enormous declines over the past ten years) has stemmed not from some sort of bewitching property in alcohol, but from a propensity to violence and an incapacity for some young people to hold their liquor.

We have a dickhead problem. The problem is cultural, not chemical.

If the problem with violence was a pure product of alcohol, why then are the liquor laws able to be so incredibly liberal in Europe and yet there isn’t the same intense media and political focus on alcohol and violence?

There are a few core cultural differences that I want to suggest underpin this: a sense of personal responsibility (as opposed to a reliance of government), a relaxed drinking culture (as opposed to the intense focus on how, when, where, and what can be consumed), and a revulsion at the sort of insecure hyper-masculinity that underpins most alcohol fuelled violence in Australia.

Australia has become quite complacent in our drift towards the American model of consumerism. We expect things to be done for us, and concomitant with that we have come to abrogate responsibility for our personal safety and behaviour to government and the courts. This trend is reflected in the atrocious habit of litigating for any and every accident that happens, a culture of ‘suing’ at the drop of a hat, and this has led to enormous financial impost through insurance and payouts on various sectors of our society. Surf Lifesaving, for example, must pay massive insurances and implement every more ridiculous policies to govern competition that it is choking the sport to death. Risk is a fundamental part of surf lifesaving, but the rise of the litigation society has made us risk-averse.

And we expect this same level of safety to be delivered by government. When freak accidents happen – the collapse of a tree on a child, negligence in the workplace – blame must be apportioned to someone, so inevitably the ‘big other’ of Government becomes responsible. So too, when a drunk man fell from a third floor balcony, he successfully sued the establishment for continuing to serve him alcohol. This is patently ridiculous: this man was drunk, but he chose to drink enough booze to make him a complete and utter idiot. How can a business be held responsible for the actions of a dickhead?

Effectively, Australians have come to demand rights with no responsibility, and this has come full circle and is impacting on the basic rights to enjoy oneself with freedom. And the tightening up of the law, like all acts of authority, engenders resistance (in this instance, drunk people being dickheads). Which leads to a further tightening of the law, and more resistance, and so on. Until we are either an utterly boring society (likely), and a permanently morally outraged one (see: Daily Telegraph).

Contrary to this permanent outrage and heavily regulated society, European approaches to drinking treat it a social and cultural practice (rather than a legal or medical one). The focus of drinking in Europe is not on ‘getting drunk’ as it can be in Australia, but rather as a kind of social lubricant. Like all European society, the focus is more on communality, on interaction with friends and family, than it is some macho pursuit of glory or hapless pursuit of drunken ‘fun’. This is not to say people don’t get drunk – they do – but the alcohol is not the focus of an activity, it is a sauce to go with the meatier process of social interaction.

Actually, one of the most noticeable things about places like Seville, Montpellier and Munich is the extent to which American ‘work’ culture – the commoditisation of life – has not penetrated these communities. There is still a strong emphasis on a sense of community, shops close on Sunday, people spend time with family, and the focus of life is not on work but on socialisation. Work is merely a way to fund life outside of work, it is not life itself. We are seeing a retreat from this even further in Australia – our shops trade all weekend, our governments push to remove penalty rates on weekends and public holidays. We are diminishing the value of community and replacing this priceless commodity with the value of the dollar – of straight out consumption.

Consumption is underpinned by the social in Europe, and it is a lesson that Australia needs to learn and learn quickly, lest we become an even less equal, more expensive, and less social nation.

Which brings me to the issue of violence itself, a product of a cultural insecurity that sits at the heart of many Australians. Not all, but many. It puzzles me why there is such a streak of anti-social rage in young men and women in Australia. I suspect that it has something to do with an alienation from the care and compassion of community, something that is still strong and present in Europe today. We don’t have the same sappy family values that American Christianity hammers into its youth, so we have effectively abandoned the community and communality of Europe for American consumerism, but without the tempering grace of American sentimentality.

Australia has many, many things about which we can be proud. We are a peaceful country, we have a beautiful natural environment, and our democracy is for the most part stable and doesn’t deliver too many hideous shocks. But we are becoming unhinged, a nation adrift in the doldrums of secularism, unable to find a substantive core to replace the Christianity of the old world.

I am not, at all, suggesting that more religion is the answer. Quite the opposite, I am very proud to live in one of the most secular nations on the earth. But I do think it’s important we recognise the value of what peaceful religion offers: meaning, community, communality. This is what is missing in contemporary Australia, and this is what distinguishes it from Europe.

The way to fix our alcohol-fuelled violence problem is not to mask the issue by targeting alcohol. Alcohol is not the problem – the problem is the sense of social futility, of rage, of alienation that is affecting so many people who can’t seem to buy enough things to generate meaning in their lives. Meaning is found in community and in our friendships and relationships with others. If we pursue this kind of satisfaction, then the urge to violence is diminished – we are carefree, we want fun, we enjoy ourselves.

So we need to have a look at what we value presently, what do our policy settings encourage? Work all week, all the time, for the benefit of business. Shop as much as possible, buy things, for the benefit of business. Find meaning in the empty pursuit of more stuff, and privatise and sell everything that we have.

These are the wrong settings. If we want to tackle the social problems currently facing Australia – social problems that manifest as drunken violence – we need first to encourage community. Make it easier to spend time with friends and family on the weekend, do not penalise workers who must give up their time to work, have less interest in shopping, find more satisfaction in the pursuit of activities than in the pursuit of objects and status.

And maybe then I will be able to buy a bloody bottle of wine after 10pm.

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