Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Long Reaction against the Wowser: The Prehistory of Alcohol Deregulation in Australia1

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Long Reaction against the Wowser: The Prehistory of Alcohol Deregulation in Australia1

Article excerpt


A reputation for heavy drinking may be said to be part of the Australian national myth. The reality is more nuanced. At the very beginning of British settlement, as a mostly male penal colony, heavy drinking was certainly a prominent feature. But for most of Australia's history, levels of alcohol consumption have been nothing special by international standards, at least for Europe and its settler societies (Room 1988). Other aspects of the national myth point away from heavy drinking. For instance, Australian women were enfranchised early by international standards, and strong temperance movements were entwined with the late 19th century women's movement which accomplished this. As Australia became a suburban society by the early 20th century, the temperance movement reached its peak of reach and infl uence. The area from 1920 to the 1980s saw a long retreat of temperance sentiment, and eventually, in the period after 1950, from the most stringent alcohol controls put in place in the temperance era. The images of drinking and alcohol issues which came to dominance in this era formed the cultural matrix which made possible the application to alcohol controls of the deregulation and free-market ideology of the last 25 years. This paper focuses on what happened in the earlier decades of the 20th century to make this development possible.


By the 1890s, alcohol consumption in Australia had fallen to about 5.8 litres of absolute alcohol per capita (Dingle 1980) - about half the levels it had attained in earlier colonial days. In part, this refl ected a shift in the demographics of the population - more women and children than in the convict colony or gold rush days (Powell 1987). It also refl ected the rise of temperance sentiment, described below. Where spirits had earlier been the dominant beverage type, by the late 19th century beer had become the dominant beverage.

These trends were accentuated in the fi rst decades of the 20th century. Spirits consumption in Australia as a whole fell to about half by 1919, and fell by half again with the coming of the Depression in 1930. Per capita spirits consumption has never since reached the levels prevailing prior to the First World War. Beer consumption remained more or less level until 1945, except for a dip by almost half in the worst years of the Depression, while wine consumption (based on rough estimates) remained quite low. In terms of absolute alcohol consumption per capita, by the 1920s Australian consumption had settled at a level not much more than two-thirds of the level in the 1890s - and less than one-third of the level in New South Wales in the 1830s.

At its lowest point in 1932, Australian per capita consumption was under two and a half litres of pure alcohol per annum. From that point on, there was a steady rise in consumption, particularly after 1945, for almost half a century, until a peak in the late 1970s of nine and a half litres - at least as high as the levels in gold-rush era of the 1850s. After 1980, consumption fell a little and since the late 1980s has levelled out at about 8.4 litres per capita per annum (recalculated from ABS 2009; Chikritzhs et al 2003). Historical statistics on alcohol consumption in Australia thus show two peaks in consumption, in the fi rst half of the 19th century and around 1980, with a V-shape in between with the low point in the early 1930s.

A second large shift in beverage preferences got seriously under way after 1970. While beer is still the leading beverage, the big shift in the last half century has been the rise of table wine (Fitzgerald & Jordan 2009:119-127). Wine now accounts for 31% of all alcohol consumption (ABS 2009). As in other English-speaking countries, where fortifi ed wines had previously dominated the wine category, table wines rapidly became dominant.


In the Australia of the early 20th century, drinking - and particularly public drinking - was differentiated by social class and also particularly by gender. …

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