Politics and public drinking
I’d not seen a week of such feverish wowserism for a very long time. It started with the death by violence of the unfortunate 18 year old, Thomas Kelly, during his first night out without his parents in Kings Cross.
The New South Wales Minister for Hospitality, George Souris, sounded suddenly like that great slave of the big publicans, Premier Sir Robert Askin (right), whose 60s and 70s rule saw him promote himself as a libertarian hero by abandoning the six-o’clock swill and extending liquor licensing hours for all the biggest players. But little guys getting new licenses? Not a hope in hell. Bob Askin’s licensing thugs ruled Sydney with the same rum-riddled brutality that was rife in the days of the Rum Rebellion and the Holey Dollar.
After Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s drive to admit more little independent bars to trade, Sourois made clear his sentiment when he accused small bars of having ''a lower level of surveillance, a lower level of supervision, a lower level of compliance'' … he went on cite the big old venues from Askin’s day as being ''better policed, better supervised than those smaller venues''. He attacked Moore’s 2008 change of laws to make it easier, cheaper and quicker for small independent operators to get licenses, and made outrageous statements about people drinking Chardonnay. Put short, he looked really bloody foolish.
This panic was followed by bad Adelaide news. Chesser Cellars, the genteel timbered gaslit buffet pub for conservatives who couldn’t get entry to the Adelaide Club went down, as did that ancient temple to judicial intemperance, the Crown and Sceptre. Other great pubs are teetering.
Which took me back to the days of the Aurora Action Group, which was formed to save the Aurora Hotel from demolition on the site where Wolf Blass House now sits in Hindmarsh Square. While this became became an outspoken conservationist action group the like of which we have never seen again, it gradually lost steam and fizzled.
It was the colonial NSW governor Sir John Robinson (1816-1891, left) who best encapsultated South Australia’s early attitude to the booze.
“None of the men who in this country have left footprints behind them have been cold water men,” he wryly observed. At that point, Adelaide was more a city of pubs than churches.
“Adelaide’s traditional respect of a good beer was always reflected on her street corners,” I wrote in The Adelaide Pub Guide a decade back, “where beautiful bluestone and sandstone pubs stared at each other through their lacy verandas.” In 1900, there were 128 pubs within the City square mile. Paula Stevens of the Adelaide City Council says there are "approximately 79" left, but I think it would be fewer. And Bacchus only knows how many wine bars we had; they were everywhere.
I asked Kevin Greg, publican of that mighty thirst emporium, The Exeter, why the new slump.
“I don’t know other people’s business,” he said, “but from The Exeter’s point of view there’s no doubt that the cost of business is skyrocketing. Drinking a beer in a pub is now an expensive luxury. But it needs to be. It’s quite alarming, but we must charge enough to pay for the cost of simply doing business.”
Erstwhile landlord of Adelaide's famous Exeter Hotel, Nicholas Binns, with the late Gabriella Bertocci ... Binns stacked his list with 100 Parker pointers at ridiculously low prices, the cheapest Krug on Earth, house wines by Greenock Creek and Wendouree, Cheong Liew in the kitchen for a while, then Jules Zukelis with her possum pies ... It's always good for hearty food ... if you're looking for lost wine scribes, check The Ex
While it's been a revered rock'n'roll temple to the organoleptic arts and passionate discourse since Binns' day, the Exeter, remember, has no pokies. Few people realize that one of the things that makes the pubs of the East End unique is their absence of gambling machinery – in the ’80s the residents of the precinct lobbied to have this ban imposed on all licenses there. The Ex has never even had a television. Which is why it is so special; people love it. But Kevin rattled off an incredible list of costs and charges and limitations imposed by one interferist bureaucracy or another, and continued with a prophecy of further gloom.
“It’s a fact of life. I think we’re at the start of quite a significant downturn. People struggle on, but when times are tough they curtail their discretionary spending and one of the first things to go is the beer in the pub. The publican’s turnover drops. It was already tight, but suddenly it’s too hard to pay the rent or the power and you come to work and the landlord’s changed the locks.”
This deadly combination of wowser interferism, restrictive legislations, meddling bureaucracies and ridiculously complex business regulation is killing the pubs of the United Kingdom, too. Perhaps simply because there are fewer left to fail, pub closures there have slowed from 25 per week in 2010 to 12 per week in 2012.
And what’s the main excuse for these restrictions and crippling regulations? Tragedies like Thomas Kelly’s death never help. Precincts devoted to sex, drugs (incuding booze) and rock’n’roll inevitably develop as cities change and morph, simply because a certain percentage of the population needs such precincts. We are humans. We self-medicate and party.
Because of their bohemian atmosphere, these precincts confound and annoy all sorts of sanctimonious and pious brethren, many of whom savour the chance to say “I told you so” at terrible accidents like Kelly’s death, or the jobbing of the former Treasurer of South Australia during one of his famous midnight carousals.
“And it IS an accident,” Kevin Greg explains. “A shocking, unfortunate accident. Nobody goes out to kill anybody by punching them. It happens. It’s not the first time and it’s not the last. We all feel terribly for the poor victim and his grieving family, but what about the perpetrator? Has he got mental health issues that are not dealt with?
“When these things happen we should take a deep breath and step back and consider. We should think of the parents and sisters and brothers of the kid that has done this terrible thing and work out how to help them and support them, too. It’s never simple. Instead you’ll have a queue of politicians looking for a sound grab!”
I’m sure things would be very different if some our politicians had been publicans instead of lawyers. But then, as Bob Askin knew so well, the big publicans, and their union, the Australian Hotels Association, can be very powerful lobbyists indeed. Maybe they don’t need to become politicians. I do seem to recall one big pokies publican, Rod Hurley of the Arkaba, as head of the local AHA, even taking a seat on the board of the ABC for a few years.
Obviously an expert at public broadcasting.
Illegal, but hardly a capital offence: the author learning a little pub culture with a refreshment on his way to school ... not a drink of water man ... photo Stephen Sprigg