This piece originally appeared in The Age
I drink a lot at the Union Hotel in Fitzroy, a raffish, understated place snuggled between Smith and Brunswick streets. Like many of the older Fitzroy haunts, it’s a grizzled curator of the old and venerable alliance of booze and sport.
I’m not just thinking of the tattered projection screen, or the cathode-tube TVs flashing with footy, their design charmingly untouched by planned obsolescence. No, there are also the echoes of Fitzroy footy club, and the proud participation in pub cricket leagues, the existence of which is advertised in the graffiti-scrawled toilets. It might not seem like much, but to quite a few it’s the stuff of community.
So it was with a heavy heart that I read the latest battle hymn for the march of ”government solutions”—federal Sport Minister Kate Lundy’s media release “Australian sport tackles binge drinking”, which uncomfortably shared the same week as Grant Hackett’s teary televised confession of drunken apoplexy.
Not unlike Hackett’s interview with 60 Minutes, the media release found its own low point of political bathos in the government strategy’s title, the jarringly capitalised “BE THE INFLUENCE”. The government will provide $25 million in total to certain sporting organisations, providing an alternative to alcohol sponsorship. In effect, the taxpayer is subsidising these institutions’ loss of alcohol advertising revenue.
In Britain this month, the Alcohol Health Alliance demanded a ban on any alcohol sponsorship of sporting events—a facsimile of the French ban known as Loi Evin that was introduced in 1991.
Health Minister Tanya Plibersek has said an outright ban would be going too far, so this seems to be a case of the government wanting to drink its shandy and keep it too.
Lundy’s release came just weeks after her statements on the Lingerie Football League (if you haven’t heard of lingerie football, the titular “football” in question is gridiron—the rest should be obvious).
Lingerie football, according to Lundy, is a “spectacle that degrades women”, as if a woman telling other women what they should or should not consider degrading wasn’t, you know, degrading.
Many—not all—of our policies and pronouncements are shallow, reactive, cynical or weirdly earnest. Voters and politicians are locked in an embrace of mutual weakness: one side filled with unrealistic expectations and the other too insecure to admit that those expectations are unfulfillable.
It’s rare that you will hear a politician admit error, rarer still that you will hear a confident and cogent description of what government should and should not do. There are fewer and fewer moments in which the parameters are drawn. There are fewer and fewer moments in which a politician will disabuse wowsers, ideologues and reactionaries of their pregnant expectations of government.
Government must do something you see, and a crisis of confidence in Canberra mutates this juvenile expectation into politicians implicitly agreeing with it. “Sure,” they hint, “there’s a legislative response to everything,” not wishing to admit to the limitations of government, which, since the great liberalisation and privatisation of the ’80s and ’90s, are even greater.
This can only end in tears. If politicians won’t define government roles and can’t admit to their limitations, then they will always fall short, and the suspicion voters hold them in becomes drearily circular. This is also precisely how regulatory creep occurs – this tacit admission government can and should be responsive to the trivial, the private, the commercial.
Look at telecommunications regulation. In a 2009 submission to the Productivity Commission, Telstra addressed the scale, symptoms and causes of regulatory burden. The submission pointed out that in 1997 there were 1600 pages of regulation, but by 2007 that number had increased to 10,000. Telstra also noted that with certain changes in the market, you would expect to have “seen significant regulatory rollback. Yet, on the contrary, regulation has expanded.”
Or take road deaths. I have heard the phrase “One death is one death too many on our roads” uttered by politicians not only as a gormless expression of the value of life, but almost as a policy aspiration too. Which is absurd. There’s grave meaning in the semantics here: it’s called a road toll because each time you get into a car there’s a chance you will die. Road deaths are the unfortunate cost of having invented the combustion engine. We can plausibly lower our road toll, but we can never expunge it.
It seems governments wish to forever announce their solidarity with us, that they too share our anxieties, repulsions and the urge to cleanse our lives of tragedy, sadness and interest rate hikes.
It’s a pantomime and it makes for bad policy. I have no idea why you would want the government to witlessly address all of our existential knots, or think it a good idea. Let’s replace our naive, impossible, emotionally retarding expectations of government with some sensible ones, starting with the admission of limitation.