Prohibition is Back


Western Australians dislike two things: being told to go to bed early, and being told they can’t have a drink. In our 120 years as a state, we’ve had four referendums that tried to impose restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and all of them were resoundingly rejected.

Many people might be surprised to hear that there were two serious referendum attempts to ban liquor outright in WA, in 1925 and again in 1950. Both were aimed at emulating the American prohibition of the 20’s.

As we all know from the gangster movies, the American attempt to turn an entire country into teetootlers failed abysmally. It simply led to an explosion of backyard bootleg distilleries and booze being run across state lines by the likes of Al Capone.

It seems we must be in a historical groundhog day: yet again in Western Australia, there is an attempt to place state wide prohibitions on the sale of alcohol. This time they’re just not asking us what we think.

Last week the Police Commissioner used his State Emergency Powers grab the opportunity to imposed blanket restrictions on the sale of alcohol through bottle shops and cellar doors.

As if closing of the pubs and clubs wasn’t good enough, he’s on a roll, going after take away liquor sales. Customers are limited to one carton of beer, three bottles of wine, or one bottle of spirits, or a combination of two per purchase.

The move was based on a desire to prevent alcohol fuelled violence from filling hospital beds, but the closure of the pubs and nightclubs and restrictions placed on social gatherings should have been enough to address the problem.

What the government didn’t think through is how to stop grog being bought online in bulk and trucked in from the eastern states. Just like during the American prohibition, no one’s worried about how to police bootlegging or grog running.

One would have thought that the cops had better things to do than chase after someone who has illegally brought two cartons of beer. Say, for instance, helping to track the movement of COVID infected people or catching those flouting the regional restrictions.

I appreciate the Commissioner has strong views on alcohol. He recently oversaw an investigation into child abuse and domestic violence in remote Aboriginal communities as head of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission. But in using the cover of the Covid-19 crisis to severely limit alcohol sales, we risk seeing state-wide, long-term restrictions similar to those imposed in remote communities.

There will always be a section of the community arguing for ever greater restrictions on alcohol. The prohibitionist streak in the community lives on and this will reinvigorate them, no doubt opening the door for them to claim post crisis that the restrictions worked.

The fact that no other state is following Western Australia’s lead says maybe the government has overshot common sense.

The reality is these new restrictions can’t and won’t be effectively enforced in the city. They can, however, easily be enforced in country towns with just one or two bottle shops.

Overzealous local police can unfairly target farmers and pastoralists who are in lockdown and come to town once every two weeks to do a big shop. Only purchasing one carton per transaction might be manageable for city folk, but it is completely unworkable for families in the bush who run teams of workers.

It’s bad enough that there is no toilet paper to buy on the town shopping day, but such limits on stocking up with a few cartons for a week or two is ludicrous. All it’s going to do is crank up the backyard brew kits and invite the online retailers over east to truck over bulk orders of grog.

The reality is these restrictions unfairly impact regional people who can’t dog-leg through multiple bottle-os on their way home. The uneven impact creates what is effectively a regional prohibition, and it is going to cost local bottleshops and cellar doors jobs as the trade moves interstate.

I acknowledge the balancing act the Premier is engaged in, but there is a strong case for him to step in and review the impact of the restrictions on farmers and pastoralists just as he did on the gun shop closures.

While we understand the desire to limit alcohol fuelled violence in the city and prevent drunks flooding accident and emergency centres, the reality is the closure of the pubs has fixed 90% of the problem. 90% of the inconvenience, however, will be felt in regional communities.


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