My first news story and drinking culture in Australia.

Earlier in the year I had a uni assignment for the subject “Newswriting”, which teaches you the very basics of putting together a news story. The assignment was to go out and find a story, and write it up in 300 words or so. It was pretty simplistic, but a lot of fun.
I wrote a report on how the “Drinksafe Precinct” in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane was going in its aims to curb violence and ‘antisocial behaviour’. In doing so I spent a Saturday night out in the Valley interviewing police, volunteers at the “Chill Out Zone”, workers at local restaurants, bars and clubs, and random punters on the street. As one of my first real experiences as a journalist it was a lot of fun.

Here it is:

Fortitude Valley Police and business owners say the Drinksafe Precinct Trial aimed at curbing “anti-social behaviour” in Fortitude Valley on Friday and Saturday nights has been successful.

The Drinksafe Trial saw the introduction of a “Chill Out Zone”, signs directing patrons to taxi ranks, taxi marshals and security guards in December 2010, according to a police report.

“Chill Out Zone” worker Cat Milton said the “Chill Out Zone” “provides people with a place to rest and recuperate, and minimise alcohol related harm”.

“We get called out to premises and bring people back here if they are overly intoxicated,” she said.

Ms Milton said the police are more visible and proactive since the introduction of the Trial.

“Police in the Valley are great, they’ll often come and check on clients they’ve brought in earlier,” she said.

Andrew McKenzie, chairman of the Valley Liquor Accord, an organisation representing licensed premises in Fortitude Valley, is pleased with the progress of the trial.

“What we like is that three to four years ago the problem was associated mainly with licensees, and ignoring the problems on the street.

“The police presence on the streets now acknowledges that problems exist there too,” Mr McKenzie said.

Mr McKenzie said the Drinksafe Trial represents “better management and a more collaborative approach to anti-social behaviour”.

He said although violence still does occur in Fortitude Valley, “you can’t totally eliminate the tiny minority who want to cause trouble”.

A police report says police took 162 people to “rest or recovery areas”, intervened in 574 violent situations and arrested 414 people in the first three months of the trial.

Inspector Russell Miller of Fortitude Valley Police said “having more staff on makes a big difference, it allows us to respond more effectively to violent situations”.

Mike, a bouncer at the Elephant Hotel, said he deals with “From three to five violent situations in a night”.

“The police response is always good, but they need to make punishments for offenses more severe,” he said.

As you can see, there’s not much of a scandal etc involved, but I guess that just means that the police are actually doing an alright job. I didn’t have enough room in the wordcount to give the perspective of randoms on the street, but people mostly found the increased police presence had had a generally positive effect. Apparently the Valley used to be a lot wilder than it is now. However, there was a feeling among most people that, no matter how many police there are, there’re still going to be idiots who want to go out and find a fight. Jodie, 23, told me that “You can have as many cops as you want, it won’t make a difference. Some men will still fight regardless of police, when the testosterone gets going”. These punters, along with Valley Liquor Accord Chairman Andrew McKenzie, seem to agree that the problem is cultural. The police seem to be doing all they can to prevent violence, and the responsibility now lies with punters to be responsible. However, as we all know, responsibility mostly goes out the window when alcohol gets involved.
This doesn’t seem to be a universal problem around the world. I’ve seen other cultures with very different approaches to alcohol consumption, most notably in Europe. Last year I was in Lisbon, Portugal for the Festa do Santo Antonio in June, which is basically a religious excuse for the Portuguese to get absolutely plastered, eat sardines, and party in the streets until late the next morning in their thousands. That night, I could buy a pint of local beer off the street for €0.50 in a glass. There was no police presence at all, and by 9am the next morning the streets were carpeted with broken glass. By that time anyone still out was either singing, chatting, or making out with someone else. I saw no violence at all.
Now lets imagine such a festival in Australia. I can imagine having to wait half an hour in an orderly queue to buy 200ml of beer in a plastic cup (I’m only allowed to buy one at a time), for about $7 or so. There are police everywhere and by midnight they’re pushing people off the streets and sending them home. Everywhere there are fights and people being pushed into paddy wagons.
Clearly there is a cultural difference between the way Australians and, say, the Portuguese consume alcohol. I try to refrain from making value judgments on culture, but I think it’s a sad comment on Australian society that our drinking experience has to be so heavily regulated by exorbitantly high prices (compared to the rest of the world), limited opening hours, heavy police presences and limiting where we drink just because we’re not mature enough to be nice when we’re drunk.
I’m not entirely sure how the problem can be addressed. Obviously police can only do so much – In this case they’re more a reactionary, rather than a preventative force. Education seems a good idea, but I can tell you that as a young person, I’m not exactly going to pay attention to government TV ads or school teachers telling me to be responsible with my drinking. When teachers at school told us about having a ‘drinking plan’ for the night on how many drinks you’d have, when you’d leave, and who’d be looking out for who, my friends and I snickered. It’s something that has to come naturally. So in terms of a safe, enjoyable drinking culture in Australia, we’ve got to stop blaming underage drinking (in Germany and the Netherlands you can go into a bar at 16) and police and all the other usual suspects and simply take it upon ourselves to not be idiots.

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