Living With Alcohol In The George Street Precinct

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
17th January 2014

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The terrible death of Daniel Christie is the endpoint of our culture’s love affair with alcohol. Nobody will grieve for him more than his family but everybody in our society should grieve over the senseless death of another young man.

This individual episode of alcoholic violence highlights the need for reform. It puts a human face on the horror of alcohol abuse. However, the damage done by our society’s addiction to alcohol is much wider and more persistent than this terrible episode.

The contribution of alcohol to street violence parallels its contribution to domestic violence in our homes. Alcohol is a significant contributor in the breakup of families and domestic abuse, particularly of women and children.

While such violence is the most abhorrent feature of alcohol’s abuse, it is also a significant contributor to car accidents, drownings, domestic accidents, ill health and hospital admissions.

Everybody, including those who don’t drink and those who drink responsibly, pay a heavy price for society’s irresponsible alcohol consumption. It directly affects the cost of our health and car insurance. We all bear the cost of providing police and security guards at public events and night duty around our city. Yet, the social costs are even greater, not just on the families of those injured but also on the community as a whole.  

St Andrew’s Cathedral is next door to the Town Hall in what is called the George Street “entertainment” precinct. For us the cost of alcohol abuse comes in many forms. Each week we have to clean up the vomit, excrement and urine that the George Street drunks leave on our doorstep. Our congregation members are often accosted, abused and sworn at by inebriated people. There is no reasoning with drunks, only fear and insecurity. The destitute, homeless men and women who inhabit our square drink to relieve their misery, even though alcohol only intensifies their social and psychiatric problems. Sadly we have had to deal with a murder and a suicide of alcoholic addicts who used our premises.

The problem does not reside in alcohol, or the police or in the victims of alcoholism but in our culture and the corruption of our political processes. It is not a sin to drink alcohol, as God ‘made wine to make the heart glad’. Our police force does a great job of handling the difficult and violent situations of our precinct, but why should they have to be called into such volatile confrontations? Those thousands of addicts, desperately trying, ‘one day at a time’, to help each other though AA and other programs need our support, not our condemnation. The latest fashion to “neknominate” demonstrates the sickness of our culture. It is our political leaders, who are elected to look after the interests of the community as a whole, who are comprehensively failing us in this area. Their subservience to the alcohol industry is all of a piece with their unwillingness to oppose the gaming industry and poker machine lobby. The cynic within questions whether our leaders are so tardy because the halls of power are awash with alcohol or with the profits from alcohol.

It may be hard for our political leaders to determine the best way to curb the excess of alcohol in our community. I am in no position to prescribe the best approach to use, amongst the plethora of options before them. However, nobody needs more research, academic inquiries, or government investigations to work out that the government education programs on safe drinking levels need to be matched by the same ban on alcohol advertising that applies to the tobacco industry. What kind of war on drugs lets drug pushers advertise their drug?

The alcohol industry is today using the same arguments that the tobacco industry used decades ago when society finally woke up to the devastation of the drug they were pushing upon us. Just like the fight with the tobacco industry, the advertising industry, professional sporting and promotional industries are all fighting to maintain their profits at society's expense.

There is no excuse for advertising alcohol in association with sports. Our national sporting heroes and their endeavours are held before young people as models. We will not advertise tobacco in such a context; we must not advertise alcohol in that context. It is a lie to see alcohol as a positive contribution to sporting athleticism. The association of driving and alcohol is so dangerous that we intrude into motorists’ lives with random breath tests. Yet, we allow alcohol companies to sponsor and advertise at motor sports!

History will not be kind to the reluctant politicians who refuse to stand up for the community against the vested interests of the alcohol industry. People outside our community see our communal addiction to alcohol to be as bizarre as the American addiction to firearms. We need bi-partisan political leadership to deal with the social problem that is costing our community millions of dollars, terrible anguish in the lives of our fellow citizens and the unbearable grief of a life lost for people like the Christies.