Most people know L Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which a small girl and her friends suffer a terrifying encounter with flying monkeys on their way to an Emerald City. Upon arrival, they go to a castle and argue with the city’s ruler, who is invisible and entirely ineffective. Frustrated, they pull back a curtain and learn something horrible about city governance.
It turns out the Emerald City isn’t run by an all powerful wizard; just some old guy who has convinced everyone he’s in charge.
For a long time this is how I thought about government. I figured there was someone in control, and change was produced by pulling back the curtain to reveal their moral failings.
This changed several years back, whilst I was running a campaign to change liquor licensing laws in Adelaide. I bailed up the Minister for the Arts and gave him a lecture on the decline of music venues and the cultural context of alcohol consumption. I thought if he understood the issue he’d simply change the law.
As I promptly discovered, I was wrong. No individual minister – let alone an arts minister – could do what I wanted, even if they did agree with me. The defining feature of our political system is that no one is in charge. Power is fragmented across multiple policy portfolios, departments, and levels of government. This is a legacy of the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights, both introduced in England to stop dictatorships.
The Australian Constitution reflects this with its Separation of Powers, splitting control between Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. These, in turn, break into smaller parts; committees, offices, departments, courts, tribunals, and so on. Any reform requires all of these elements reaching some sort of agreement.
On the upside, this system has fairly successfully prevented dictatorships. The downside is that achieving change is like herding cats. Policy reform happens when enough people in enough key positions reach a consensus; sometimes through democratic process, but equally through media panic, economic disaster, skilful lobbying, or blind luck.
As our campaign to change the South Australian Liquor Licensing Act continued, I began to understand these complexities and it radically altered my approach. Instead of espousing moral truths at unsuspecting ministers, we set up forums through which key decision makers were drawn into a dialogue and gradually came to common conclusions.
This approach worked. South Australia introduced a Small Venues License in 2012. By that point, the number of people we’d worked with was dizzying; all three major parties, two levels of government, innumerable ministries, departments, agencies, offices, industry and community groups, police and public health specialists. The issue progressed because innumerable people began to talk about it, and take ownership of the need for reform. By the end, it was impossible to tell who was actually responsible for the change.
I began with the assumption that all I needed to do was find the right curtain, pull it back and yell at the guy fiddling with the controls. By the end, I discovered that wasn’t at all how things worked.
Yet one of the biggest problems we faced with those reforms was that many of the key stakeholders were constantly looking for the wizard behind the curtain. Faced with complexity, people kept trying to find a simpler narrative, usually wrapped up in fables of corrupt beer barons or meddling Wowsers. These narratives were far easier to rally behind than any nuanced discussion of policy frameworks. They gave people the comforting sense that they were right, and everything was someone else’s fault.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the latest campaigns to reform New South Wales liquor laws. A while back I (and apparently nearly everyone else) read this article, proclaiming:
I can imagine these special little people in Town Hall and Macquarie Street giggling away as they pull their little regulatory levers, fudging the statistics and playing their petty little mind games in the media.
It’s an interesting comment because it assumes that – like the Wizard of Oz – there’s a switchboard over which someone is in charge, and that person is deliberately stuffing things up.
This almost makes sense because the introduction of the lock-outs seems like such an ostensibly bizarre, snap decision that you can imagine someone flipping a switch. Yet, looked at in historical context, haphazard policy reform is par for the course. Liquor licensing law has always been splintered between two extremes, both of which routinely use moral panic to rally people to their cause and secure a narrow consensus. This leads to sudden policy changes, which (at least in my opinion) rarely work.
One the one side, we have what could be loosely referred to as the Temperance Movement, now evidenced by police, public health, resident groups and the like. On the other, there’s the ‘Libertarian’ position, usually driven by industry advocates, arguing that the consumption of alcohol is a civil liberties issue.
Interestingly, both extremes have, historically, resulted in much the same thing. The great victory of the Temperance Union was Six O’Clock Closing. This forced innumerable venue closures and concentrated supply on a handful of larger pubs selling high volumes of alcohol very quickly. Most of their subsequent reforms follow this template.
The Libertarian position is slightly more complex. They’ll normally argue that ‘responsible’ licensed premises should be given extensive trading rights, such as extended opening hours and large capacities. ‘Responsible’ is usually connected to a ‘moral’ pay-wall; a series of fees, charges and operating conditions which can only be surmounted by larger venues. Again, the end result is a limited number of venues, focused primarily on selling large volumes of alcohol very quickly.
Notably, both sides generally dislike, and advocate against, things like small bar licenses.
Having enraged both of these groups, I’ve come to see them as basically the same. Their argument goes:
People need to be protected from alcohol related violence/constraints on their right to consume alcohol. The Temperance Union/Booze Lobby are wowsers/profiting from other people’s misery, and leading us to a public health/economic crisis. Their policy agenda should be ignored, and ours should be implemented.
Similarly, both groups have, traditionally, produced a system whereby alcohol consumption is detached from social and cultural contexts, and occurs in a highly regulated environment. Their debate isn’t so much about the regulation itself, as who controls the environment.
This has a historical precedent as well. Our current systems came into being with the ‘Gin Acts’ of the mid-eighteenth century. These were introduced for two basic reasons: Firstly, London’s new and growing working classes were drinking a lot of gin, becoming enraged by their terrible living conditions, and rioting. Secondly, London’s working classes were making their own gin, which was hard to tax and couldn’t be shaped to the profit of the landed gentry.
The policy response to this had little interest in the lives of the working poor. It was focused on who had the moral right to control them. There’s a brilliant quote from Attorney General Lord Bathurst, who introduced the 1743 Gin Act by saying:
We are endeavoring to reform a Vice almost universal, a Vice which, however destructive, is now no longer reproachful. We have tried the force of violent Methods and found them unsuccessful; we are now therefore to treat the Vulgar as Children, with a Kind of artful Indulgence, and to take from them secretly and by Degrees what cannot be wholly denied them, without exasperating them almost to rebellion.
The 1743 Gin Act finalised the system we know today; in which a licensee must pay for their license, and operate within particular state prescribed conditions. This system introduced the concept of the ‘Responsible Person’, which you can still see on a lot of liquor licences. Indeed, if you’ve ever worked in a licensed venue you’ll probably have an RSA – or Responsible Service of Alcohol – certificate.
Herein lies the moral judgement at the heart of the system. Since it was introduced in the mid-1700s, the debate has always been about who has the moral right to control the social behaviour associated with alcohol consumption. To this end, neither side ever argues for a return to the pre-1720 situation, in which alcohol consumption was largely an unregulated, backyard industry, driven by ‘public houses’ – essentially private houses with a big front room, and a distillery or home brew kit out the back.
I’m not particularly pro or anti either side. As I’ve said, I’ve argued with both for the simple reason that I think both sides have detached the consumption of alcohol consumption from any social context and reduced the policy debate to an issue of control rather than outcome.
What interests me is what we could called the Wizard of Oz Syndrome. This reduces policy debate to a contest – an argument about who has the right to rule, rather than what the law actually achieves. Every review of licensing policy runs the risk of being overwhelmed by these two opposing positions, both going through the façade of throwing back the curtain and yelling at one’s opponents. This means policy reform happens on a ‘see-saw’ model – suddenly switching between two extremes, based on whoever has most effectively seized the moral high ground.
The end result is ineffective policy. Yet this is how we’ve approached liquor licensing law for the past three hundred years, not only in Australia but in all the countries who absorbed English-style regulatory systems. All of the nations who followed this path have ended up with violent, uncontrollable binge drinking cultures. When we talk about ‘European Style Drinking Cultures’ what we mean is ‘Countries that didn’t adopt English style liquor licensing laws’.
We continue to use these English style laws because they’re underpinned by easily comprehensible narratives, not because they work.
As a parallel, the Wizard of Oz concludes with the faux Wizard promising he’ll give the Tin Man a heart, the Scarecrow a brain and the Lion courage. Unable to deliver, he puts a heart shaped cushion in the Tin Man’s chest, pours breakfast cereal into the Scarecrows head, and gets the Lion to drink something he calls ‘Courage,’ which is probably just lime cordial. All of them go away content, convinced they’ve achieved something even though, in reality, nothing has changed.
I’m not arguing for a particular alternative. What I’m suggesting is that the Wizard of Oz Syndrome is a problem unto itself. It reduces complex issues into simple fables, with appealing narratives that are easy, and usually tempting, to believe. Moreover, it gives us the seductive allure of believing ourselves morally righteous, and tells us someone else is to blame.
The downside is it means our policies oscillate between extreme positions based on faux moral arguments, rather than on evidence or real consensus. In the case of liquor licensing, I think you can make a good case that this has been going on for the better part of three centuries.
Would My Mother Like This Book?
Continuing the theme from earlier reviews of reviewing with reference to my mother’s taste in literature – I asked her, and she hasn’t read the book but she found the film very scary.