The timing is just coincidence, but even as news was breaking of a horrific massacre at an American university, you could also read in this morning’s Australian of Steve Fielding’s plan to reproduce in Australia one of the worst features of American student life.

Fielding doesn’t actually put it like that. He says that alcohol “is a major social and health issue”, and that he just wants “to reduce the alcohol toll … and create a culture of responsible drinking.”

Laudable goals, especially given our absurd overreaction to heroin and methamphetamine in comparison to the vastly greater killers tobacco and alcohol. But Fielding’s responses would make things worse rather than better.

Fielding wants to make alcohol harder to obtain, especially for the young. Stricter controls on advertising, higher prices, reduced hours, zero blood alcohol rules – and his centrepiece, albeit coyly put, of “Investigate raising the age for purchasing alcohol from 18 to 20.”

We’ve been here before. We don’t need more “investigation” to know what prohibition will do; we’ve seen it already with other drugs. And we just need to look at America for the effects of raising the drinking age: it doesn’t stop young people drinking (just as “abstinence” education doesn’t stop them having s-x), but they learn about alcohol in the most unhealthy possible circumstances, binge drinking with no supervision.

But puritanism isn’t confined to the Assemblies of God party. Fielding’s ideas, counter-productive though they would be, will strike a chord because so many of us are reluctant to admit that personal pleasure is valuable.

When the Greens propose to address our drug problem by the commonsense means of legalisation and regulation, they are met with outrage and treated as political pariahs. We think solutions should involve more hardship; we want to beat up on people who get their pleasure in non-approved ways.

So Family First can get away with “solutions” that would make the problem worse – because ultimately it’s not about results, it’s about “sending a message”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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