Drink less but worry more. The cue from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that we should be concerned about the evils of drink is being taken up by tabloids with alacrity, with the ABC joining in this morning. Two of the tabloids, the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Brisbane Courier Mail, led their Saturday editions with alarming booze stories and that hybrid broadsheet/tabloid The Age was not to be left out, featuring an opinion poll showing two-thirds of Melburnians think alcohol consumption is causing the city to become more violent.

As the weekend went on the alarm about the booze continued, the Sunday Times in Perth had an “exclusive” that straight nips of spirits like vodka, tequila or absinthe have been removed from sale in various Perth venues because they have been enjoyed irresponsibly. Alcohol might not have made page one in the Sunday Mail but the paper did tell of the Queensland scientists who have discovered that a revolutionary anti-smoking drug could also be used to curb alcohol addiction, gambling and even depression. By late morning Sunday, the Courier Mail site had improved on that with nine teenagers charged after a party involving hundreds of youths spiralled out of control in Townsville overnight. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph site was leading with “hundreds of stupid, drunk and drugged partygoers danced millimetres from death at an ‘underground” dance party held at the base of a seaside cliff in Sydney’s east.” This morning newspapers prominently featured a report to the Government that binge drinking among teenagers was rife and the ABC website had the story in pride of place as the most important in the nation.

All this might be seen by some as evidence that Prime Minister was right on Wednesday when he told ABC radio he was concerned about “what I would describe as an epidemic of binge drinking” across the country. “I don’t have the data to hand and I am sure people could perhaps dispute that,” Mr Rudd said. “But I have got to say I think we are dealing with a growing problem, not a static problem, and therefore I think we have got to sit down and work out an appropriate response.” The WA Health Minister Jim McGinty, appears to agree with him, telling the Sunday Times that unprecedented measures to stop excessive alcohol consumption were needed, given statistics that show West Australians are drinking 30 per cent more alcohol than 10 years ago.” Yet the figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics tell a rather different story.

ALCOHOL: Apparent Per Person Consumption by Persons aged 15 years and over
Litres of alcohol contained in: Beer Wine Spirits Total
1996-97 5.32 2.74 1.70 9.77
1997-98 5.24 2.86 1.81 9.91
1998-99 5.15 2.87 1.77 9.79
1999-00 5.06 2.94 1.88 9.88
2000-01 5.07 2.95 2.07 10.01
2001-02 4.80 2.91 1.81 9.53
2002-03 4.97 3.01 1.86 9.84
2003-04 4.67 3.07 2.05 9.79
2004-05 4.58 3.13 2.12 9.83
2005-06 4.57 3.11 2.15 9.84

There has been virtually no increase in per capita alcohol income over the last decade. Go back to 1988-89 and the average consumption by Australians 15 years and older was just over 11 litres of pure alcohol and I expect the figure was higher still 10 years before that, prior to random breath tests changing forever Australia’s boozy culture. Still politicians and journalists are not the ones to let facts get in the way of a good story. The Senate this month agreed to set up an inquiry into the country’s “binge drinking culture”. The way things are going, stories like that in this morning’s Northern Territory News suggesting computer chips be implanted inside teenagers to keep track of their behaviour soon might not be science fiction after all!

Forget the sham – follow the Congressional practice. The first sitting day of the new Friday sham Parliament was reported as expected – shown and written about as the joke that it was. The colleagues of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who talked him out of having a proper fifth sitting day on the weeks politicians come to the House of Representatives should be hanging their heads in shame. Either have a fair dinkum day of debate with votes and questions or call the whole thing off. Backbenchers wanting to get things on the record to show how hard they are working to represent their constituents should be allowed to have statements published in Hansard, in the same way as their American Congressional counterparts do, without having to waste the time and money of Labor’s new system. Should the Coalition parties discover after a few more of the sham sittings that their reputation is suffering by making their valid protests about the contempt with which Labor is treating the parliamentary process, they should just refuse to turn up at all.

A serious attempt at internet news. People can sling off at The Australian as much as they like about the bias and quality of writers on its editorial page but there is no denying that the website of the national daily is leading the way in covering politics between the daily printed editions. Samantha Maiden now has the title of “online political editor” and she updates the news of Canberra as it happens. Not just the flippant comments of a blogger either, but good, solid reporting of what is said by whom as in this piece on Friday covering the day’s “farcical parliamentary sitting”. Serious coverage like this as things are happening will concentrate the minds of her print colleagues in finding something better to say for orthodox readers the next morning. Disclosure of non-interest: I have never met Ms Maiden and have no idea who she is.

Wine companies would be fined but will juicy ones? I was conned again this morning when I went shopping at Woolies for breakfast and picked up a “rosie blue” labeled cranberry-blueberry juice. Silly me thought that would be a strong and interesting combination and it was only after tasting the insipid liquid that I realized I had paid my good money for 78% reconstituted apple juice. My anger subsided a little when I read on the website of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that the ACCC has already instituted proceedings in the Federal Court, Perth against Nudie Foods Australia Pty Ltd alleging Nudie made misleading claims on the packaging and in promotional material for two of its fruit juice products, Rosie Ruby and Rosie Blue. But I am still dirty on Woolies for continuing to sell the misleadingly labelled product when the company should have known of the con they are a party to. And as for Nudie Foods Australia Pty Ltd, I notice from its website that apple juice now features slightly more prominently on the label but is listed only after cranberry and blueberry. The simple solution to such chicanery would be to require juice makers to follow the same principles as wine makers who must list the constituent grape types on their label in the order of the proportion that the wine contains of each of them.

A Zoroastrian investment. What exactly is going on with the Australian Government’s Futures Fund? The Australian newspaper report on its website in the early hours of Saturday morning contained this intriguing description of evidence given by David Neal, the fund’s chief investment officer, to a Senate Estimates committee:

Mr Neal said the fund also invested in global property trusts during two transactions in late October and early November.

The property trusts break down to 50 per cent in US assets, 30 per cent European and 20 per cent Asian, which includes Zoroastrian.

A Zoroastrian property trust? The BBC’s religion website says Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions being founded by the prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran approximately 3500 years ago. Zoroastrian worship is not prescriptive and its followers can choose whether they wish to pray and how. Perhaps the Futures Fund has decided that this is a more appropriate course to follow in these troubled times than listening to investment bankers. The Australian Government, and all its taxpayers, should pray that is so as the initial record of the fund is not good. Or maybe the spelling checker at The Australian just went crazy. The printed version on Saturday gave no property trust breakdown.

The Daily Reality Check

It is wonderful what boys behaving badly can do for interest in matters political. From a cardboard cut out of Kevin Rudd being introduced to the House of Representatives, to Alexander Downer absenting himself from debate for a game of golf, to details of a slobbering Labor sleazoid going the grope and a NSW Premier admitting the rotten donations culture must end, Saturday had them all. Internet news readers lapped it up with 10 stories in the 50 stop list based on the web sites we monitor. That particular interest had petered out by Sunday but just when you thought that surely there was nothing more about the NSW public hospital system to grab attention the Sunday Telegraph site produced a story so terrible that it should be on everybody’s most read list. It is not the disclosure in Revealed: the Butcher of Bega of “a NSW doctor who has committed such monstrous acts that hundreds of terrified victims have remained silent for more than five years” that makes it a matter of political interest. Rather it is the disclosure that the State Government’s Greater Area Health Service was so “very happy to see local women with access to this [gynaecological and obstetric] service in the Bega Valley once again” that it failed to check on the doctor’s previous record which included complaints by fellow medical staff at Hornsby Hospital and NSW Medical Tribunal documents showing the board ordered Dr Reeves to have psychiatric treatment for his “personality and relations problems and depression”. If proof was needed, incidentally, of how the influence of Channel Nine’s Sunday program has waned, then this scandal of the Bega doctor proves it. Sunday apparently broke the story a week earlier and no one took any notice.

The Pick of this Morning’s Political Coverage

Labor considers US missile shield – Paul Maley, The Australian
Voters give Brumby the thumbs up – Paul Austin, The Age
Rudd told to freeze spending – Matthew Franklin, The Australian
Tracking implants for teens – Phoebe Stewart, Northern Territory News

The Pick of the Weekend’s Political Coverage

Learn a word a day. “Rudd needs to act as NSW Labor lurches into deeper mire: It’s an ill-wind that blows no good. Stuart Howie, whilom deputy editor of The Canberra Times, now editor of The Illawarra Mercury, must hardly be able to believe his luck.” Jack Waterford in the Canberra Times on Saturday about his former colleague now at the Illawarra Mercury.

The game’s up: Premier admits rotten donations culture must end – Linton Besser, Andrew Clennell and Brian Robins, Sydney Morning Herald
Cafe rendezvous that would rock state – John Lyons and Lauren Wilson, The Australian
Lennon push for green cars – Sue Neales, The Mercury
Nelson blown apart – Jason Koutsoukis, The Age
Rudd travel gaffe over Burke – Glenn Milne, Sunday Telegraph
MPs face having to own up if they employ a lover – Marie Woolf, London Sunday Times

Disclosure of interest: Richard Farmer apologises for making the mistake of drinking fruit juice and promises in future to stick with the alcoholic products he has imported, sold, made and promoted over the last 30 years.

Peter Fray

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