Booze. Gambling. P-rn. It’s everywhere, at epidemic levels, apparently, but luckily our politicians are on the case, ready to shake their heads in dismay and demand tougher regulation of stuff that’s nobody else’s business.

Even under the crusty conservatives of the Coalition, it’s hard to recall a moral panic being whipped up as fervently as Kevin Rudd, Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon are managing at the moment.

Rudd is claiming binge drinking is a “worsening epidemic” that is “getting out of hand” and needs to be urgently addressed. Steve Fielding, best known for using his PC in Parliament House to Google for p-rn, also thinks it’s a “huge” and “growing” problem, and has got up a Senate committee to consider his private member’s bill to restrict alcohol advertising.

But as Richard Farmer pointed out yesterday, there’s no evidence for any of this. Indeed, in historical terms the early twenty-first century is probably one of the most sober periods in western history in the last five hundred years. But you won’t hear any of that in the mainstream media’s reporting – inevitably replete with footage of inebriated teenagers – of Rudd’s dire warnings.

With a similar lack of interest in evidence, Minister for Zeroes and Ones Stephen Conroy has been busy trying to get Labor’s plan to regulate the internet up and running via ISP-level filtering to block child p-rn and “violent websites”. Conroy’s plan, which makes the previous Government’s unworkable Netalert program for PC-level filters look benign, should do wonders for Australia’s already quicksilver broadband speeds. But according to the Minister, the only people opposed to it are kiddy fiddlers.

And incoming senator Nick Xenophon isn’t waiting until July to get stuck into gambling (or, as it should be known, taxation for innumerates), pushing for a new set of restrictions on poker machines and gambling venues. Not to be outdone, Steve Fielding wants to impose a tax on them too.

All this is music to the ears of pressure groups and lobbyists who rely on public funding. Leading the charge on binge drinking was Professor Margaret Hamilton from the National Council on Drugs, an anti-drug body established and funded by the Howard Government and currently headed by former Liberal senator John Herron. According to Hamilton, the mere act of having a drink on a Friday evening sends the wrong signal to Australia’s youth. Daryl Smeaton of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation – of which anti-gambling campaigner Tim Costello is a director — also backed Rudd’s binge drinking warning.

These people doubtless do fine work in addressing the impact of alcohol abuse (however defined) or gambling addiction, but are also beneficiaries of the funding that will inevitably flow from Government efforts to be seen to Do Something. They have a vested interest in encouraging state interventionism in their chosen fields.

Then again the media also has an interest in hyping social problems. Drunken teenagers and gambling addicts make for great copy. Everyone loves a moral panic.

Peter Fray

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