When I was a teenager there was an ad on the television by an organisation called DrinkWise. In the setting of a suburban barbecue, several generations of men are asked, while still boys, to fetch their father a beer, the retrieval serving as a handy transition into them becoming grown men who repeat this behaviour with their own sons.
The obvious message from the organisation is to the parents in the audience. You are role models. Your children will inherit your drinking behaviour, and while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink now and then, it’s important to set a good example to them.
The way these men drink—casually, intergenerationally—gives some insight into the cultural perception of alcohol in Australia, particularly among the nation’s men. These men and the way they drink not only accepts but gleefully perpetuates our traditional cultural characteristics of “being a man.”
And it’s the dads at this barbecue, and later their sons, who many of Australia’s politicians are trying to simultaneously connect with and exploit when they front the cameras in marginal electorates, local beer in hand.
On-camera beer-drinking is just another example of the nation’s politicians seeking to ingratiate themselves with middle and working class voters by hyper-visibly appropriating their “everyman” behaviour. See also: Malcolm Turnbull’s penchant for taking (pictures on) public transport, Kevin Rudd’s fair shake of the sauce bottle, and Scott Morrison’s vocal support for his beloved Cronulla Sharks.
Eager to differentiate himself from the man he replaced, the aforementioned Scott Morrison (Australian Prime Minister at time of writing) has made efforts to shirk some of the elements of class-tourism his predecessor so loved to indulge in (efforts helped by his significantly lower net worth).
Morrison has consciously avoided the Akubra, its function as a piece of costume-wear for politicians visiting rural and regional Australia having now become much maligned. This Prime Minister drinks his beers under the brim of a baseball cap, more City Beach than R.M. Williams. It’s generally accepted his choice of headwear is an effort to play up his Daggy Suburban Aussie Dad image, which presumably plays well in his Cook electorate, a slice of southern Sydney where 72.5% of people were born in Australia and almost two thirds have children. But for Morrison, drinking doesn’t function as a method of relaxation or social lubrication, but rather as a desperate definer of his image.
In a “rare and candid” look at his personal life, Morrison admitted to Women’s Weekly in 2015 that he’d been “drunk at least once”. Almost exactly three years after giving that interview, Scott Morrison found himself occupying the office of Prime Minister, and wasted no time having himself photographed sinking beers all over the country he now leads. In October of this year alone, the PM was spotted drinking an AM schooner during a morning visit to a NSW Central Coast craft brewery. He then accidentally but enthusiastically appeared in an ad campaign for a beer by American brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, before rounding out the month by downing the rest of his beer at the request of cricket spectators at Canberra’s Manuka Oval.
Presumably the PM is no participant in the Ocsober initiative, aimed at getting Australians to stay off the booze for the month, though he could probably afford to set the example given he now leads a country that ranks seventh in alcohol consumption per capita, and where alcohol is involved in up to sixty-five per cent of the domestic violence incidents reported to police.
Although his effective cosplay of a true blue beer-loving bloke came to dominate his October, the PM showed no inclination to take the costume off after Halloween, embarking on his “not-campaigning” bus tour of Queensland’s marginal electorates, which was not so much a bus tour, either, as he flew between key legs of the trip due to time constraints. A former marketing executive, Morrison no doubt knew full well the negative optics of this transport duplication, going into attack mode against a local journalist and accusing them of acting as a mouthpiece for southern colleagues stuck in the “Canberra bubble.”
While he was rarely on the bus, he was often on the piss. The PM was photographed hoeing into a XXXX Gold (or “Milton Mango” for the Elite Brisbane School set) with punters at a Melbourne Cup function on the Sunshine Coast, as well as pouring himself a glass of a Townsville brewer’s “ScoMo Pale Ale.”
Now obviously there’s nothing wrong with the PM enjoying the occasional drink. But for Scott Morrison and his ilk, the consumption of alcohol is more about image than enjoyment. Much of the Australian drinking culture centres around the amount of alcohol drunk, how frequently and how quickly. For politicians, a beer is not just a beer, it’s a signpost to voters of their normalcy – an effort to paint themselves as a regular Aussie bloke.
It’s very much a lowest common denominator approach to engaging the public, but hardly surprising from a political class that, for the most part, have led relatively charmed lives. Such an approach is the frequent refuge of people with no clear idea of what it is to live differently. Remember then-Treasurer Joe Hockey’s comparison of the ultimately failed Medicare co-payment to the cost of a couple of middies? So if, like many Australians, you enjoy a beer, then rest assured that politicians like Scott Morrison, because they enjoy a beer too, are regular Aussie blokes like you.
Inherent in this is the idea that an Aussie bloke who doesn’t drink a bloody beer – a full one, quickly, before a refill – is not an Aussie bloke. This casual attitude seems widely shared by the men who visibly lead the nation, even when the behaviour and attitudes it can incubate don’t pass their beloved “pub test.”
Disgraced former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is on record saying “you never hold anyone to anything they’ve done when they’ve had a few beers”, an outdated responsibility-alleviator that essentially amounts to a defence of “boys will be boys.” While this comment was made to the editors of the Betoota Advocate, it’s unfortunately unlikely this was an attempt at satire by the Member for New England, as he repeated the sentiment a year later in defence of comments made by his parliamentary colleague Christopher Pyne.
Partisan politics being what it is, it’d be interesting to see whether Joyce would have extended this courtesy to former PM Kevin Rudd, who was criticised for attending a New York strip club while visiting the United Nations, after having, in his own words, “too much to drink”. According to the club’s owner, Rudd didn’t misbehave and wasn’t kicked out, but rather left after realising he was in a strip club, making the criticism a little needless to begin with.
Rudd’s successor, Tony Abbott, possibly the only man to have a more sensational fall to the back bench than Joyce, has also had his drinking come back to haunt him. An alcohol-fuelled Parliament House party on the night of his deposition from the Prime Ministership ended in a broken Italian marble table. To his credit, Abbott requested his office have the Department of Parliamentary Services invoice him, but this past indiscretion and its associated cost didn’t stop him gleefully draining a beer at a football game earlier this year.
While drinking at live sport has now become a favoured photo-op for politicians eager for a way, any way, to relate to voters, it doesn’t always come off. Malcolm Turnbull was criticised last year after posing for a photograph at the football holding a beer in one hand and his young grandchild in the other.
Of course, any mention of politicians on the piss is remiss without the inclusion of the politician whose drinking and image are most closely aligned: one Bob Hawke AC, a politician so defined by his drinking he has a brand of lager named after him. Now decades removed from the country’s top job, the legacy his honorific lager seeks to preserve is less frequently catalogued in the public consciousness than his ability to sink piss quickly.
Discussions of his life before politics are quick to focus on his record-setting emptying of a 1400ml yard glass in eleven seconds while studying at Oxford. And for Test match cricket spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Bob Hawke’s occasional attendance now operates as something of a proverbial beach ball. Lulls in play are filled with crowd chanting and big screen coverage as a former Prime Minister is essentially peer-pressured into finishing the rest of his beer as quickly as possible.
I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to seeing it again this summer, even just to see how the new broadcasters handle it. It’s the reason our nation’s politicians are so eager to pick up a beer for the now ever-present cameras in the first place.
What’s more, this isn’t just another man drinking at the cricket, it’s a former Prime Minister. A man who once held the most important job title in the country, drinking in close proximity to a man who holds the second most important: Captain of the Australian Test Match Cricket Team.
It’s a flippant comparison, but the two jobs do have a lot in common. While politicians have used alcohol to define themselves as willing participants in Australia’s drinking culture, the nation’s cricketers have often used drinking to define their team culture.
Much like discussions about Hawke’s legacy, discussions about legendary Australian cricketer David Boon are less focused on his exceptional on-field performances than they are on his reported drinking of fifty-two cans of beer on a flight from Sydney to London. This apparently meagre effort would later lead Ian Chappell to comment that an Australian drinking only fifty-two beers over that length of time would encourage the perception “Australia has become a namby-pamby nation which doesn’t know how to drink.”
But Boon’s words on his own mythos are ones it would be wise for Australia’s leaders, and the men they lead, to remember when we start talking up our own drinking and leaning on it as a characteristic to define us. After all, David Boon is perhaps the most notable face of male drinking culture in Australian cricket (and sport, and society), and this proverbial Weet-Bix Kid for the “How many can you do?” approach to alcohol consumption actually denies the record-setting session took place as reported. What’s more, when asked about it for the umpteenth time, Boon responded:
“If people haven’t got something else to talk about they have led a fucking boring life.”
He’s got a point. Surely someone who has managed to attain the Prime Ministership has something more interesting to talk about, let alone do. Why the resort to performative ordinariness as a sort of camouflage? In the hopes that people will be less inclined to take an interest in their actual performance?
If politicians like Scott Morrison want to win the votes of people like me, they don’t need to convince me they’re like me. They need to convince me I couldn’t do a better job. Because if all there is to it is drinking beer and watching sport, well, then I’ve been preparing for the job all summer.
Unfortunately, all this boozing and spectating hasn’t left me much time for policy development. I have no plan for what my government will do to enact a more equitable funding model for education that doesn’t divert funds to already privileged private schools. I have no plan for maintaining the universal public healthcare system in the face of fresh challenges from a growing elderly population. I have no plan to help drought-stricken farmers continue production, first homeowners step on the property ladder, or those out of work find meaningful and gainful employment.
Since stumbling into the job mere months ago, Scott Morrison has been eager to impress upon voters that he’s just like them, and therefore understands their everyday issues and challenges. He’s yet to detail any real plans to address or alleviate them, unless the number one problem facing ordinary Australians isn’t high cost of living or the threats of climate change, but where the capital of Israel is.
Rather than focus on defining his eventual Prime Ministerial legacy, Morrison has decided to focus on defining himself as the kinda bloke you wanna have a beer with, perhaps while engaging in some “cheeky banter” about sport or celebrities you have a crush on. Unfortunately for Morrison, the outdated and fucking boring nature of this definition of blokedom neither encourages, nor leaves much room for, nuanced political discussion. So while I may not have any plans for the government, with an election due in the coming months I’m still left asking: does the Prime Minister?