The crime of being drunk in charge of a fist

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, July 9, 2013

THE chances of being run over by a drunk while crossing Sydney’s George Street on a Friday night are somewhat smaller than they were in the 1970s, before the introduction of random breath testing.

The chances of receiving a rum and coke-fuelled headbutt are, however, considerably greater since the offence of being drunk and disorderly was removed from the statute in 1979. There is zero tolerance for drunks in charge of motor vehicles, but drunks in charge of fists or other hard-edged body parts are simply asked, politely, to move on.

The Intoxicated Persons (Sobering Up Centres Trial) Act 2013 is a modest attempt by Barry O’Farrell’s government to deal with this peculiar anomaly. For the first time in decades, police will have the right to remove tanked and troublesome patrons from the streets and place them in holding pens until they are capable of getting themselves home without king-hitting anyone foolish enough to make eye contact.

The good sense of this measure can be judged by the vehemence with which the NSW Greens oppose it. Legislative councillor David Shoebridge adopts the view that all living creatures should be allowed to roam free, and he is not prepared to make an exception for drunks. Shoebridge told parliament: “Rather than spend money on building a sobering-up centre, the government should provide additional resources to emergency departments that bear the brunt of alcohol-related violence.”

Indeed, Shoebridge claimed, there was no evidence to suggest incarcerating drunks reduced the rate of alcohol-related violence.”

You didn’t need to know what party Shoebridge represents to realise he was talking nonsense or, as his parliamentary opponent Paul Green put it, “snotty, puritanical, socialist leftism masquerading as argument”.

Arbitrary, draconian and intrusive policing has proved to be remarkably effective in curbing drinking habits when applied by random breath-test units. Indeed, muscular enforcement of drunk and disorderly laws, together with a bit of naming and shaming, once kept streets and railway carriages tidy too.

Acts of public drunkenness were once so rare that culprits were likely to be named and shamed in the local newspaper. In May 1951, for instance, one Alfred Rosenow was arrested by a Constable Baker and accused of making “a general nuisance of himself” at the Corobimilla Hall.

“His clothes were disarranged; his shirt was hanging out, and he was conducting himself in a disorderly manner,” the Narrandera Argus reported. Rosenow offered no defence and was fined two pounds, 10 shillings in default of six days’ hard labour. Today, Constable Baker would be powerless to arrest Rosenow unless he was foolish enough to try to drive himself home.

Scratch away at idiotic legislation, the kind that makes the policeman’s lot unhappier and the criminal’s merrier, and the phrase “human rights” will inevitably appear. In NSW, Neville Wran’s administration made the grand gesture of abolishing the Summary Offences Act in 1979 in a purge of what it claimed were victimless crimes.

Decent people queuing soberly for a taxi on George Street on a Saturday night might find the raucous behaviour of bibulous boofheads inherently hostile, yet the police are required to show their softer, caring sides.

In the 1990s, the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody inquiry gave further encouragement to those defending the right to get wasted.

The Social Justice Commissioner, brimming with righteousness, declared that the backward jurisdictions of Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania should abolish the offence of being drunk and disorderly and the West Australian government should legalise drinking in public.

You would think by now we would know that any recommendation emanating from the offices of the Human Rights Commission should be handled with the utmost caution.

Allowing the commissioners to indulge in social engineering is like choosing a builder by watching A Current Affair. You know that you’ll be kicking yourself in 15 months’ time, when the Gyprock is hanging precariously from the ceiling and a southerly is blowing through an ill-fitting door.

The commissioner class and those who fall for its progressive schemes, however, do not watch the Nine Network’s entertaining show, believing it to be somewhat vulgar.

They do not, therefore, profit from its parables of everyday life, namely that, however nice a brick-veneer mansion may look in the brochure, due diligence is required to test the credentials of the man offering to build it.

Instead of the socially just nirvana, free of “-isms” and “-isations”, which human rights advocates are promising to construct for us, we get al fresco bacchanalian debauchery.

It is followed by demands that the government do something to end the epidemic of binge drinking to which our sons and daughters have succumbed, apparently through no fault of their own.

Before you know it, the wowsers are appearing as guests on talkback radio calling for a punitive tax on alcohol, restrictions on sales and the passing of Dan Murphy’s law, to stop the bulk retailers advertising their wares.

Michael Thorn, who works for the taxpayer-funded wowser advocacy group the Foundation for Alcohol Research, blames cheap booze, not cheap progressive arguments. “Beer drinkers are sadly responsible for most of the problems we see on our streets from irresponsible drinking and we know that price is the key determinant,” he told Neil Mitchell.

Really, Mr Thorn? You don’t think the key determinant might be an absence of police powers, the kind that might encourage drunks to cut out the lip and slip quietly into a taxi at the end of the night or, better still, avoid getting guttered in the first place?