The new temperance movement and public funding

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, September 17, 2013

IT is easy to look back nostalgically at the Howard government, but let us not forget that for 11 long years it did next to nothing to stop kids getting sozzled. No wonder teenage girls were toppling over in the streets when Labor came to power. Cheap alcopops and stilettos are a dangerous combination.

“This is an explosion that needs to be tackled,” incoming health minister Nicola Roxon told the Nine Network in April 2008. “I think the Howard government is partly responsible.”

Thanks to Labor, we now have the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, a body set up to help its citizens keep their smoking, drinking and eating at appropriate levels. The country needed “national infrastructure to help drive the way we behave”, Roxon told the parliament in 2010. “Sitting on our hands is not an option.”

It is a pity the Labor government was so firm in ruling out sitting on its hands. The first achievement of ANPHA was to create 38 public-service jobs in Canberra. Its second was to encourage a gaggle of grant-seeking bodies to devise ridiculous ways of encouraging responsible drinking.

Incolink, the union-dominated body that manages redundancy payments for construction workers, scored $300,000 for its Drink Safe Mate project, which will help young workers learn to handle the grog using “a capacity-building approach”. The Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health in Victoria also went for capacity-building, intending to use its cheque for $492,267 to “improve the capacity of young people from immigrant and refugee backgrounds to reduce their risk of alcohol-related harm”. The organisation Youthsafe opted for “a resilience-based binge drinking project” that must still be in the early stages, since we are told it will cost $356,678 to develop, deliver and evaluate.

Bathurst Regional Council was given $495,071 for its Smashed Arts project, which will “engage young people in the Bathurst region by providing health education messages”.

The Western Sydney Alcohol Awareness Initiative scored $95,439 to train young people in the Penrith area to produce videos for their peers “promoting the harms of binge drinking”.

When it comes to dishing out public money in the cause of preventive health, no multifaceted early intervention approach or awareness-raising initiative is too questionable to dismiss.

The Gwabba Yorga-Gabba Warra project received $500,000 to organise netball competitions; Shire Wide Youth Service has $500,000 for its Be A Smarty When You Party project; Mushroom Marketing landed a half million for its Live Solution – Have a Better Time With Live Music project.

The list goes on and on: 26 dubious micro-grants totalling $10 million were allocated last year by Roxon’s quasi-autonomous faculty for projects that look as if they have been invented for no other purpose than squeezing money out of the public purse.

Grant-seeking in the not-for-profit sector has become an industry in itself, complete with its own sub-group of experts ready to advise community groups how to better twist the arms of government and private philanthropists.

The grant-seeker’s trade magazine, Third Sector, publishes tips. Not-for-profit consultant Frank Spranger recommends assigning a manager “to routinely review federal and state government websites for new grants and tenders that could be relevant to your organisation”.

Peggy Hailstone, who describes herself as a professional grant writer, writes about grant-seeking trends in the April edition, advising that “capacity-building” is particularly big this year: “2013 offers an excellent opportunity to progress your grant-seeking,” she writes. “Will you take up the challenge or let it slide past?”

To describe a project as “community-run” lends it a degree of respectability it has not necessarily earned. Since the logistics of monitoring multiple micro grants are beyond the capability of the public servants who grant them, where the money ends up is anybody’s guess.

The community not-for-profits sector complains that reporting requirements are onerous, and they are right. To confuse multiple layers of bureaucratic paperwork for genuine public accountability, however, would be a mistake. The complexity succeeds in hiding the real state of things.

Grant-funding programs to the not-for-profits, on which Australian governments, state and federal, spent $8 billion in 2006-07, are conducive to petty pork-barrelling. A labyrinth of grants and partnerships between not-for-profits can make it hard to establish where government money ends up.

At its worst, they become a device for laundering public funds for use by activists, who advocate against governments and corporations. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education offers a salutary example of what can happen when a non-governmental body goes rogue with a bucket of public funds at its disposal. In 2001, the Howard government found itself stuck with $120 million it fleeced from drinkers when it increased excise on draught beer in a plan the Senate later knocked back. It used the cash to set up the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, a body dedicated to help prevent alcohol and substance abuse and fund treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Three years ago the AER Foundation appointed a new chief executive, gave itself a new name and bestowed on itself a new role as an advocate, arguing loudly in the public square for an increase in the price of alcohol and restrictions on advertising and sales.

Thus, using drinkers’ change passed on by government, an organisation accountable to no one now is at the vanguard of the new temperance movement, intent on imposing its intolerant views on alcohol on the rest of the community.

Should the incoming federal government attempt to abolish Roxon’s folly, as it should, it will find a vocal critic in FARE’s chief Michael Thorn, whose only criticism of ANPHA is that it should have been tougher.

“What we need is action,” Thorn wrote last month. “I call on both major parties to show support for measures that would effectively reduce the nation’s heavy alcohol toll.”

Make no mistake, the wowsers are up for a fight.