Prohibition – the banning of liquor in the United States – is rather well-known here in Australia. Less well-known – at least to me, anyway – was the fact that Australia wasn’t all that far away from adopting a similar “Great Experiment”.
I stumbled across this while reading Under the Influence by Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan. Not to be confused with the book of the same name about the Busch family of Budweiser fame, this book details the history of alcohol in Australia. It’s a bit of a dry read overall, which is to be expected, as it’s pitched more as a textbook than a social history of alcohol in this country.
But, that, said, there are some interesting sections. One of those includes the temperance movement in Australia, which started in the late 1800s, a campaign to ban alcohol led by a range of women’s groups including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It was women who led the push largely because they were sick of seeing husbands and fathers blowing their pay at the pub. It was also a movement that indirectly led to women getting the vote, as it saw them gain a voice in an era where women were not meant to do such outrageous things as speak at a public meeting.
Their greatest victory was in the introduction of six o’clock closing during World War I (the law at the time mandated shops be closed at 6pm and the temperance movement successfully argued that it should also extend to pubs).
They converted many people to their cause, got them to pledge not to drink alcohol. So many that they were able to mount a sort of threat to include an alcohol ban in our constitution.
In 1895, as the Federal Council was working up a constitution for the soon to be federated Australia, a temperance convention planned to petition the council to include a ban on the manufacture, sale or importation of alcohol. Needless to say, that clause never made it into our constitution but, it was closer to reality than one might have expected.
About 30 years later, in the 1920s each Australian state held a referendum to see whether it’s citizens wanted the sale of alcohol banned. It passed in no state but there were some sizeable numbers in favour of prohibition – Victoria topped the list with 42% of people voting in favour of a ban (kind of a curious result in the state regarded as the home of good beer in Australia these days). In the other states about one-third voted for prohibition.
One region actually went the other way. Canberra had been declared an alcohol-free zone when it became the nation’s capital but a 1928 referendum saw voters go “this is stupid, I want a beer” and the ban was lifted.