There are some things that make Port Phillip the unique place that we all love. Our beautiful beaches spring to mind when thinking about what sets us apart. They create a place for residents to escape to, for tourists to visit, and most importantly, for people to relax and socialise.
Sometimes this involves having a drink and, in the absolute majority of cases, this is not a problem. So why have some members of Port Phillip City Council voted to impose a ban on public alcohol consumption on our beaches?
WHY A BAN?
Councillors have been under pressure from police and traders to “do something” about cases of disruptive and destructive behaviour in areas including the St Kilda foreshore. Complaints range from littering and other crimes, to public intoxication, addiction and alcohol abuse, revolving around the “Christmas Day trashing of South Beach Reserve”, as Mayor Bernadene Voss put it.
An alternate recommendation was supported by the three Greens councillors at the time of the debate to address the same issues in an evidence based way while avoiding a ban. It was voted down in favour of the ban.
WILL A BAN WORK?
No, not really. The premise of the ban is shaky at best. The most comprehensive study to date of alcohol bans in Australia showed no evidence that bans affect alcohol abuse or alcohol-related crime.
While, practically, a ban may work to prevent some minute amount of drinking or littering, the reality is that the solutions are complex; actually “doing something” requires more than a knee-jerk reaction.
(NOT) SOLVING THE PROBLEM(S)
A multifaceted solution is required for a multifaceted problem like the one council faces. This is something the pro-ban councillors have failed to understand in their attempt to address crime, alcohol abuse, anti-social behaviour and littering with a simple ban on drinking.
Littering won’t be solved by sweeping it under the rug. Discouraging people from enjoying our foreshore by banning consumption of alcohol means they’ll just go somewhere else. While that may temporarily save Port Phillip Council the trouble of cleaning up bottles, it does nothing to discourage littering or to deal with waste responsibly.
On the other hand, the Greens-proposed container deposit scheme has been proven in other areas to work. Give people a reason and a way to recycle and they will. There’s a real issue if councillors thinks pushing problems out of their jurisdiction is the solution to anything, but that’s what they’ve chosen to do.
In a more considered move, Greens councillors recently supported a glass ban on the foreshore. Broken glass was one of the most common injuries and disproportionately difficult to clean up. This kind of policy nicely treads the line between the practical needs of public spaces for enjoyment and the burden on council of clean up and safety.
Addiction and alcohol abuse:
Addiction and abuse are complex problems to solve, partly due to the many reasons people fall into patterns of abuse. The idea that a ban can address these many issues is naive.
Proving the point, the City of Melbourne has a public drinking ban in all parts of the city. They also have the highest amount of alcohol-related ambulance callouts and presentations to hospital. In no uncertain terms, the ban in the City of Melbourne has failed to discourage alcohol abuse. To emulate that, while continuing to ignore underlying or related issues like homelessness and mental health, is irresponsible and fails the people of Port Phillip who deserve support.
Adding insult to injury, public alcohol bans are often enforced selectively and can have damaging effects on vulnerable people.
Alcohol addiction and abuse including binge-drinking should be treated as a public health problem, not an issue of justice. These problems require funding, education and an evidence-based approach — even in the face of police pressure. If council want to actually minimise harm, they need to start treating these issues for what they are.
Crime and anti-social behaviour:
Much like addiction, there is no quick fix for ridding our community of all crime and anti-social behaviour. But there are ways to address them that council could and should pursue. In addition to the ‘root causes’ already discussed, we need to address the ways we design and utilise our public spaces.
The services and design of our public spaces must take into account the ways they’re being used. Small changes that councils are capable of making can have a huge difference. For example, we can encourage people to use public toilets by making sure they’re close enough and well signed. We know we can make people feel safer and discourage anti-social behaviour with better lighting. And we have evidence that container deposit schemes make people more likely to recycle.
There are many common-sense and evidence backed strategies council could have adopted instead of imposing a ban. One has to wonder whether their goal was to address crime or simply to “seem tough” on it.
BIN THE BAN
There’s sometimes an understandable pressure on local councils to take decisive action on an issue. It’s reasonable for members of the community to want to see outcomes. But part of the job for our councillors is knowing when to hold steady in the face of criticism.
Port Phillip councillors voted for the ban on alcohol consumption knowing it wouldn’t truly address issues of littering, alcohol abuse, or crime. The Greens on council presented a way forward to address these issues without a blanket ban that won’t help our community. Unfortunately, other members of council weren’t courageous enough to make the right choice under pressure.
As residents, we all deserve to enjoy our beaches in a responsible way. And we deserve councillors brave enough to address the issues in our community in a nuanced, evidence backed way.