alcohol in Victoria

This page is a quick history of alcohol licensing laws in Victoria, and some of their social impacts. A number of these points will be shared or mirrored by developments elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand, but my family consists of generations of Victorians, so Victoria is mostly what I know 🙂 So, let’s begin.

In the colonial era, there was minimal regulation of alcohol and so liquor outlets proliferated. According to one source(external link), in 1880 there was one pub for every 200 people in Victoria. Worth noting, as well, the important role that pubs have played for Victorian communities – often they were, and still are in country towns, the central hub of a community. The buildings are also often beautiful in and of themselves. Many have “hotel” in the name, because up ’til the 1960s they were required to offer accommodation in order to keep their alcohol licences (resulting in this confusing situation now where sometimes you have to ask, “do you mean a pub hotel or a you-stay-there hotel?”). But that’s kind of a digression.

A legal drinking age was set in 1906: the age of 18, which it has been ever since. This is unlike some other Australian states, where it was once 21 or 20 but lowered to 18 during the Vietnam War era (when it was a point of contention that people could be old enough to get conscripted and shipped off to war and maybe die but not old enough to have a drink).

In the first part of the twentieth century, prohibitionist attitudes began to gain traction, as they did in some other parts of the world. One of their major victories in Victoria was the introduction of six o’clock closing in 1916, as a “temporary wartime measure”. What this resulted in was the “six o’clock swill” – basically, many working men would frantically guzzle as much alcohol as they possibly could in the single hour between the end of work and the closure as pubs, in order to achieve maximum drunkenness for the time available. This encouragement of binge-drinking had a number of other terrible flow-on consequences, like alcohol-fuelled violence.

Two of Melbourne’s local government areas went even further than this. The Cities of Camberwell and Box Hill (now both parts of the City of Boroon­dara) voted in 1920 to become “dry suburbs”, where all licenced premises would be shut down and no form of alcohol could be sold. Over time this eased up, but it was only in 2015 that public votes were no longer required before a restaurant there could serve alcohol(external link) and public votes are still required there before someone is allowed to open an actual pub or a club (so none are there, not that this makes a huge difference to anyone, given that – just as one example – the major shopping strip of Camberwell is Burke Rd, only the east side of which is actually in the “dry zone”… so all bars just open on the western side, which used to be in the City of Haw­thorn, and is not a “dry zone”).

In the 1960s, reforms slowly started to come in. From 1966, pubs’ operation hours were extended, and they were now allowed to close at 10pm. Restau­rants became allowed to serve alcohol with a meal. The women’s liberation movement for the right of women to be served in pubs – previously women were banned from the public bar and only allowed in the ladies’ lounge, where prices were much higher (and in some cases were also banned from there unless accompanied by a man). In Queensland (not Victoria), this struggle was represented very famously by the protest of Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogmor(external link) where they chained themselves to the public bar of the Regatta Hotel. But the end of gender segregation in pubs was something that had to be fought for right across Australia.

The next big reform(external link) followed the 1987 Niewenhuysen Review. The purpose of this review was to find ways to bring a more “civilised”, European-style drinking culture to Victoria. Three of its recommendations, which were implemeted that same year, were to further relax trading hours, to remove the requirement on restaurants to serve alcohol only with a meal, and to dramatically lower the cost of liquor licences.

Further reforms took place in 1994(external link), under Kennett. Kennett’s actual intention was to do a favour for Crown Casino, with Crown wanting lots of small bars with individual liquor licences under their roof,1 and not wanting each of them to have their own kitchen. So the 1994 reform removed the requirement for bars to have a kitchen on-site, although they were still required to serve some kind of food (it was allowed to be packed chips or nuts). They were also required to have water freely available. As far as Melburnians are concerned, the excellent consequence of this that Kennett did not intend at all has been that cool bars have been able to pop up even in very small premises, leading to the rise of Melbourne’s prized “laneway culture”.

In Australia as a whole, per-capita alcohol consumption has declined from a mid-1970s peak of 13L of pure alcohol per person aged 15+ for the year to levels of about 9.5L (as of 2017–18(external link), the most recent year for which there is data). That’s the equivalent of just over two standard drinks2 each day for each person aged 15+, although only one-sixth of those 18+ actually drink at that level or more. Of the alcohol consumed, 39% was in the form of beer, 38.6% in the form of wine, 19.9% in the form of spirits, and 2.5% in the form of cider.

In the nineteenth century, alcohol in Australia was consumed almost entirely in the form of beer and spirits. Even by the 1960s, beer alone made up three-quarters of all alcohol consumed in Australia. However, the wine industry grew over the course of the 20th century to, today, equal beer in its popularity. It helps that much of Australia (Victoria included) has an ideal climate for grape-growing. It also helps that wine, unlike all other forms of alcohol, is not taxed here on its alcohol content; this makes the cheap stuff much cheaper to buy than anything else, including beer.3

It’s often reported that rates of binge drinking are rising, but it would be more accurate to say that the threshold for what authorities consider to be “binge drinking” is falling. At the moment they consider it to be “binge drinking” (or a “single occasion risk”, in bureaucrat-speak) if you have more than four standard drinks in one session. As of 2017–18(external link), 44.2% of people (54.2% of men and 30.5% of women) in Australia as a whole drank this much once per year or more. A 2019 survey(external link) found that 25% drank this much at least once per month (33% of men and 16.6% of women). Young people were most likely to binge-drink at least once a month (41% of those 18–24, and 36% of those 25–29). While I haven’t found a detailed breakdown for Victoria specifically, levels of “risky” drinking overall seem slightly lower in Victoria(external link) than the average for Australia as a whole (we’re talking by 1–2%).

  1. They could have put all the bars under one liquor licence, but then if any one of those bars had got shut down – for, say, irresponsible serving of alcohol – then every other bar in the complex would also have to shut down, which they did not want to risk. ↩︎

  2. I have been given the impression that “standard drink” is not a metric used much in other countries, but its meaning is quite simple: it’s supposed to be the amount of alcohol the average person can metabolise in one hour (10g pure alcohol). ↩︎

  3. Wine is subject to Wine Equalisation Tax, which is a flat 29% of the wholesale sale price. Every other form of alcohol is subject to alcohol excise, which is charged according to a huge range of factors (from alcohol content to size of container to material of container) as listed on an extremely complicated table… but the end result is that the cheapest wine from a bottle-o costs about 60¢ per standard drink, while beer is about $2.50 per standard drink. Prices in pubs, bars and restaurants are different, of course, but wine is still generally your cheapest option per standard drink. ↩︎