The new era of campaigning against alcohol
November 4, 2008

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is one of the country’s oldest voluntary organizations. This year it is celebrating 126 years of service and I was a speaker at its NSW Parliament House luncheon this week.

In the speech I suggested that the WCTU can take heart from all the progress that has been achieved. After all, it has campaigned against one of the most powerful lobby groups in Australian history – the alcohol industry. That industry has immense wealth and political leverage. But the WCTU has managed to keep the flame alight.

True, there are still many problems relating to alcohol. But there is an increasing recognition by government that more needs to be done. Indeed, on the morning of the luncheon the NSW Government foreshadowed new laws to make parents responsible for their drunken teenagers.

But the WCTU and other voluntary organizations have had to recognize that these organizations are in decline in Australia (and many other western developed countries). People are no longer joining them – hence the declining membership (not least in churches themselves).

Work patterns have also changed and so people have less time for voluntary work. Meanwhile, women – the backbone of most voluntary organizations – now have their own careers and so have less time for voluntary work.

There has also been the rise of an individualistic culture, in which people now think only of themselves. “Look out for Number One” – and don’t bother about others. “The meek might inherit the earth – but they won’t get the mineral rights”. “Do unto others before they get a chance to do it unto you”. People are now more reluctant to donate their time to the community.

Additionally churches themselves are no longer so active on the alcohol issue. Most Australian churches no longer provide official support to the anti-alcohol movement. Indeed, one Sydney Uniting Church parish building was recently used to promote a new brand of vodka.

These changes have meant that voluntary organizations have to confront new challenges. The most sensible ones are making conscious decisions about their future – rather than just allowing their funds to be whittled away until they sink into insolvency. The WCTU is making some changes of its own, including the creation of the WCTU Foundation to fund initiatives. (I am a trustee).

There is still a need for organizations to champion the total abstinence approach and be positioned at the extreme end of the debate. They draw the middle more out to that end. Most people see themselves as “moderates” on most issues. The “middle” is defined by the end points. By taking such a hard line on alcohol, it forces the “moderates” out more to a tougher line than would otherwise be the case.

The risk here is that the hardliners won’t ever get government funding because government supports “harm minimization” measures (by suggesting a “safe” number of drinks). But there is lesson here from the campaign against smoking. A few decades ago, cigarettes were part of a soldier’s rations. Now no government would treat cigarettes in such a manner. I think that eventually government will treat alcohol as a very dangerous drug and be more active in opposing it. It is important for organizations to keep reminding government on the dangers of alcohol.

To conclude, it is important we do not just repeat what our predecessors did; times have changed. Instead we need to follow their vision and adopt new strategies for the new era. The WCTU is doing just that. It will have another exciting and fruitful 126 years.