Wowserism may be different, but it's not dead


| Richard Allsop

‘I'm not a wowser but...'

Those words seem to have become the standard introduction for anyone proposing a new restriction on what should be matters of individual choice.

The Rudd Government are masters of it. In an interview with 4BC last year, the Prime Minister himself said in a discussion on poker machines ‘I am no wowser on these things.' When proposing extra health warnings on alcohol, Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, asked if she was a wowser said ‘I don't believe I am.' Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, joined in when he maintained ‘I am not a wowser' when introducing his stringent internet filter measures.

Proving that ‘not being a wowser' is bipartisan, former Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson asserted that he was not one, while even Family First Senator Steve Fielding wants it known that he is ‘not a wowser'.

1929 Victorian Prohibition League Poster for a
vote to reduce the number of licenses to sell alcohol.
State Library of Victoria.

Victoria's new Police Commissioner Simon Overland is encouraging the ‘community to come to a position that says being drunk in public is not OK', but he too is ‘not a wowser.' Left-wing advocate of internet filtering Clive Hamilton is similarly ‘keen to establish that he is not a wowser'.

It is a tribute to the power of the word itself that whether it is politicians, police or left-wing social commentators, they are all desperate to assert that they are not one.

For a country that is apparently entirely absent of wowsers, we sure spend a lot of time discussing how best to stop each other from drinking, gambling, or browsing the wrong websites.

So what is a wowser? The word itself is one of Australia's great home grown inventions. HL Mencken, the celebrated American journalist, writer and linguist and strong opponent of Prohibition, loved the word. He thought the ‘wowser' perfectly captured the image of:

a drab souled Philistine haunted by the mockery of others' happiness... he must devote himself zealously to reforming the morals of his neighbours, and, in particular, to throwing obstacles in the way of their enjoyment of what they choose to regard as pleasures.

While the derivation of the word is disputed, its late 19th century appearance is no coincidence. This was an era when significant new restrictions began to be imposed on a range of personal behaviours, in particular, on the service of alcohol and the rights of citizens to gamble, plus, at the same time, there was increased censorship of written material.

In Australia, the First World War saw the climax of the alcohol temperance movement's influence, and with it the successful introduction of 6 o'clock closing and local preference provisions (allowing municipalities to exclude licensed premises).

There was also a strong push to ban the employment of barmaids, who, it was feared, would on the one hand lure innocent young men to drink, and on the other see things in a public bar that were not suitable for a woman to see. Radical Labor politician King O'Malley saw barmaids as ‘angels of mercy luring men to their destruction'. Several states passed laws banning barmaids, but the existence of a sunset clause enabled many barmaids to continue working and then trade their registration certificate a bit like a taxi license.

Ironically enough, labour shortages during the Second World War prompted governments to actively encourage women to work as barmaids, prompting some wags to suggest that stopping girls working was essential to defeating the Kaiser, and encouraging them to work was essential to defeating Hitler.

Attitudes towards wowsers cut across the normal political divide. Wowsers were generally seen as conservative, but it was the Communist writer, Frank Hardy, who went after that great wowser-target, John Wren, in Power without Glory. As Wren's most recent biographer, James Griffen, demonstrated, most of Hardy's charges against Wren were erroneous and scurrilous. The Hardy case against Wren was enthusiastically repeated by Manning Clark in his works. Griffen has written that wowsers were ‘oppressive and class conscious and responsible for such squalid features of social life as ubiquitous back-lane betting and the six-o'clock swill'.

At the time when lots of the old wowser taboos were being challenged, in 1968, Melbourne journalist, Keith Dunstan, wrote a book called Wowsers that looked at all the areas which the wowsers had tried to restrict, but which, by then, were being liberalised. Dunstan had ten ‘evils' that had historically been under wowser attack:

  • The Desecration of the Sabbath
  • The Demon Drink
  • Smoking
  • Theatre
  • Dancing
  • Bathing
  • Cremation
  • The Social Evil (prostitution)
  • The Printed Word
  • Gambling

Readers might be surprised to learn that cremation was not only a threat to ‘the sanctity of religion', but would also lead to bushfires and frustrate police murder enquiries. Bathing was banned altogether in some places, while in others it was only allowed if the sexes were strictly segregated, could only take place before 10am and was strictly prohibited on Sundays.

The nonconformist churches had a particular dislike of gambling. In Perth, one Presbyterian Minister proclaimed, in 1926, that ‘the first steps of a life of shame can be traced to the dance hall', while not to be outdone, a visiting Methodist in Melbourne explained, in 1935, that ‘marriages born in a ballroom were doomed to failure because the judgement of the parties had been warped through excessive emotion'.

Melbourne was also the world leader in respecting the Sabbath, as Dunstan comments ‘where else on earth, with the possible exception of Adelaide, could one find a city where absolutely nothing happened, where the biggest excitement among the citizens on Sunday was to go either to the Botanic Gardens or Essendon Airport'.

Yet, in a paradox that will stun many, while professional sport was never played on Sundays, in Adelaide in 1951, the West Indies wrapped up a win in the Third Test against Australia on Christmas Day. (Of course, there had been no play on Christmas Eve-it was a Sunday!)

It is hard to reconcile the playing of cricket on Christmas Day in the 1950s with the constant modern day opposition to the concept of the AFL playing on Good Friday, or the outcry that met the news that TABs would be opening in NSW and Victoria on that day this year. The fact that the arguments against professional sport and other commercial activity on a day such as Good Friday are now made around issues such as family time, rather than religious observance, highlight a change in the nature of wowserism over the past century.

Of course, if contemporary attitudes to cremation, bathing, dancing, or playing sport on Sundays are the criterion then it is true that ‘wowserism' has almost ceased to exist in Australia. Yet while laws relating to most items on the Dunstan list have been liberalised, smoking, has become much more restricted, and two of the liberalised nine, alcohol and gambling, remain under constant attack from critics.

In addition, the new ‘wowserism' has come up with a new entry on the list of sinful practices: eating the wrong food. The Rudd Government's National Preventative Health Taskforce is planning many new ways to restrict our food choices.

The latter-day addition of food highlights the point that for most of Australian history, wowserism had been firmly buttressed by Christian morality-the demon drink, smoking, and gambling may have had health or financial consequences, but for the most part the real damage they caused was moral. Now, even when some of the key participants in the debate are religious leaders, their calls for restrictions or bans tend to use humanist, rather than religious, arguments.

Alcohol, like the new sin of eating unhealthy food, is now classed less as a public morals issue than as a ‘public health' issue, on the same par as epidemic management and public sanitation. Public health advocates believe that the government must not only override people's individual decisions about their health, but that non-contagious, unique health problems are best treated by banning entire populations from certain activities.

The bizarre consequences of this approach was recently highlighted by the chief executive of VicHealth, Todd Harper's comment that the defeat of the alcopops tax was ‘a low point for health' and his argument that for the future ‘kicking politics out of health is perhaps the best health promotion of all'.

So according to Harper, the state intervening to deliver health outcomes is ‘not political', but the state leaving individuals to make their own choices is ‘political'. This sort of whacky logic would be laughable if it were not for the success these state-funded apparatchiks are having in achieving ever greater power over the rights of citizens to make individual choices.

While the target of the anti-drinking push has shifted over the past century from the male breadwinner to the teenage girl, in recent years, the major target of the anti-gambling lobby, a position for many previous decades taken by SP bookmaking, has been taken by poker machines.

Opposition to poker machines is one thing that unites a diverse range of conservatives and Leftists in knee-jerk opposition. What is intriguing is how poker machines only became really controversial when introduced in traditionally wowser states, such as Victoria and South Australia in the 1990s, despite having operated without any strong opposition in New South Wales for forty years.

Ever since the pokies introduction in Victoria the demand of the anti-gambling lobby has been to reduce overall machine numbers, despite Victoria only having a quarter of the number of machines as NSW. However, when the State Government recently released figures on spending on pokies per venue, Chairman of Inter-Church Gambling Taskforce Mark Zirnsak was forced to acknowledge that ‘venues only increased their take per machine if the government reduced their number of machines.'

Another worrying new development on the pokies front is attempts by local government to use planning laws to bar pokies from their municipalities. In a throw-back to the discredited old temperance policy of local option, which condemned parts of Melbourne's eastern suburbs to be dry areas for decades, councils such as Logan in South East Queensland are trying to impose a total ban on new poker machines. The councillor pushing the policies, Sean Black, claimed operators were targeting ‘battlers and pensioners'.

While Cr. Black may share the sentiment of high profile anti-gambling campaigner, Tim Costello, that ‘the weight of consumer choice and individual sovereignty has been grossly overstated in relation to gambling', there is actually something incredibly patronising in the assumption of the anti-pokies activists that anyone playing a machine is self-evidently a dupe or a fool.

There is also a degree of latent sexism in the attacks on poker machines. Women were often excluded from traditional forms of gambling, whether in the all-male gentlemen's clubs of the elites, or in the all-male working class public bar where the SPs operated. Even today, they make up a very small percentage of the clientele in the local TAB. Yet, women are a key demographic user of pokies, enjoying not only the form of gambling, but the safe customer-friendly environment of most club and pub gaming rooms. For years, feminists saw gambling as part of a patriarchal society; now women have access to a form of gambling more of them enjoy that is apparently bad too.

Poker machines, like so many products in the community, carry a risk of harm which should be addressed. However, the fact that a product carries a risk if misused is not a reason to prevent the vast majority of people who use it responsibility from having access.

Further, the new restrictions are often arbitrary. At least with the list of sins in Dunstan's book you always knew where you stood. In contrast, in the world of the new ‘wowserism', the citizen becomes subject to the latest capricious actions of government, inspired by so-called public health experts.

Whether it is alcohol, gambling, unhealthy food or access to the internet the growing coalition of academics, activists, local councillors and Rudd Government ministers are all keen to remove choice from the individual and instead create a society where ‘experts' determine how we live our lives.

They may deny that they are ‘wowsers', but it is hard to escape the conclusion that they are.

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