Country events have had a long, but steady, relationship with alcohol. (ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)
It was back in 2007 when the Bathurst 1000 first imposed a daily alcohol limit of one slab of beer per camper.
The resulting controversy and the fact that the one-slab limit is still in place today highlight Australia’s attitudes toward drinking and the reliance on alcohol to bring a crowd to country events.
“I’d say this is more than a generous ration,” chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Michael Thorn, said.
“Clearly alcohol and driving don’t go together, and that’s why we’ve got some of the world’s toughest laws about drink driving.
“And this event has always been problematic for when it comes to alcohol — including the drinking that goes on in the perimeter of the racetrack.”
Regional events integral to local economies
Country events have a huge effect on the local economy. The last time Bathurst Regional Council surveyed the economic impact, in 2012, it found the event had a value of $25 million.
Other events, such as the Macquarie Picnic Races, held in Trangie between Christmas and New Year’s Eve each year, also contributed to the long-term wellbeing of the town, according to secretary Lottie Rae.
“This year just been we gave $80,000 back to the community,” Ms Rae said.
“I can confidently say that without the Macquarie Picnic Races, a lot of — if not the majority of — the businesses in town would do it really tough, because it’s their biggest night of the year and without it … I don’t think they’d float.”
The Bathurst 1000 is worth around $25 million to the local economy. (ABC Open: Les Dalrymple)
Mr Thorn said while these events were vital to the survival of many country towns their relationship with alcohol remained problematic.
“We have these problems at more localised events, like these Bachelor and Spinster events where it seems to be that people attending them set out to get heavily intoxicated,” he said.
“That puts all sorts of people at risk, puts people at risk of injury, puts people at risk of alcohol poisoning, and of course the risks of sexual assault go up in a manifold way, in a very significant way if people are intoxicated.”
Visitors threaten not to come
There has been no alteration to the Bathurst camping alcohol policy since its introduction in 2007, although visitors to the great race indicated they would reconsider the need to come if more limits were introduced.
One fan camped at Bathurst this year disagreed with any tightening of the current alcohol rules.
“I wouldn’t come because they only sell a certain thing and if you can’t drink what you want to have, what’s the good of being here?” he said.
Another camper expressed a similar opinion.
“Back in the 70s we used to come up, then they stopped being able to bring beer in, the boys stopped coming. We all missed six years because you weren’t allowed to bring beer in.”
Alcohol central to success of regional events
The Bathurst 1000 is not the only country event with seemingly relaxed alcohol rules.
The Deniliquin Ute Muster, held around the last weekend in September each year, has a similar camping alcohol policy to Bathurst of one case per person for the weekend, and licensed bars are on offer within the event.
Even the mid-strength Macquarie Picnic Races were aware of the symbolism of social drinking.
“There’s not a lot to offer out here for people to do, so when something like this is on they want to come and have a beer with their friends,” Ms Rae said.
In fact, alcohol was so central to country events that limiting it could have longer-term consequences.
Holbrook Bachelors and Spinsters Ball (B&S) had no limit for alcohol in the carpark, but only mid-strength alcohol was offered in the actual event grounds.
For the committee it was stricter alcohol limits that ultimately led to the end of the event.
“When we first started the B&S we had four extra special conditions, the last event we had 28 special conditions,” former secretary Deborah Mills said.
Disparity in alcohol restrictions
Mr Thorn said the current disparities in alcohol restrictions needed to be addressed, especially because of the higher levels of alcohol-related harm in regional areas.
“More country people get killed in road crashes, there are higher levels of alcohol-related family violence, higher levels of alcohol-related suicides,” he said.
“On just about every harm measure, country people fare worse than their city cousins. So frankly, it’s time something is done about these sorts of events where alcohol policies are so permissive.”
Michael Thorn believes Australia needs to address its drinking problem. (Supplied: Foundation for Drug and Alcohol Research)
Mr Thorn said the more relaxed policy of the Bathurst 1000 particularly was no longer acceptable.
“This sort of policy with regard to the amount of alcohol that can be taken into the event simply wouldn’t be tolerated at the NRL Grand Final or the AFL Grand Final, for instance,” he said.
“We wouldn’t let people walk into the MCG with a carton of VB under their arm, and I don’t see why we should be permitting that at an event like the Bathurst 1000.”
Mr Thorn said Australia needed to address its drinking culture, and a shift in attitudes was needed.
“There are lots of things that need to be done,” he said.
“There are lots of public policy settings that point to a poor drinking culture. But we also need to be .… getting our institutions to be more responsible when it comes to alcohol.”
Mixed response to crackdown
Back in Trangie, Ms Rae said while there are people visiting for the races, the committee will continue to put them on.
“Trangie’s a bit of a dive, so if people are willing to come out here for a picnic meeting then by all means let’s keep it going.”
And working with licensing requirements is now part of life for the Macquarie Races committee.
“There is absolutely no reason at our race meeting why anything should go wrong because we are all over safety, drinks per person limits, we’re totally on board with the restrictions of our licence.”
Change of alcohol licensing requirements means the Holbrook Bachelors and Spinsters Balls has cancelled future events. (Facebook: Holbrook NYE BNS Ball)
But a crackdown on alcohol limits has proven unsustainable for Holbrook B&S, former secretary Deborah Mills said the committee did not expect to hold another ball.
“It is a shame for the community, but it was just getting way too hard, way too hard,” she said.