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The six o'clock swill

November 26th, 2003

Monday’s Fin (subscription required) ran a highly aerated piece by Denis Dutton of the University of Canterbury about the horrors of life in New Zealand in the early 1980s, before the reforms of Roger Douglas. Phrases like “Stalinist Anglo-utopia,” and claims that “Objectively, apart from the fact that we spoke English, our inward-looking command economy’s closest counterparts could only be found in the Eastern Bloc” will come as no surprise to followers of the absurdly hyperbolic rhetoric that characterizes the advocates of reform in New Zealand. Even today, they routinely refer to Wellington as ‘Helengrad’, and talk as though the moderate government of Helen Clark has NZ well along on the road to serfdom.

But what struck me in the article was this claim about life in New Zealand “in the early 1980s”

The most notable example was the six o’clock swill, where the average punter got off work at 5pm and was required to down as much locally-produced grog as possible before the bars had to shut at 6pm. This got citizens, however drunk, home in time to the news on the government television service.

I visited New Zealand a couple of times before the reforms, and did not notice anything of the kind. On the other hand, I am just old enough to remember the abolition of the six o’clock swill in South Australia, by the reforming government of Don Dunstan. Six o’clock closing had been introduced during World War I as an emergency measure, then kept in place for fear of offending the wowser vote. On checking, I found that the history in NZ was almost exactly the same, introduced in 1918 and abolished in 1967, nearly 20 years earlier than Dutton claims.

In thinking about why Dutton would make such an obviously false claim, it struck me that he was reflecting an idea that I’ve encountered quite often in discussions with supporters of neoliberalism in New Zealand but which (with one important exception) was never seriously put forward in Australia,

This is the idea that free-market reform is naturally associated with cultural liberalisation and sophistication. It’s true that, while the New Zealand I visited in the 1970s did not have six o’clock closing, it seemed distinctly old-fashioned, much like Australia before the cultural opening up associated with figures like Dunstan, Whitlam and even Don Chipp.

The result was that the era of free-market reform in NZ coincided with the kind of cultural opening up and increasing sophisticatiion that Australia had seen a decade or more earlier. At least in the minds of supporters of the reform the two are seen as going together. There is no such association in Australia, and free-market reform is more generally seen as being associated with a narrowing of intellectual and cultural horizons.

The one attempt at linking economic and cultural liberalisation in Australia was in the rhetoric of Paul Keating. Keating routinely labelled his opponents as creatures of the 1950s (ignoring the two decades that had passed between the end of the 50s and the beginnings of reform). In his post-1993 reinvention, he suddenly emerged as a patron of culture and attracted some supporters from within the ‘arts community’. However, with the exception of this tiny group, few people on either side of the debate bought Keating’s rhetoric. Most of those who had supported Dunstan and Whitlam detested Keating. Conversely, most advocates of free-market reform remained violently hostile to art and culture, at least when its practitioners received any kind of government support or ventured to express opinions on political and social issues.

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