Australia: Legislating Under the Influence

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Left; Andrew Sheargold / Getty: William West / AFP / Getty

Australia's politicians are legendary for having alcohol close at hand, not only before and after work but also during it. The country's federal and state parliament houses contain — along with legislative chambers and libraries — restaurants, bars and liquor stores, which serve taxpayer-subsidized alcohol late into the night during parliamentary sessions. Now the undignified acts of some MPs have brought calls for a sobering up.

In the latest incident to hit the headlines, New South Wales opposition member Andrew Fraser was caught on closed-circuit TV Dec. 2 verbally abusing one MP and pushing another in a late-night session of the state parliament. He confirmed colleagues' claims that he'd been drinking at a Christmas party but said he was not drunk. Fraser apologized and said he "inappropriately brushed my colleague's arm aside." A parliamentary committee is now considering whether Fraser should be expelled from the house for his behavior.

Fraser was briefly suspended from the house in 2005, after chasing and apparently trying to choke the roads minister during a debate. He said at the time that he had been drinking in the parliamentary bar but "wasn't anywhere near intoxicated." He added that the government should "have a good look at some of their members and just see who does do the drinking down here." (See pictures of London's ban on alcohol on the Underground.)

In September the state's police minister, Matt Brown, resigned after claims that he cavorted in his underwear and straddled the chest of a female MP during a parliamentary office party. Premier Nathan Rees said Brown told him "there was substance to the assertions around drunkenness, dancing and music." In a public apology, Brown admitted only that "I behaved in a manner not befitting a minister."

Now some MPs want all the state's legislators to face random breath tests; others say the lawmakers should be encouraged to check their own alcohol levels before voting on important bills. "If you are going to have breathalyzers for people driving cranes," says Green Party MP John Kaye, "you should have breathalyzers for people writing laws." Asks an indignant Sydney Daily Telegraph reader: "How many 'ordinary' Australians would get away with drinking on the job?"

In Western Australia, new premier Alan Carpenter has vowed to ban alcohol in parliament, saying MPs "should not be able to drink freely during working hours." And in Canberra, the national capital, a politician recently rebuked her colleagues for drinking "until the early hours" at a public bar near Parliament House, saying they set a bad example for the young. (See pictures of Denver, beer country.)

Efforts to separate parliamentarians from the bottle have a long history in Australia. In the 19th century, a rogue's gallery of MPs was better known for drunken raillery and fist-fighting than for any legislative achievements. But for modern-day counterparts, more sober norms — and ubiquitous cameras — help ensure that censure is loud and punishment swift.

In 1998 a conservative MP resigned after being videotaped slurring his words in a parliamentary address. In 2003 the leader of the Australian Democrats Party was forced to stand down after Senate cameras caught him manhandling and abusing a female colleague during a late-night session after a Christmas party. He later apologized for "physical aggression" and said he needed help with "personal health matters." Commenting on the incident, a former government staffer wrote that he often saw politicians in Canberra "drink until the early hours of the morning. They get a few hours' sleep and are back at their desks early the next day, attempting to deal with issues of magnitude." In 2004 the Green Party tried to have the New South Wales parliament declared an alcohol-free zone after a government member assaulted a female colleague. "After dinner ... things get a bit raucous" in the chamber, one Green MP explained. And last year an MP in Western Australia was suspended from parliament after allegedly getting drunk and snapping the bra strap on a female staffer's shoulder.

Federal opposition member Tony Abbott dismisses the call to breath-test MPs. Whereas cases of bad behavior "are not absolutely unknown in this parliament, we have got to see it all in perspective," he says, noting that the vast majority of politicians are sober and well behaved. Australians are proud of their hard-drinking reputation. But according to the latest global ranking by the World Health Organization, Australians drink much less than the Irish, Germans, British and French, and only a little less than Americans. As for Aussie MPs' drunken antics, the outrage they provoke shows the country isn't willing to put up with them.

See pictures of Australia.