RSA: responsible for what, exactly?

Alcohol-Violence-1In my massively hung-over Saturday morning funk yesterday, I was flicking through The Daily Telegraph – as one does when devoid of any desire to actually think about anything – and came across yet another article about alcohol-fueled violence, crack-downs on pubs and new strategies for dealing with anti-social behaviour in trouble spots like Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Having openly acknowledged the legacy of my own over-indulgence the previous night, I totally get how me banging out a blog post about the problems of alcohol-related violent behaviour mightn’t seem the most ingenuous thing to do. But crucial to my soap-boxing on this particular topic is that I’ve never been physically violent towards anyone, not once in my entire life, whether sober or drunk – and in the case of the latter, it’s certainly not for lack of opportunity. I drink regularly, at times too regularly. And I tend not to stop at one or two. While I’m not exactly a candidate for AA, I certainly enjoy more than the occasional tipple. Suffice it to say that, for me, the whole concept of ‘Dry July’ is an absolute No Fly Zone and there’ve been many occasions on which I’ve been heavily intoxicated. Last Friday night was clearly one of them.

At the same time I’ve never understood physical violence, not in any scenario or for any reason. There’ve only been two or three times when I’ve felt so angry that I was on the verge of physically lashing out… at least I think I was. Having never actually crossed that line I can only guess how it would feel. At any rate I don’t get it. I don’t understand what drives one human being to physically assault another, particularly in the absence of provocation. What makes someone lose self-control to such an extent that the outcome is permanent damage or even loss of life?

If you believe the adage that “a drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts”, what does that make a drunk man’s actions? Does he actually change when he drinks, or is he always angry, disturbed, unhinged? Is the need to lash out bubbling away under the surface all the time, just waiting for a trigger? Is he always prone to outbursts of anger and rage, even when sober? It paints a pretty scary picture. All I know is that whenever I’ve reached that ‘verge’ I’ve never been drunk, just exceedingly cranky. It frightens me beyond belief to think of what could’ve happened if I’d actually been drunk at those moments – would I have discovered what crossing that line feels like?

However uncontrolled they might become and however reprehensible their actions might be, the fact remains that everyone who gets drunk has an ‘enabler’ of some description. That so much of the current trouble involves people who’ve been drinking on licensed premises before going out into the streets of Sydney kicking, hitting, punching, maiming, stabbing and sometimes killing is especially disturbing, given that everyone who works behind any Australian bar is supposed to’ve gone through Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) accreditation. Come the moment we decide more alcohol isn’t just a good idea but a necessity, their RSA training is supposed to help them decide that it’s clearly neither and that they really oughtn’t to serve us.

According to Wikipedia, my source of truth for practically everything, “…RSA training is generally founded on the concept of Duty of care and requires managers and staff to take all reasonable precautions to protect patrons and staff by preventing patrons from becoming disorderly and/or suffering alcohol intoxication. Other topics covered include blood alcohol content, the effects of alcohol on human health, a standard drink, how to serve responsibly and how to refuse service.” All very nice in theory I guess, but in practice it’s generally a very different story.

So how exactly is RSA responsible then?

At an ’emergency forum’ on the violence issue, held at Sydney Town Hall on 17 July, Paul Nicolaou of the Australian Hotels Association (NSW) said, “You cannot enter our premises if you’re drunk or under the influence of drugs”. I’m not sure Mr Nicolaou knew how much he was saying about accountability there.

To my mind, RSA’s all a bit of a toothless tiger. While the actual delivery of the theoretical and statistical content of the training is probably worth a shout-out, the accreditation itself seems to serve little purpose other than to allow licensed purveyors of all things alcoholic to tick boxes. Bar staff may be RSA accredited, but seeing it invoked is rare.

Granted every now and again a punter gets a good talking to, but it only ever seems to happen once they’re so far beyond the point of no return that they can barely function, let alone understand the dressing down being dished out to them. I’m not really sure what the point of that is? If nobody’s been bothered enough to intervene up to that point, what other outcome can possibly be on the cards? Are punters somehow expected to drink themselves sober?

And herein lies the crux of the problem: the relative difficulty of effectively policing what RSA sets out to achieve. Unless punters are all served one-on-one and on a one-drink-at-a-time basis, it’s nye on impossible.

Alcohol-Violence-2Consider this: a group of eight friends at a typical Sydney pub. For each round, someone different goes to the bar. Not everyone drinks the same thing. Some drink more quickly or slowly than others and end up going to the bar for themselves ‘out of cycle’. Members of the group are different shapes and sizes, with varying tolerances to alcohol. Some are also far more capable of playing it straight long after they’ve strayed from the technical definition of sobriety. At the same time the bar staff not only changes shifts while the group is there, but none of them are especially attentive anyway – they can’t even keep track of who was waiting at the bar for service first or remember who they’ve seen before, let alone recognise when to invoke the principles of RSA. After almost six hours, some of our little group have managed to down ten 615ml glasses of full strength beer and they’re having a lovely time! They’re no louder than anyone else, they’ve not become abusive or aggressive, they’re not being sick or unable to walk or urinating into planter boxes. After more than six litres of beer over a six-hour period they’re probably quite drunk, but they’re happy and still relatively functional and soon they’ll wander off into the night to head home, causing no one anywhere any problems at all.

The reality is that it’s very easy to go to a pub, legitimately purchase alcohol and get extremely drunk without anybody particularly noticing. Unless you get very loud or start vomiting, falling down or peeing on indoor plants, it’s fair to suggest you’re probably like the majority of Australians whose drunkenness will not only go unnoticed, but is also unlikely to cause your behaviour to degenerate further – i.e. it’s highly improbable that you’ll go outside and randomly attack the nearest passer-by.

Which is great… but what about the one in however-many who will walk outside and commit atrocious acts of violence? You never know who they are and, clearly, you never know when they’re going to snap. The bigger questions are how they were even allowed to get to that point and who’s really responsible for that outcome? So I ask again: how exactly is RSA ‘responsible’ for anything? And is it even realistic to expect the outcomes RSA seeks to achieve when, in pubs all over the country, people are able to consume more than six litres of alcohol without question?

Of all the questions being asked about how to fix the problem of alcohol-related violence, there’ve been lots of references to better policing, installation of CCTV, license restrictions and reduced trading hours – what about making licensees 100% accountable for enforcement of RSA practices and for their breaches? Because to my mind, it all comes back to that one key thing: every drunk person had to get their booze from somewhere. It’s one thing for door staff at AHA-affiliated venues to refuse entry because they believe someone’s “drunk or under the influence of drugs”, but the same responsibility must be proactively applied to punters already on premises. Whether they’ve just come in or they’ve been there all along shouldn’t matter. But if the earliest anyone’s ever going to say anything is by the time you’re utterly paralytic it’s too late and if the practice continues to go unchecked, a key contributor to alcohol-fueled violence is being completely ignored.

The one-drink/one-at-a-time approach would doubtless be more restrictive than the average punter or publican would care for, but I suspect the family of Thomas Kelly – the 18-year-old who died after being ‘king-hit’ in an unprovoked attack in Kings Cross on 7 July – would insist it shouldn’t be any other way.

Maybe its time for the AHA to put more focus on who they let out and ask themselves why it’s even a problem in the first place.