IS IT fair one lot of people have the scope to go out and enjoy a nice night out with friends with a glass or two of wine and another group are not?
99 out of 100 people would suggest its not, but increasingly that is becoming the case in rural Australia.
Efforts to cut the road toll, such as in Victoria where drink driving laws have been further tightened, are to be applauded but in failing to provide any form of alternate transport for rural people the fabric of country life is altering, and for the worse.
There is no need to ever contemplate drink-driving in the city, you simply tap your phone for an Uber, dial a cab, or, horror of horrors, catch public transport.
It’s a different story in country areas, where the equation is often stark – don’t drink or stay at home.
Let’s make it clear – no one tolerates drink driving in this day and age and rightly so and country people are acutely aware of the importance of staying under the legal limit because of the importance of their licence to them.
You can argue that people can go and have a couple of drinks and drive or not drink at all but in order to confidently remain under 0.05 thresholds drivers realise they cannot responsibly have more than two drinks.
Given people could easily get through that in half an hour, many say they just don’t bother to go out anymore.
This has not, however, seen a drop in the drinking rates which are often at alarmingly high rates in rural Australia but rather given rise to a series of worrying trends.
One observation has been the spike in the numbers of people simply buying takeaway alcohol and sitting at home drinking alone, often in significantly higher volumes than they would should be they be out and catching up with friends.
The other move has been towards an ‘all or nothing’ approach, primarily among young people, where they do not drink at all for several week before embarking on a two or three day bender, drinking and drug taking to dangerous levels.
Neither of these are healthy trends and neither of them do anything to address the big rise in mental health problems in country areas.
All mental health experts suggest community engagement is a critical factor in minimizing risk.
The simple act of popping down to the football club on a Thursday night to watch training or an hour or two with a beer or a family trip to the local pub for happy hour on Friday can be a massive positive, especially for those involved in often isolated roles in the agriculture sector.
But why can’t they simply go and do this without having a drink comes the retort from the experts, the self-same people propping up a riverside wine bar with a nice chardy on a Friday evening.
It is exactly the same reason city bars, pubs and restaurants are heaving on the weekend – people want to go and enjoy themselves and then have an opportunity to get home safely – something taken for granted in metro areas.
Yes, alcohol is a depressant and taken in purely clinical terms only modest intakes are bad for us.
Counterbalancing that, however, in many cases is the boost to overall well-being from participating in community life – something that cannot be measured so tangibly but what many in rural Australia will say is of just as much importance as physical health.
So what can be done? The tyranny of distance and the sparse population means you are never going to have a Croppa Creek to North Star night bus with services every hour.
In the grand tradition of rural Australia, I suggest the opportunity for communities to help themselves.
Provide funding for country sporting clubs or rural pubs to purchase a mini-bus and allow courtesy buses to operate and get people out of their sheds and interacting with each other once again.
Improved community resilience and mental health in rural Australia and the continuation of one of our cultural icons in the country pub for the price of a grubby old secondhand Hino or Iveco mini-bus – it sounds like a good deal to me.
This is not about legitimising binge drinking or promoting a booze culture, exactly the opposite, it is about creating an environment where people can develop a healthy relationship with alcohol and remain engaged in their communities.
Are a few courtesy buses going to solve the big issues with mental health in rural Australia – obviously not – but don’t discount just how powerful a few hours together with mates can be.