Dry Zones and other Temperance Hangovers

When Melbourne’s two ‘dry zones’ had compulsory ballots for restaurant and café liquor licences removed in 2015, some reports surmised that “a hangover from the anti-alcohol movement of the 1920s had finally been relegated to the history books”. 

Yet the dry zones – where residents vote directly on liquor license applications – are chapters in a longer, ongoing story. The 1920 poll that created these anachronistic alcohol-free pockets culminated half a century of campaigns in Australia and beyond for local alcohol controls, prohibitions and vetoes including policies called ‘local option’.

Controls on alcohol, including local option, spread across many countries during the anti-alcohol temperance movement of the late 19th century.  Local option ideas held that local people ought to have the democratic right to decide by popular vote whether and to what extent to have liquor outlets in their area.  By majority vote areas could vote themselves ‘dry’, or object to licenses, or close hotels.

A paper recently presented at the Urban History Planning History conference tracked the rise and demise of local option policies, and the legacies for cities like Melbourne today. The paper for UHPH used archival records and historical Geographical Information System (GIS) techniques to show the workings, debates and impacts of local option in Victoria. Tracking the emergence local level controls from the 1860s, it showed the influence of policies like the ‘statutory limit’ in 1885 – capping hotel numbers at a set ratio (1 per 250 people: very high by today’s standards). Later, the powerful License Reduction Board closed over 1,300 hotels across Victoria ahead of a compulsory state-wide poll.

Through Victoria’s 1920 local option poll, a 3/5th (60 percent) majority of district voters returning ‘no license’ (prohibition) would close all hotels in a district. A simple majority (50 percent) voting ‘reduction’ or ‘no license’ would reduce license numbers by a quarter. Two districts returned ‘no license’, while 71 districts voted for reduction. The remaining 143 voted for continuance. Had the ‘no license’ threshold been 50%, a further 25 ‘dry zones’ would have resulted in Victoria.  In other countries including the US, NZ and Canada, hundreds of towns, counties, and states became dry by similar means.

Place-based alcohol controls have tended to be considered only as precursors (failed or otherwise) to total prohibition: perhaps overshadowed by the notoriety of national prohibition, the 6 O’clock swill, and wowsers (Australian for a grimly meddling non-drinker). The paper argued instead that local option controls were important in their own right: that they reshaped not only the hotel industry, but the wider political landscape. Temperance campaigners used emerging planning laws to legitimise local popular political power, and the control not only of alcohol but of land use. For some, local option was a path to prohibition utopia. To others, including key liberal thinkers such as Harcourt, it was an end in itself; local option emphasised property rights, decentralised governance, and rights to residential amenity.

The legacies today range from the idiosyncratic (restrictive covenants, as in Ocean Grove), to the more intrinsic: ideas of land use separation (zoning) and the rights of residents. And as some temperance-era controls are being wound back, very similar policies are being reasserted. Debates about bottle shop densities, live music venues, ‘lock out laws’, fast food outlets, apartments, brothels, and gaming machines have corollaries in the temperance era. Dry zones and wowsers are not so easily relegated to history: we live in a system of urban separation and regulation devised, in part, by them. And while seeking to balance residential amenity with change, we grapple with much the same dilemmas.

The full paper will be available in the proceedings of the Urban History Planning History Conference, hosted by RMIT in early 2018.

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