Ted Baillieu was the leader of the Liberal Party in Victoria from 2006, and became Premier of Victoria in 2010. He resigned from office in 2013, making way for Denis Napthine, before retiring from politics altogether at the 2014 state election. Since retirement he’s acted as Chair of the Victorian Government’s ANZAC Centenary Committee, and worked with the Australia India Business Council Victoria among a host of other projects and initiatives.
He’s also a non-drinker, having given up the booze in the early 1990’s. Here he gives his thoughts on many alcohol-related issues facing society today including the lockout laws in NSW, alcohol in the workplace, and what he might do to curb alcohol-fuelled violence if still Premier today…
Ted Baillieu, you’re a non-drinker, don’t drink tea or coffee, don’t smoke…what are your vices?
Very, very, very occasionally someone might persuade me to have a glass of beer at home, but I can’t remember the last time I did that. I basically haven’t had a drink since 1993.
You haven’t always been a non-drinker then?
I’ve never been a big drinker, but I just found it didn’t do me any good. I’d get a headache, feel tired and couldn’t sleep properly. I was busy and I don’t know how people who are busy can drink, particularly those in politics. I don’t know how they do it. It never suited me so I stopped. I stopped drinking tea and coffee, I’ve always been reasonably health conscious, so I gave it all away at the same time.
How long did it take you to figure out alcohol wasn’t for you?
I knew that it didn’t make me feel good because I’d have half a glass of wine and get a headache. My wife and I went to a health retreat and I learnt a lot more about the impact of alcohol in the system, likewise tea and coffee, so I dropped them. I had gone several years before without it when I was playing senior level rugby, which was a bit of an oddity because most rugby players like to celebrate with a drink. I would celebrate with a jug of coke which was probably worse because half my teeth fell out!
How did that go for you, playing at a rugby club as a non-drinker?
I suspect that no-one really noticed. Political and parliamentary colleagues used to offer me a drink over dinner and I’d amuse myself that they just hadn’t caught on yet. I never made a big deal of it and I don’t think anyone really noticed. It didn’t turn me into John Travolta, but not drinking didn’t turn me into John Travolta either!
No one ever tried to talk you out of it?
No one has ever tried to talk me out of it, and I think I’m better off for it. I’m nearly 900 years old but some say I probably don’t look it, although I do feel it. I just think it’s better for your general disposition and better for general health.
What were the positives you noticed when you quit drinking alcohol?
I was never a big drinker so that wasn’t an issue, but it just meant I wasn’t getting the headaches I used to get. I slept better, and socially it didn’t make any difference to me. I was never someone who picked up a glass of wine and thought how wonderful is this, I barely know the difference between a red and a white.
Do you think you were a better politician because you didn’t drink?
It staggers me that there are politicians that still drink, because I don’t know how they can do the job. In a leadership position you’re constantly thinking, even when you’re lying in bed you’re thinking, so when you go to sleep you want to sleep well. You don’t need other sources of weight gain, and it just makes so much sense to me that I don’t know how or why anyone would go into politics and drink. If you’re in opposition you’ve got the challenging task of getting through the day anyway, and I don’t reckon alcohol ever improved anything. As I say to people, alcohol is never a solution, for some people it can be fun, but it is never a solution. If you are drinking and you’re in politics, and particularly if you’re drinking heavily, it’s going to catch up with you. I have the same view when it comes to business as well.
Do you think there’s a drinking culture in politics?
Less so than there used to be, but who knows, people drink for different reasons. They may be depressed, having personal or alcohol problems, they may be escaping, or it may be habitual. I don’t think it’s any more of a culture than in the broader community, but in politics you’ve got big responsibilities. You’d be horrified if doctors and nurses or people flying your plane turned up to work smashed, or just suffering the after effects, or had a headache or they hadn’t slept well because they got smashed the day before. We don’t let crane drivers drink, we wouldn’t expect police officers on the beat to be big drinkers, because we don’t want people to be put at risk. I don’t want to be a puritan about it, but it doesn’t demonstrate that you’re a bad person because you don’t drink, it doesn’t make sense. You can have more fun sober because you’re more observant.
As a politician for many years you must have been to a huge amount of events and functions. Were you ever tempted to drink?
The pressure wasn’t applied by peers to have a drink?
Travelling internationally you can be placed under a little pressure, but I resisted that pressure. There were a few colleagues who applied some pressure because they’d break out a bottle of something special. I can remember someone pulling out a bottle of the world’s finest Château Lafite to celebrate a particular event, and I even managed to resist that which somebody reminded me of just the other day. I think it’s easy, it makes sense, you feel better, you have better decision-making and frankly it’s a lot cheaper.
Does it shock you to hear that one in eight people attending Emergency Departments at peak times are there because of alcohol, and one in twelve on average?
No, I would have thought it was higher frankly. I had to take someone to an ED interstate recently and because we weren’t on the threshold of death, people who were coming in kept displacing us. And I would have said every second person coming in was absolutely smashed to the point of being incoherent. One in eight seems good compared to that.
NSW have made changes to licensing laws such as early lockouts and 3am last drinks. Where do you stand on closing bars and pubs early?
I’m not sure that sort of arrangement will make any sort of difference. We had a bit of a go at that a few years ago under the previous Labor Government and it probably had the reverse effect. People were still getting drunk, but they were getting drunk in the street. The saying that nothing good happens after 1am is probably true. We have a culture here (in Melbourne) that borders on the 24 hours, and I’m not convinced that a lockout or shutdown would change people’s approach to drinking. I just think they would relocate.
Do you have any thoughts on what may change the culture of drinking?
The same as smoking. I reckon you need people to demonstrate the anti-social side of drinking on a daily basis. Many people have a drink without any problems whatsoever, so I wouldn’t want to deny them that pleasure. I don’t think it helps to push it out into the street, the best thing you can do is hold up those who don’t drink and say “listen, you want to feel better, save some money, have more fun, sleep better, rise faster in your job, why don’t you try this?”, but bordering on prohibition won’t work. At the moment it’s still socially acceptable to talk about alcohol and it’s impact in a lighthearted way, it’s not an anti-social thing. Not many people can joke about cigarettes and their impact anymore, there are still some people who joke about social drugs, but we need to get into that situation where we’re driving it down like we’re driving cigarette smoking rates down. We can now say “you stink, you cut yourself off from people who hate smoking, you’re costing yourself a fortune, your health’s going to deteriorate, your teeth are starting to look like crap.”
If you think about it, how long have we had tobacco? Several hundred years. How long have we had alcohol? Probably 2,500 years. How long have we had social drugs? 120-140 years. Is there a culture that doesn’t drink at all? There are probably some, but the vast majority of cultures seem to accommodate alcohol, so the best way is demonstration.
When you were the Premier of Victoria, what did you do to curb problem drinking?
We put in place a whole suite of measures in regards bottle shops, street offences, power of police and licensing requirements among others. The bottle shop policy was important, restricting the number of bottle shops per suburb and their trading hours.
Because you’re a non-drinker did you feel a little hamstrung in what you could do?
No, it wasn’t really raised as an issue, I wasn’t celebrated as a non-drinker. There are quite a few other non-drinkers in Parliament, I don’t think anybody would know that, no one really talks about it. No one walks around with a badge saying, “I’m superior”, in the same way you don’t walk around saying “I’m fitter and healthier than you”. I don’t walk around saying “I’m taller than you”, it’s kind of obvious and just gets accepted.
If you were Premier today, would you do anything on the issue of alcohol in society?
I’d probably look at some of the advertising, even though it’s a national issue, and I’d find a way to celebrate the teetotaller. We have to find a way to make it socially unacceptable to celebrate drunkenness, in the same way as it’s socially unacceptable to celebrate drug use and to drive your car too fast. In those areas it’s become the norm now, that’s the benchmark. Whereas on Monday mornings some people still gather around and tell you how smashed they got on the weekend, and even turn up to work places smashed. I think you could probably encourage some industries to look at drug and alcohol testing on a voluntary basis undertaken by private organisations. If I was running a business I’d like to think none of my employees were smashed or on drugs. That doesn’t preclude people from having a drink, but if you can say as an organisation that “we’re alert and this is a drug and drunk free business”, there’s potential in that in terms of recruiting and business growth.
Have you got a message for people who’d like to quit drinking, reduce the amount they consume or just want to take a break?
Yul Brynner died of lung cancer as a result of smoking, and in a famous commercial showing his bare pate, bald and elegant looking, he simply said “don’t smoke” in his unique accent. And I’d simply say “if you stop you’ll feel better, and if you cut back you’ll feel better”, and as I said before, “alcohol is never a solution, you’ll never solve a problem by getting drunk.”