We need to talk about alcohol

Back in June of last year, I wrote an exposé documenting millions of dollars of waste on government vehicles and related expenses. Accompanying that article were a series of photos of wrecks involving public vehicles.

The part that I didn’t talk about was what led to these crashes, and to more than a few metaphorical crashes in politics and government over the years.

I’m talking about booze.

Before I jump in, I need to make clear I’m not getting all accusatory here. I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict myself. I had the good fortune of celebrating 30 years without a drink in January. But I haven’t forgotten the damage that it did to my life, and the choices I made.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I drank to self-medicate, to survive in what felt like an otherwise unliveable world. But I didn’t have the genetic predisposition to alcoholism that afflicts so many. I watched the members in my fast-living circle of friends stunting and even ending their lives because of alcohol, but I was able to walk away on the first attempt.

I watched others try and try and try, and the best they could ever manage for themselves was a brief respite from the cycle of drunkenness, remorse and depression.

Politicians in Vanuatu face insane pressures. Many of them don’t choose the life for themselves, but have it foisted on them by their community leaders. No matter what leads them into public life, many of them arrive unprepared for the non-stop cycle of pushing and pulling inflicted on them by their supporters, detractors, allies and rivals.

For a minister, the demands are unrelenting. From one minute to the next, there’s always someone wanting something. It’s not unusual to see people leave office indebted, or with almost nothing left for themselves.

Many of these pressures are accessorised with bonhomie. Good food, friendly company and lashings of booze. Everybody has a good time, and it’s all free, just sign here. And there’s an ever-present chorus of supporters and hangers-on who want to eat from the Minister’s plate, egging him on through all of this, and ready to make consequences for him if he doesn’t get in there and smile and enjoy it, dammit.

This process reaches into the higher levels of the public service, too. Some Directors and DGs face similar demands, and not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a fair sized contingent in the upper layers of Vanuatu society who aspire to little more than having a good time.

Alcoholism is a workplace hazard for politicians and senior administrators in Vanuatu. There are mountains of evidence to attest to it. I’ll leave the images of fleets-worth of smashed vehicles to speak for all, because I don’t want to expose anyone to the malicious ridicule and gossip of our local keyboard cowboys.

Suffice to say that alcohol has been a significant contributor to reckless and sometimes downright violent behaviour. It’s shortened and sometimes ended promising careers, and it’s tragically shortened lives.

I haven’t said a thing about these people’s personal lives. Because it’s none of our business.

It would be a stretch to say that alcohol is the cause of countless questionable policies projects and decisions. It is not a stretch to say that it’s made many of them far worse than they had to be.

This isn’t a 1000-word subtweet. I am emphatically not targeting any individual. And I reject outright our hypocritical love of ridicule and public shaming where drunkenness is concerned.

Nor am I even anti-alcohol. It would be stupid of me to assume that the thing that almost ruined my life me will necessarily do the same to everyone else.

But it is ruining lives here. It’s shortening what should be promising careers. It’s costing us money. It’s putting policy-making at risk. It’s exacting a political cost that no one has ever stopped to tabulate.

My guess is that the damage done by this ritualised linking of drink to decision-making is easily commensurate to a moderate cyclone every odd year.

Moralising won’t get us anywhere. I’m not going to sit here in my digital pulpit and rail about the demon drink.

But if I were a politician today, I’d take note that people are trying to get me drunk, and to keep me that way. And I’d ask myself why.