Shaun Micallef isn’t that big on functions and parties, but when he does socialise his beverage of choice is mineral water.
He hasn’t partaken of alcohol since his university days, nearly 30 years ago. But being an abstainer comes with its own pitfalls.
“I often feel like I’m an observer, although there are increasingly more things I go to where people aren’t drinking to excess. But in the early days, it was like I was not really there. I was just kind of observing something else going on. So that’s the downside to it, because you just feel a bit ‘other.’ You don’t feel like you’re really part of the community that you’re living in,” he tells TV Tonight.
“If you’re offered a drink and you say ‘No thanks,’ the response can be ‘Why?
“It’s kind of taken as a judgment of them,” he explains.
“It’s taken as such a personal rebuff of a gesture of friendship.
“It’s like you need to come up with a reason”
“I don’t even make the effort to make it look as though what I’m holding is alcohol. A lot of people would like to avoid the question of ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ If you’re a woman of a certain age they just assume you’re pregnant. It’s like you need to come up with a reason, like ‘I’m driving.’
“But I think increasingly, people are a bit more respectful about people’s decision not to drink.”
In his latest ABC series Shaun Micallef’s On the Sauce, he travels around the nation to discover the new face of alcohol in Australia. He is confronted by the highs and lows of alcohol consumption and witnesses the changing shape of a national pastime.
Across Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, WA and Queensland, he attends a B&S ball, goes on a pub crawl with a women’s soccer team, and meets a former drinker on her second liver. In Norseman, near Kalgoorlie, he found a community of around 1000 who addressed a rising drinking problem by asking the local pub to limit their hours and customer purchases.
“They had a mission statement about what they thought was a good idea. (The publican) said, ‘Fine, that sounds very sensible,” Micallef recalls.
“You solve it on a community level”
“So as a community they kind of solved their problem. Domestic abuse cases dropped, mortality rates dropped, people were happy to go to school, and just generally it was a healthier community. Which made me think that if there’s a problem, then that’s the way to solve it. You solve it on a community level rather than run to the state government or the federal government expecting them to solve the problem for you.
“Because as we know, not that long ago, certain countries were trying to prohibit alcohol entirely to avoid the problem. And that didn’t work out too well.
“Although we did get The Godfather films, they were great.”
While the series, produced by CJZ, is a personal discovery for Micallef, it’s not without his wry observations and worldly insights. Indeed, he is frequently spotted laying on a couch unloading to Prof Emmanuel Kuntsche, a psychologist and the director of the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at Latrobe University.
While he insists the series isn’t judgmental, he acknowledges alcohol is probably playing a greater role in many people’s lives right now.
“Things are pretty bleak. One of the effects of alcohol is the reason that it is a thing: the euphoria that you get from the fact that you do shut down a little bit, up there in the prefrontal cortex, and you don’t have to deal with things. The instant and immediate appeal of it doesn’t make the problems go away… but there’s a whole bunch of hopeful solutions coming about as a result of community level support.
“People are going to be far more aware of their immediate community than they were beforehand.”
“I’m not even talking about alcohol here. I’m just talking about the loneliness that comes from being in isolation. There’s a whole bunch of things that will hopefully change life generally for the better when we come out of it all, because I think people are going to be far more aware of their immediate community than they were beforehand.”
But he is also hoping parents may be inspired to watch the show with older kids, or to provoke family discussion.
Indeed, the idea for the series grew out of concern for his three sons, who were approaching drinking age when the idea was first conceived (some are already in their 20s now).
“Joe, our oldest boy was probably 15, I guess. He’s 22 now so he was 15 or 16 and the others were 13 and 12,” he continues.
“I think they’ve all worked out what their attitude would be to it”
“I think they’ve all worked out what their attitude would be to it and that’s because we talked about it a lot. Leandra, my wife does consume alcohol, so she a healthy view of it. I think if we both didn’t drink, it might be problematic.”
Yet he couldn’t persuade any of his sons to actually step before the cameras.
“I offered but it wasn’t their cup of tea,” he concedes.
“I thought it would be good to chat to younger people but we talked to some other people. It might have been harder for them to talk to their Dad on camera, anyway.
“It’s hard enough in life when there’s no camera.”
Shaun Micallef’s On the Sauce begins 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.