On this day: Canberra’s prohibition begins

By James Cameron 19 December 2016
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In the end it was thirsty pollies that forced the end of 17 years of prohibition in Canberra.

ON 22 DECEMBER 1910 new liquor licenses were banned in the Australian Capital Territory, and a 17 year dry spell for the capital began.

Shortly after the creation of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), which is now the ACT, the then-Minister of State for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, proposed that liquor sales be banned. It became the very first ordinance passed in the new territory.

“O’Malley was a quite influential figure in the early days of Canberra,” says Amy Lay, a curator at the National Archives of Australia. “He lobbied hard to keep alcohol out of the FCT, believing that it had a depressing influence”.

At the time the Cricketers’ Arms Hotel (which is now gone) was the territory’s only pub and so slid under this new set of rules.

Canberra’s prohibition not very effective 

The new rules wouldn’t stop the thirsty capital for long. “The laws only prevented the granting of liquor licenses in the [ACT]. So you couldn’t get a license to open a bar, but you could bring alcohol into the [ACT] and drink it there,” Amy explains. 

“There was nothing to stop someone from heading across the border to NSW to buy or drink alcohol,” says Amy. Workers, she says, simply saved up their thirst for a big night in the town of Queanbeyan, which was just across the border. There was also no reason thirsty punters couldn’t just bring alcohol back.

By 1927 the transport of liquor into Canberra had become so common that local guidebooks like A Descriptive guide to Canberra explained how to move liquor across the border.

“[This] guide to Canberra for workers moving there, explicitly states that one could simply drive over to Queanbeyan, fill their boot with grog and drive it back into Canberra for drinking,” Amy says.

When alcohol flowed into the capital

Interestingly this ban was finally brought to an end by thirsty pollies. In June 1926 the Joint House Committee passed a resolution to allow the construction of a bar in Parliament House.

Members of parliament were deeply divided by this, some pollies announcing they would boycott the bar until the locals could drink at an establishment too. Outraged locals, who were still under prohibition, finally forced the issue.

A plebiscite took place on 1 September 1928, resulting in the removal of the prohibition.