In Trade Restriction by Clyde Mooney

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The Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority appears set to bow to the vocal minority and change very little of the influential and oft-lauded ‘Newcastle solution’ trade restrictions.

Approaching a decade since inception, the Australian Hotels Association (AHA NSW) made a timely request to ILGA to consider the ongoing relevance of the restrictions placed on the 14 late-night venues in the Newcastle CBD in 2008.

The regulator determined to appoint independent voice Jonathan Horton QC to conduct a broad review consulting all relevant stakeholders. The review gave local community, police, businesses and other stakeholders a chance to “have their say”, with opportunity to lodge submissions.

Public consultation took place between November 2017 and February 2018, resulting in 92 written submissions from parties offering their side of the situation.

The procession of 92 submissions included 28 from health system-related bodies and doctors, overwhelmingly offering an argument that the restrictions and status quo should remain.

There were also 44 submissions from private individuals and couples, similarly trending toward opinions that the violence had been greatly reduced, along with any number of other real or perceived associated issues.

Hospitality industry bodies such as the AHA also submitted, overwhelmingly in the minority of those willing to voice an argument toward moderation, but also including a largely neglected inclusion of actual evidence and applied learning.

Many key points were outlined, echoing lessons learned around the country and in Sydney, the capital similarly stymied by deftly applied restrictions in search of a political solution to a social problem. Of particular note:

  1. BOCSAR research 18 months after conditions were imposed found a 29 per cent drop in alcohol-related assaults – but the cost to industry assessed at the same time found:
    1. 1 in 4 workers laid off
    2. Several hotels closed, in receivership, or sold at greatly reduced values
    3. Overall revenue down 30.8 per cent. (NSW overall up 2.7 per cent)
    4. Live music performance revenue down $1 million
  2. Following the introductions, levels of violence did indeed fall in 2008 and 2009. But they rose again in 2010, and in 2011 were higher in the CBD than before restrictions began, and almost back to the same levels in venues (see graph below)
  3. In 2017, Newcastle has showed an overall reduction in alcohol-related incidents of 38.8 per cent. But this is significantly lower than many other NSW precincts; nearby Maitland has seen 70 per cent, western Sydney’s Penrith has seen 73 per cent – both without trading restrictions
  4. The reductions that have been achieved at Newcastle – against the trend of 2010/11 – are best attributed to the actions of the Newcastle Entertainment Precinct (NEP), formed in 2011
  5. It was also noted that lockouts – the alcohol management system with the least academic rigor and support – have been found to work best in ‘closed’ communities, where patrons cannot simply choose to go out elsewhere. Newcastle, like the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross, are not by any definition closed communities

The AHA NSW put a case to adjust the current trade restrictions, in pursuit of a balance between both patron and operator harm minimisation. Key was recommendation to:

  1. Revoke (on the basis they are outdated):
    1. The requirement for a radio network between operators
    2. Plan of Management Audits, required to be reviewed every three months
  2. Vary – to align with other precincts:
    1. Drink restrictions – to start at midnight, not 10pm
    2. A ‘cocktail’ list of approved drinks not intended for rapid consumption, as adopted in Sydney
  3. A system to apply for exemptions

Interestingly, the Newcastle City Council (NCC) backed similar aspects of change, although it sees ongoing value in the Plan of Management (PoM) audits.

While the Council believes the PoMs have been somewhat haphazard, and should involve coordination with Liquor & Gaming, it offers them as the benchmark for relaxation of restrictions, allowing venues to climb rankings. Those classed ‘Level A’ would only require PoMs at intervals of two years (up from three months), with eligibility for an exemption to trading hour restrictions, determined by the NCC.

The Horton Report, submitted to ILGA, recommended relaxing multiple aspects of the trade restrictions, including drink restrictions not beginning until midnight, and the notion that “venues that demonstrate good practises and that pose a lower risk ought to enjoy less restrictive conditions than those which do not”.

But ILGA has announced it expects to adopt little of the changes slated by the Horton Report or industry, offering token adjustments to current conditions, “taking action of its own initiative” to vary and/or revoke. To remain unchanged:

  1. The lockouts (1:00am or 1:30am) and early closing times (2:30 or 3:00)
  2. A dedicated RSA marshall be employed from 11pm, supervising responsible service of alcohol by staff and patrons
  3. Sale of liquor to cease 30 minutes prior to closing, and no stockpiling (two or more unconsumed drinks)

In terms of concessions, ILGA is proposing:

  1. Revoking the requirement for the radio network, as it is out of date
  2. Moving to annual PoMs – out of step with Newcastle Council
  3. Vary drink restrictions to now prohibit “drinks commonly known as shots, shooters, slammers or bombs or any other drinks that are designed to be consumed rapidly“, opening the door for a potential ‘cocktail’ list of approved drinks. Restrictions still begin at 10pm

Industry has been justifiably deflated, particularly as the precinct becomes poised to capitalise on massive government and private development and infrastructure transforming the city.

“While we welcome small administrative changes to the 2008 restrictions, we are disappointed the ILGA-commissioned Horton Report has not been accepted by the Authority,” said Rolly De With, President AHA NSW Newcastle and Hunter branch. “A decade on, ILGA is considering continuing with one-size-fits-all blanket measures, rather than accepting Dr Horton’s view.

“Nor does it support plans which would see Newcastle continue on its current path to becoming a world-class city with a vibrant night-time economy, a focus on hosting award-winning events, and thriving live music industry.”

It is a requirement of the Authority (Section 53(4) of the Liquor Act 2007) to communicate its proposed action, and give affected licensees 21 days to respond (from 30 April).

The Authority will then make its final determination, the results published shortly thereafter.