In Anti Liquor & Gaming by Clyde Mooney

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The NSW government has announced its latest ‘review’ into Sydney’s stifling lockout laws, likely to continue the tradition of finding new reasons to justify misplaced reasoning that has cost the city and businesses tens of billions.

The popularly termed ‘lockout’ laws refer to a fleet of restrictions on trade in hospitality businesses in the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross, most applied suddenly and without consultation, in February 2014, in a political response to the untimely ‘one-punch’ deaths of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie.

Both incidents occurred on the streets of Kings Cross, not in venues.

This suite of regulations was characterised by the imposing of a 1:30am curfew, ‘lockout’, on patrons entering venues, and cessation of service at 3am.

The laws effectively negated the value and benefit of licensed venues that were based in late-night patronage. It has been estimated in the vicinity of two-hundred venues have closed in the precincts since the laws’ introduction.

A February report by Deloitte Access Economics on Sydney’s night-time economy proposed the city is economically underperforming to the tune of 37 per cent, equating to around $16bn annually.

A recent Time Out Index found Melbourne the second-best city in the world, while Sydney was voted the tenth-worst city. Kings Cross operators have spoken of reduction in patron numbers around 85 per cent.

But few argue that the reduction of violence on the street – the primary goal of all the regulations – is not a worthy pursuit, and potentially worth other sacrifices.

The issue is whether alcohol, as identified by the restrictions on licensed venues, is the cause of the problem. Repeatedly authorities have refused to consider more complex factors that may be less easily identified.

“Aggressive or violent tendencies can result from several different mental health conditions,” states acclaimed American institution

“Brain injuries cause a person to become violent … traumatic or neglectful environments … any life circumstance that causes stress, such as poverty, relationship problems, or abuse.”

It goes on to say children growing up in hostile environments are “more likely to experience depression and anxiety and may turn to drugs or alcohol or other addictive behaviours in order to cope”.

Amongst mental health care professionals, alcohol mis-use is widely considered to be a symptom of mental health issues, as opposed to being the cause of the problem. The same can be said for other drugs, possibly including anabolic steroids.

Obfuscation of this fact has resulted in a ‘chicken before the egg’ approach to addressing the symptom, violence.

Despite calls by stakeholders to examine the influence of drugs, or indeed any other mitigating factors, in the random violence that left two young men dead, government has continued the party line that alcohol is the problem.

This reasoning flies in the face of figures showing the population continues to drink less, and increasingly do so in private residences rather than public venues.

A sweeping review of the lockout laws was carried out by Hon. Ian Callinan AC QC, submitted in September 2016, the much-lauded exercise taking in more than 1800 submissions by businesses and individuals. 

The Callinan report presented a ‘mission accomplished’ assessment of the effects on Sydney’s nightlife, citing that the two precincts were “grossly overcrowded” and stating that additional hours of trade amounts to ‘increased violence’, which is “not an acceptable risk”.

Blame remained squarely in the court of alcohol, which for political purposes is conveniently visible, as opposed to illicit drugs, mental health or social dynamics.

This week Premier Gladys Berejiklian has ordered a review by a joint select committee, made up of five government and cross-bench members of both the upper and lower houses and chaired by a government minister.

The committee will consult with police, health workers and representatives of the entertainment and live music industries. Business and the hospitality industry were not stipulated. 

The committee will assess matters relating to community safety and health, “balanced” regulation, and the night-time economy. It closely follows a development control plan by City of Sydney Council allowing business in the CBD to trade up to 24 hours a day, which does not include licensed venues.

“After five years of operation, it makes sense for us to now take stock and examine whether any further changes should be made,” says Berejiklian. “We have always sought to strike a balance between limiting alcohol-related violence and maintaining a vibrant night-time economy.”

The AHA welcomes the opportunity for “all sides to work together” for a greater Sydney.

“The lockouts are blanket measures, which have hurt many good venues,” offers AHA NSW director of Liquor & Policing, John Green.

The committee will report to Parliament by 30 September.

Its pedigree makes it unlikely to overturn the party thinking that prohibition is still the way forward, and while powers that be continue to ignore the root causes of problems (manifesting in senseless violence) the alcohol industry will likely continue to be the convenient scapegoat.