Kings Cross at night. Image: Flickr/Luke-rative

The lockout law review must not be so close-minded

16 February 2016

Let's hope the recently announced review into Sydney's lockout laws can actually look dispassionately at the evidence and the levels of harm done both to people and our once vibrant nightlife, writes Professor Murray Lee in The Drum.

There has been a lot of noisy debate recently about the utility or futility of the Sydney lockout laws.

Reports of drops in human traffic around key zones of Sydney's "night-time economy", Matt Barrie's viral polemic and Premier Mike Baird's subsequent Facebook response have brought the issue back into the public spotlight.

Now, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant has announced a review of the laws, to be headed by former High Court judge Ian Callinan. The Callinan Review, the Minister said, will provide an "independent, open and transparent assessment of the state's liquor laws, focusing on the facts, to advise the NSW Government on the future of these laws."

For the review to be effective it will need to address the very broad impacts of these laws.

As the terms of reference stand, they appear to give minimal reference to, for example, the live music scene.

They also fail to take account of other possible policy approaches to the problem of violence in the night-time economy - such as increased public transport and staggered closing hours. That is, they assess only the "impact" of the current laws.

The terms of reference are also clearly designed to address political concerns within the Government of the 10pm closure of bottle shops in rural areas. The review should keep in mind that violence is actually much higher in some rural areas than it is in inner Sydney.

Choices about how and when licensed venues serve alcohol, where alcohol is available and who is entitled to drink are ones that pose bigger questions about the community we want to live in and our attitudes, cultures and relationships with alcohol.

There is little doubt that the lockout laws are a blunt instrument. The fact that the casinos were exempted is simply unfair and unjust. It also advantages some of Australia's most wealthy and powerful people.

The flow-on effects of the laws appear to have produced tougher policing interventions, particularly in places like Newtown (if not yet displacing violence to such areas). Moreover, property developers will be licking their lips about all those closed venues.

We have been quick to forget that when then-premier Barry O'Farrell introduced the laws it was as a result of the massive groundswell of public, professional and media opinion that something had to be done. In fact, he was being ridiculed in the media for inaction. The argument at the time was that he was in bed with the liquor and hotel lobby.

We need to both have a drinking culture in Australia, and to change it for the better.

And then there is the argument that lockout laws killed the Sydney live music scene. Well, it didn't help - in particular, late night DJs are probably really feeling the crunch. But those of us old enough to remember will recall that what originally killed off the live music scene in Sydney was the hotel industry itself - with the legislative support of the then Labor government - that introduced poker machines into hotels.

The argument that you need a critical mass of massive venues on a night strip to make it work is nonsense and is simply not the norm in many other great late-night cities of the world. In fact, it's the density of venues and their mega-size that allowed some of Sydney's night-time zones to become relatively ungovernable. There are no edges between the venues to police, as one senior NSW officer once told me.

Part of the reason the smaller bar movement has been so successful is that they are safe (with their own set of self-governing norms), they are manageable without over-zealous security, and they have fostered live music and local culture. Some of these could easily and safely have more flexible regulation than they currently enjoy.

What of the violence? Well it's beyond debate that assaults have dropped. No fudging of statistics. Not as much as Premier Baird would like us to believe, however, but if one looks at the actual number of reported assaults they are lower than most people might think.

Simply, if less people are going to an area, there are likely to be less assaults (in most circumstances). So, if we drop the laws - without other action - we will likely get more assaults again. That's a decision about the kind of community we want.

And how come those of us who want regulation and governmental intervention into our lives for welfare safety nets, public hospitals and gun control, and want to see more regulation around company tax and domestic violence, suddenly think the late-night economy should be beyond regulation?

No, we can't stop every assault happening, and we shouldn't be living out lives through the lens of negative risk.

We need some consistency of argument. We need to both have a drinking culture in Australia, and to change it for the better. Let's hope the recently announced inquiry can actually look dispassionately at the evidence and the levels of harm done both to people and our once vibrant nightlife.

Murray Lee is Professor of Criminology at the Sydney Law School. He has conducted research in partnership with the City of Sydney on perceptions of crime in the city. This article was originally published in ABC's The Drum.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

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