Step 1: Use the tragic deaths of young men to create a public panic about young people going out and drinking
Step 2: Introduce draconian lockout laws that restrict access to alcohol after certain times of the night
Step 3: Watch as your city’s once-vibrant nightlife and live music scene is destroyed
Does this formula sound familiar to you? It might well be because it almost happened to Melbourne. In June 2008, the Brumby government introduced lockout laws in inner-city Melbourne. Three months later, amidst massive public uproar, the reforms were abandoned.
The NSW government introduced lockout laws of their own in November 2014, following a series of high profile one-punch deaths. A scathing piece by entrepreneur Matt Barrie criticising the lockouts, and Premier Mike Baird’s subsequent response, has recently led to an explosion in public debate about the lockouts.
But what are the lockout laws? They refer to a suite of measures designed to restrict access to alcohol at licensed venues, so as to reduce violence on the streets. There have been various versions of lockout laws previously or currently in force across different Australian jurisdictions. This article is primarily concerned with the NSW laws. The NSW lockouts prevent people within the CBD and King’s Cross precincts from entering licensed venues after 1:30am, and enforce last drinks at 3am. They also enforce a state-wide ban on takeaway alcohol sales after 10pm, crack down on licensees breaching conditions, and increase punishments for individuals causing trouble. However, the controversial part of the laws are the lockouts and last drinks.
Opponents of the laws love to call them an example of Australia becoming a ‘nanny state’. I hate that phrase, because it suggests that the government has no role to play in regulating our private life to ensure equity and safety. The government is absolutely obliged to tax the rich to support the poor, or to force people to wear bike helmets to prevent head trauma. The question we must ask is this: can the restriction of our freedom be justified by the net benefit that we receive?
Once you look past the spin and hysteria, it is clear that lockout laws, in Sydney and elsewhere, are an enormous public policy failure that have a limited effect in stopping violence, and immeasurably change large cities for the worse.
The main benefit claimed by Baird and his counterparts is a drastic reduction in violence. It is correct that since the introduction of the lockouts in Sydney, assaults in the Kings Cross and CBD entertainment precincts have declined by 40%. However, foot traffic in these areas have also declined by 58-80% between 11pm and 4am. While violence has been reduced, this has been an obvious consequence of reducing the number of people in the area.
Dr Jeff Rich, a senior public servant in the Victorian Department of Health, who advised the Brumby Government on alcohol policy, is unsure that, “alcohol related violence is a huge problem: it’s hard to work out what constitutes alcohol related violence.” Public alcohol related violence is, by nature, extremely visible. This violence generally involves young people. Therefore, it presents an easy target for populist governments who want to be seen as tough on law and order. It is simple for governments and police forces to restrict the liberties of young people, so as to win the votes of Herald Sun readers.
Young people are an easy scapegoat for governments everywhere. With an aging population resulting in ever older, conservative and cautious voter bases, it is easy to portray young people as out of control and reckless, and use this image to justify crackdowns on their freedom. Let’s be real: the key stakeholder affected by the lockouts is young people. Young people make up the majority of people who are out on the weekend. Young people dominate crowds in live music venues. Our voices of protest against the lockouts are not being heard because of a power imbalance between generations. Younger generations do not have the same access to money and power as older people, and so our views and concerns are not as easily heard.
The problem with only targeting violence in the streets is that it ignores other, more pernicious, forms of violence in our society. While statistical analysis by the NSW government shows that violence has not moved to entertainment precincts outside the CBD, the lockouts do nothing to stop people from punching on at house parties instead. As usual, women are also sidelined. Domestic violence, as well as sexual violence against women, occurs primarily in the home. Since it’s not as prominent as street brawling, and doesn’t win as many votes, governments have not responded to this problem nearly as drastically. Because law and order does not extend to invisible women being assaulted in the privacy of their own homes, does it?
Moreover, Rich is adamant that the government needs a serious focus on alcohol health policy, to achieve better acute and long-term health outcomes. “We need to encourage people to drink less alcohol, for health reasons, regardless of the violence. Unfortunately, the health concerns are not as visible as the rowdiness on the street.” This is another major problem with the government’s purported benefit: the hysteria surrounding lockout laws means that the incredibly important conversations regarding alcohol health policy are obscured by governments with perverse incentives.
So we’ve established that claims of government and police are dubious at best. But what about the harms caused by the lockouts?
The decimation of small business has been explored extensively in the media, particularly in Barrie’s essay. However, a city is not just its economy: the character and soul of the city is largely defined by its nightlife and culture. A city’s live music scene is particularly important for this.
Baird’s incredibly patronising Facebook post described the effect of the lockouts as, “that you can’t drink till dawn any more and you can’t impulse-buy a bottle of white after 10pm.” What Mr Baird does not understand is that a city’s nightlife is much more than the means for you to get gacked with your mates.
A city’s nightlife is the beating heart of the city. The buoyant atmosphere when the streets are filled with revellers. The excitement of dancing into the morning. The wonder of exploring lanes and alleyways that are so changed from their daytime visage. These things are essential to a city’s culture. The entertainment industry cross-pollinates other aspects of our culture: food, music, art, sport. What various governments do not seem to understand is that for cities to be liveable, they need culture. Not state-sponsored growth plans and redevelopments, but organic, grassroots culture.
An essential part of this culture is the live music scene. Venues that cater to live music feed the unique character of the city that develops through its local music. More importantly, it provides a means for small bands to form, develop, and grow. Without a vibrant live music culture, many budding bands would never get off the ground. Recent figures show a 40% drop in live music revenue, and the closure of several iconic Sydney venues such as Soho and Hugo’s Lounge. These venues have been bastions of Sydney’s culture for generations, and cannot easily be replaced. The decimation of the live music industry truly is a tragedy.
How does the situation in Sydney compare to Melbourne? In 2008, the introduction of lockouts was immediately met with widespread public protest, with strong backing by the live music industry, and venues such as the Toff. By contrast, in Sydney the opposition to the lockouts was initially sluggish and only began to convincingly marshal itself this year. What a difference this has made.
In Melbourne, Premier Daniel Andrews’ government actively encourages a vibrant late-night culture. People are not prevented from going out and enjoying themselves with a drink, but are able to immerse themselves in a cosmopolitan and thriving culture. People don’t just go out to get fucked up. They are able to enjoy all night celebrations of culture such as White Night, night markets, and moonlight cinemas. Importantly, the Victorian government’s new public transport Night Network also facilitates safe and accessible travel for people who want to be in the city late into the night. Allowing people to safely enjoy themselves is what makes a great city.
Stopping violence is imperative for governments everywhere. However, we need to recognise that violence does not only occur on the streets. We also need to look at the health effects of alcohol, rather than just the violence that it might prompt. According to Rich, “there are other ways of achieving [a reduction in violence], and these laws come at too great a cost at some people’s freedom… In Victoria, people curbed their behaviour without the lockouts, and violence also decreased.” What is needed is government and community led cultural change, rather than arbitrary controls on when and where we can have fun.
The lockouts represent a cynical political calculus that looking tough on law and order will win over nervous conservative older voters. It is a clever ploy, and it has worked. In NSW, the lockouts enjoy majority public support. These dreadful laws will help to ensure Baird’s government is re-elected, but at the price of breaking Sydney’s heart.