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Byron community turns up the heat

On 24 August 2013 I had the privilege to address around 300 Byron Bay locals at a packed public forum on alcohol harm prevention.

I discussed with them my journey to contribute in a small way to the successful reduction in alcohol-related violence and related harms in Newcastle, and about the proven, simple measures that they can implement in their community to achieve the same.

Like many Australians, I have fond memories of this exquisitely beautiful location at the most easterly point in Australia. But the Byron Bay I remember has changed. Shockingly, Byron has some of the highest rates for alcohol-related non-domestic assaults, sexual assaults and drink diving in NSW. You can read about it in these news reports:

The common denominator for all the alcohol-related crime hotspots across NSW – is the dangerous oversupply, availability and promotion of alcohol, further exacerbated by failed Responsible Service of Alcohol requirements. Around only five per cent (5 or 6 pubs and clubs) of liquor licenses in the Byron Shire serve alcohol after midnight. Yet it is this very small number of premises plus the Beach hotel that are linked to much of the non-domestic levels of violence and related harms that dominate Byron Bay’s night economy between 12 – 3am on Friday and Saturday nights.

So what’s the alternative to this kind of trading? There are a range of more socially responsible business models out there. Recent Newcastle results show that they now have more licensed premises, mainly restaurants and small bars, than when a small reduction in late trading was introduced in 2008.

A good local example in the Byron Shire is the large, very popular Brunswick pub that deliberately shuts at midnight with a commendable food, family and entertainment orientation.

The Steyne Hotel in Manly is another model business reportedly achieving sustainability and profitability, without contributing to alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour.

The late traders and their government supporters will say “we are simply responding to market demand”. Their patrons will equally assert their reciprocal “rights” to drink as much as they can, as quick as they can, for as long as they can.

I encouraged the attentive and intelligent Byron Bay audience at the forum to deconstruct these misinformed sentiments.

In October 2013, OLGR without any detailed consultation with the Byron community extended the trial of non-enforceable licensing conditions that avoided any modest precinct wide reduction of the 3am closing. The public were told by the authorities that outbreaks of alcohol violence during the first trial were a result of warmer weather and an influx of tourists.

It is understood OLGR also recommended to the Byron Bay Liquor Accord a tokenistic further voluntary reduction in last drinks to half an hour before 3am closing. It also may have suggested reducing the voluntary lockout by half an hour to 1am and more significantly, ceasing alcohol takeaways an hour earlier. These suggestions were apparently rejected by the accord.

Why are the NSW government, its local member and the Byron Council allowing just 5 of the late trading pubs and clubs to continue to call all the shots? The possible deployment of substantial additional Police and the riot squad to Byron this summer is clear testament of the manifest failure of the current kid glove capitulatory approach of liquor industry regulation in NSW.

There is a compelling case for the NSW government in view of the above recalcitrance to demonstrate their community safety and alcohol harm prevention bona fides by immediately instigating an independent evaluation and trial for 12 months of the community’s preferred evidence-based measures including significant earlier reductions in last drinks post-midnight. Newcastle recently proved not only was a small reduction great for public safety and cost reductions, it was also better for business overall.

Despite all the industry/government smokescreens and talkfests being put in the way of quickly attaining substantial and sustainable alcohol harm reductions in Byron with no additional public costs before the literal onslaught of the Christmas New Year holidays, the rapidly growing number of supporters of the Byron [email protected] campaign are to be commended for their bravery. They lead and will inspire by example, many similar disaffected communities across Australia, and are a genuine beacon for change by an unstoppable well-informed grassroots movement.

Following in the soft footsteps of 12, many other Australian communities will emerge with the assistance of organisations like the embryonic NSW Community Defenders Office. More communities in turn will effectively assert and reclaim their unalienable right to a safe and inviting town (free from alcohol related harms) for all too responsibly enjoy regardless of the time of day or night. These additional communities will also demand at least an equal say in critical liquor planning and licensing decisions that so adversely impact upon their community’s and families’ safety, health and wellbeing.

Tony Brown

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a PhD (Law) Scholar, Conjoint Fellow School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle. He is the Chairperson of the Newcastle and Hunter Region Multicultural Drug Action Teams. He voluntarily led and represented around 150 local residents, small businesses and concerned citizens in the complex legal proceedings initiated by the Police that led to the “Newcastle conditions”.

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