I’ll declare my interest – I want Sydney to be a safer city. This is my only motivation. I’m not a religious zealot or a prohibitionist. I like a drink. I would like to see a vibrant city but also a safe and attractive one. If this means slightly shorter trading hours for pubs and clubs, so be it.
In January 2014 the O’Farrell government introduced a range of measures designed to curb the incidence of alcohol-related violence. At the time there was a call for changes, with this newspaper one of the leading advocates. The most contentious change was the 1.30am lockout laws and 3am last drinks in the Sydney precinct.
Since then there has been a dramatic drop in assaults in Kings Cross and the city. While statistics can be manipulated and misquoted it is undeniable that there are less assaults and there has not been an increase in the surrounding precincts – anyone who doubts this can see it on the BOCSAR website. In April last year Dr Don Weatherburn, director of BOSCAR, described the drop in assaults as “simply precipitous … It is certainly one of the most dramatic effects I’ve seen in my time, of policy intervention to reduce crime”.
This should be the endgame – to save lives and stop the assaults. But it’s not. There has always been opposition to the laws – there are powerful vested interests that would like to see greater access to alcohol, namely the alcohol industry itself and various associated industries. Recently vocal opponents have found a voice, no matter how misguided their comments. It seems the more personal they get, the more media exposure they receive.
Lockout laws on their own may or may not reduce the number of assaults. But when combined with earlier closing hours there is no doubt that the number of assaults falls. Whether this is more attributable to the lockouts or 3am closing is debatable. What is beyond doubt, however, is that less access to alcohol results in less violence. For every hour trading hours are reduced there is about a 20 per cent decrease in assaults.
Last week Mike Baird misquoted figures, overstating the drop in assaults, something the vocal opponent minority has grabbed with glee. The Premier’s error is inconsequential. What should be emphasised, what the media should be trumpeting, is that assaults in Kings Cross and the CBD have dropped like never before without a commensurate rise in surrounding areas. And all because of a modest decrease in trading hours.
About all I am reading is that Sydney is dead, an assault before 3am is proof that lockout laws don’t work and Amsterdam has reduced assaults by increasing trading hours. Really? Then perhaps someone could explain to me why there is a 34 per cent increase in ambulance call outs in central Amsterdam for alcohol-related injuries since trading hours have been increased by an hour.
Commentary that suggests the Cross is dead is misleading. Describing the Sydney precinct as a “ghost town” is emotive and self-serving and statistics are selectively quoted. Much has been made of a recent report for the City of Sydney into Sydney’s night-time economy and the drop in foot traffic in and around the Cross at 4am. Somehow this is construed as evidence the Cross is dead. It should be cited as evidence that the changes have worked – venues close at 3am, foot traffic is less and assaults are down. What else defines success? Earlier in the evening the story is the opposite – more foot traffic.
The common thread in the argument of the opponents is that we want a vibrant city but the laws have destroyed Sydney’s nightlife. This argument doesn’t cut it. You can still get a drink anywhere in the Sydney precinct until 3am. Small bars, most restaurants and accommodation hotels are exempt. How does this compare to other large international cities? Pretty well as it turns out. In Paris most venues close at 2am. In London it’s 3am and in New York, the city that never sleeps, most establishments close at 4am. In California last drinks is 2am, statewide.
Venue operators claim that assaults take place in the streets and they and the patrons are being unfairly punished. This argument is superficial and fallacious. The bars can’t load up patrons full of alcohol, toss them out and declaim responsibility for what happens outside the premises. They pay lip services to RSA laws – if they enforced them we wouldn’t have drunk patrons.
At the moment the vested interests, those who have an agenda to increase access to alcohol, have the upper hand. We need to ask ourselves, what sort of city do we want? A vibrant, exciting, safe city or a big, ugly threatening city overrun by drunken louts and hoodlums? I know what I prefer.
And to Mike Baird, I’ll say one thing: the majority of the people in this city are behind you – the ones you hear are a vocal minority. Most of us don’t give a stuff if another strip club in the Cross closes!
This article first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald and has been republished here with permission. Photo: Steve Lunam