Drink Tank

Beware the creep

Are there any politicians in New South Wales who will stand strong and take the necessary action to stop alcohol harm?

There are only two who I know of in the last five years; John Robertson and Linda Burney, who both showed prescient leadership and acknowledged the mess Labor had created.

Barry O’Farrell was eventually moved to action after the summer of discontent in 2013-14, famously introducing 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks in Kings Cross and Sydney CBD licensed venues, along with a 10pm closing time for bottle shops across the state. A long overdue, but commendable package of measures to stop alcohol-related violence and save lives.

The current NSW Premier Mike Baird has tried, but he has already paid a high price for defending O’Farrell’s leadership – suffering ludicrous post-truth criticism from a handful of self-interested bar owners and an army of disaffected anti-government types who hopped on Keep Sydney Open bandwagon.

As for Luke Foley’s Labor, it is clear their policy positions are now solely driven by base political needs. It’s back to the future for Labor.

And sadly, it seems even Baird lost his nerve last week, as he announced the relaxation of Sydney’s liquor laws and flagged the possibility of further liberalisation in time.

The NSW Government announced that lockout times will soon be pushed back from 1.30am to 2am and last drinks from 3am to 3.30am for ‘live music’ venues in Sydney’s CBD and Kings Cross.

The definition of a ‘live music’ venue will be determined by the departmental Secretary (with these approval rights no doubt delegated), but is already vastly looser than anything proposed by Justice Callinan in the Independent Liquor Law Review.

And although lockouts predictably dominated the headlines, the roll back goes way beyond these half hour relaxations.

The announcement also included a series of tweaks that will significantly increase alcohol’s availability in Sydney’s night-time entertainment precincts. An equation that will see increased harm.

Regrettably, the state-wide ban on takeaway sales and home delivery services will be extended from 10pm to 11pm, in a premature decision that almost certainly exposes women and children to greater risk of family violence. This is disappointing to say the least, as no thorough analysis or evaluation has yet been undertaken to document the impact of this policy measure.

The definition of a ‘small’ bar has also increased from 60 to 100 patrons, which adds a further 15 outlets that can automatically trade until 2am to the mix in an already saturated Sydney liquor environment.

And by the way, apparently the owners of venues will no longer be held accountable for violence and criminal activity on their premises. Where ‘strikes’ under the three strikes disciplinary scheme were previously incurred by those with a financial stake in the business, this responsibility will instead be borne by the venue operator, that is, whichever mug agrees to have their name on the licence at the time. Rich mates or dispensable employees?

Increased alcohol harm in our community directly correlates to its increased affordability and availability.

In Australia, this did not come about overnight. It came about through small changes that progressively relaxed alcohol controls. A slow insidious creep.

We didn’t get to 24/7 trading instantly. It took 20 or more years of creeping deregulation – and left unchallenged, we will get there again.

It is regrettable to see backpedalling in New South Wales, as the modest reductions in alcohol’s availability resulted in significant decreases in assaults, emergency department presentations, and hospitalisations.

I have no doubt the people of New South Wales will be watchful and vigilant, and very quick to react if they see any escalation in alcohol harm in their community.

The question is, will their political representatives be as vigilant?

Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn

Michael is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), and tweets from @MichaelTThorn.

1 comment

  • Terrific article, thank you Michael. This is exactly what we need to be aware of. The incremental creep of alcohol trading liberalisation is what brought us the booze-soaked disasters of Kings Cross, Sydney CBD and Oxford Street over the last decade pre-lockouts. It is not in anyone’s interest that we go back there — not the community’s, politicians’ or even publicans’.

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