There’s something not quite right in Newcastle, not yet rotten but certainly beginning to turn.
The alcohol industry, not content to influence public policy, looks to be firmly ensconced in the driving seat, encouraged by a local city council and a pro-industry, Minister for Racing Paul O’Toole.
On 21 November last year it was clear something was amiss.
Five months earlier, the Australian Hotels Association New South Wales (AHA NSW) requested that the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) vary or revoke Newcastle’s CBD Liquor Licence conditions.
Newcastle community campaigner Tony Brown had been tipped-off that such a review was in the works and wrote to Liquor & Gambling NSW on 2 November seeking confirmation. No response was forthcoming.
Then three weeks later; the announcement. ILGA announce a snap review, with the public given only 22 days to respond. Jonathan Horton QC would lead the review.
Condemning the limited public consultation and commenting on the influence of the AHA NSW and the power it excerpts on the NSW Government, Mr Brown told the Newcastle Herald on 21 November “The master whistles and the dog barks. The community has been given until 13 December to put in submissions. How much head start has the alcohol industry had?”
Its timing was indeed ‘unfortunate’. Announced just days before NSW Parliament was to rise for the summer, and just three weeks until Christmas, this liquor licensing review, ironically enough, was looking like a Clayton’s review – the review you have when you’re not having a review. It is hard to argue anyone at ILGA has the slightest notion of best practice community consultation; involve the public from the start, don’t let one group dominate, support marginalised participants and beware of pre-conceived results. Instead the NSW government appeared to this point to have done quite the opposite.
On 24 November, in response to adverse media coverage, community outrage and the subsequent request from the NSW Upper House, the submission deadline was extended by ILGA to a more reasonable 24 January 2018, and later, to 7 February due to a procedural glitch.
On the same day the review was announced, NSW Racing Minister Paul O’Toole was delivering an up-beat outlook for the NSW alcohol industry. Speaking at the Australian Hotels Association New South Wales (AHA NSW) Awards for Excellence, and as quoted by industry mouthpiece, The Shout, he boasted “As the Minister, the New South Wales Government has made a number of reforms in relation to this industry. And I can tell you this, we are not finished there. We have got a lot of other reforms that we are going to be announcing shortly that are going to be good for your industry”.
That Paul O’Toole, the Minister responsible for liquor licensing delivered an up-beat pro-industry address to an industry audience isn’t itself a hanging offence. That he delivered those remarks on the same day the Newcastle review was publicly announced smacks of arrogance and poor judgement.
That the remarks were deleted from the online copy a few days later as community concerns about the Newcastle review grew louder, only adds to the intrigue.
In an editorial to its readers on 22 January 2018, the Newcastle Herald said “There will need to be very good reasons indeed to tinker with the laws that put an end to the bloody period in our city’s history”.
That’s a well-reasoned, and more than justified position, in light of the wealth of independent scientific evidence showing the direct relationship between the implementation of the Newcastle conditions, and the sustained and overwhelming reduction in night-time assaults.
Nor has business suffered as a result. To the contrary, from March 2008 to July 2015 there has been a 140 per cent increase in the number of on-premise liquor licences in the Newcastle CBD.
But the AHA NSW, and the Newcastle City Council want more it would seem, and would gladly trade public safety and amenity for greater industry profit.
The people of Newcastle now put their trust in what to now has been a flawed, and very questionable review process, in the hope that their life-saving measures are not dismantled, and that corporate power does not speak louder or with more authority than the truth.