Drink Tank

Alcohol law backward step

The people of Newcastle are more aware than most of the deadly impact of a deregulated liquor industry where pub and club profits are put ahead of public safety. Equally, no community in Australia has benefited as much as Newcastle from the implementation of a package of measures; primarily a modest reduction in last drinks, that was partly a result of organised local community action.

Today on Drink Tank, Tony Brown, solicitor and community campaigner warns that new laws being introduced by the New South Wales (NSW) Government will see an increase in violent alcohol related harms.

In a major concession to the powerful liquor and gambling lobby, the NSW Government will shortly change liquor and gambling laws to emasculate local communities’ opportunities to effectively oppose and prevent high risk, late trading and violent liquor and gambling venues in their neighbourhoods.

Their excuse for no substantive public consultation and regulatory impact assessment is that the changes have no policy implications. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Local grassroots community opposition, with the support of informed and experienced independent experts,  has become a small thorn in the side of large liquor and gambling behemoths such as Woolworths (Dan Murphys) and Coles (Liquorland) who control more than 60 per cent of liquor outlets and poker machines.

The link between the proliferation of large bottle shops selling and promoting unlimited supplies of cheap booze and domestic violence and related harms is well established. So too is the clear link between extended drinking times and alcohol violence.

In the past 12 months, the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority considered 20 applications for bottle shops and refused nine, including ones in Kurri and Morisset, because of likely detrimental social impact, including family and domestic violence.

For the same period, the authority considered 14 applications to extend late trading hours. All but one was refused because of the likely detrimental social impact.

This above scorecard provides ample ammunition for the industry to demand and obtain from a compliant government a better return on their investment of direct and indirect political donations and other favours. The most galling element of the government’s compliance is their misleading assertion that the  law changes are for the betterment of local communities.

I am unaware of any community submission that supported the intended law changes.

What this will mean for Kurri, Morisset, Byron Bay, Newcastle, Casula and all other residents in NSW who seek to oppose high risk liquor/gambling outlets is that only those residents living within 100 or 50 metres, and who have also lodged an objection, will have any right to oppose an approval by taking it to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

Any so called “defence” may be mustered by the government agency responsible for the new laws and answering to the minister who introduced these laws.

This lack of any meaningful “separation of powers” is a clear assault on our democratic system and a step closer to an environment conducive to “clientelism” corruption highlighted recently by the High Court.

The inconvenient truth ignored by the NSW Government is the existing massive financial and resource imbalance between a resident’s capacity to mount an effective and proportionate legal challenge compared with that of Woolworths, Coles and other industry participants accompanied by teams of senior legal counsel and other experts.

The new laws create an additional costly and complex layer of appeals and red tape that will only advantage the industry. Contrary to the government’s assertion, the tribunal is an adversarial jurisdiction where those minute number of public objectors eligible to appear can be cross examined by industry legal representatives. The tribunal has no experience and expertise in alcohol and gambling harm prevention.

It is highly likely that every adverse finding by the authority against the industry because of detrimental social impact will be appealed to the tribunal. What will they have to lose from this new second bite of the cherry? The inevitable outcome of this erosion of community rights, apart from the further enrichment of industry lawyers, will be more high risk pubs, bottle shops, late trading premises and pokies in your neighbourhood.

This will unfortunately translate into additional but preventable alcohol and gambling-related harms and undue disturbances.

This post originally appeared in The Newcastle Herald on 2 November 2015.

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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