Drink Tank

Drunk on power

Sadly it appears the days of responsible and participatory democratic governments, “by the people, for the people” are long gone in New South Wales (NSW).

The last semblance of this facade was recently blown away when both Houses of Parliament passed the Gaming and Liquor Administration Amendment Bill 2015 in the dead of night, under the pretence that this legislation had no policy impact and was about improving the structural efficiency of liquor and gambling regulation in NSW.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

NSW Deputy Premier Troy Grant, who was responsible for rushing the Bill through, insisted that no community consultation or regulatory impact assessment was required for the proposed “housekeeping” amendments that would ensure liquor and gambling regulation became “fit for purpose”. Such honourable intentions would not normally attract any opposition.

However, the people of NSW community are adversely affected by alcohol and gambling and are consequently strong advocates for bona fide improvements in the administration, regulation and enforcement of laws governing these industries.

Only the effective, impartial and transparent coordination of these government functions can sustainably prevent harms state-wide, ensuring that informed local communities have a fair and equal say in all liquor and gambling licensing decisions that may have an adverse impact on their safety, welfare and amenity.

Sadly, the new laws fall well short.

The Bill, which has attained Royal Assent, severely emasculates local communities’ existing rights. This includes their ability to lodge objections to high risk liquor or gambling outlets, with appeals to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) only available to those living within a maximum of 100 metres from the applicant. Research clearly shows that related harms from such venues infiltrate a few kilometres into surrounding residential communities.

Such draconian restrictions, which have consistently been advocated for by Woolworths (owners of Dan Murphy’s and BWS) and other industry representatives, bear no honest connection with the “purpose” of the so-called “housekeeping” structural law changes.

Under the Bill, NCAT (an organisation with no experience or expertise in preventing these kinds of harms), will now have the ultimate say on all controversial alcohol and gambling related decisions. This creates a whole new layer of costly and complex legal processes that are heavily weighted in favour of the cashed up industry.

In very practical terms, this will have a huge impact on groups such as the NSW Casula community who have been struggling for nearly two years against the imposition of a high risk pub only 135 metres from a public school. Under the new legislation, 97 per cent of the unprecedented 2,000 concerned community members who opposed the hotelier’s original application, will be locked out from appealing any subsequent liquor license approval to NCAT because they live in the nonsensical exclusion zone more than 100 metres from the proposed site. The same laws which our NSW Deputy Premier is convinced will be “better” for the community.

The timing of these new laws could not have been better for the proponents of problematic alcohol and gambling outlets.

This latest move makes sense in the recent context, with an emergent pattern of statutory and policy amendments and decisions that unashamedly have, or are very likely to, transfer even more power and revenue to the all-powerful liquor and gambling industries at increasing cost to the NSW community and taxpayers.

These include the impending reviews of Sydney’s effective last drinks laws, review of the 10pm state-wide closing of bottle shops, and other impediments to industry profits, political donations, and support.

It comes as no surprise that key elements of the new Bill which go against community sentiment – such as the draconian exclusion zones, the erosion of the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA)’s independence, and additional appeal rights favouring applicants – all mirror earlier industry submissions to government.

In stark contrast, there was no genuine community consultation for this Bill. One token meeting was held with a number of peak organisations, none of whom represented local communities, where the details of the Bill were not discussed and no constructive input was entertained on what the Deputy Premier and his Department insisted was a “done deal”.

This is the new arrogant face of political corporatism or “clientelism” in NSW. The interests of the ordinary people, like those from Casula, whose sin is seeking a safer community and demanding a fair and informed say, are being treated with dismissive contempt under the awful Orwellian guise that the changes “are good for them”.

We pray it’s not too late for the NSW Premier’s intervention. To ensure a belated genuine two-way consultation with the community, and to ameliorate the more blatant partisan elements of the proposed laws, which will inevitably have a detrimental impact on both alcohol and gambling related harms and the perception of the NSW Government’s credibility and compassion.

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”.


Join our mailing list