Drink Tank

Sydney wasn’t vibrant before these alcohol laws, it was embarrassing

We all want to see a vibrant Sydney, but excessively liberal licensing laws clearly weren’t working for parts of the city and that’s why restrictions ended up being part of the mix, writes Steve Pate.

A number of my friends work in the nightlife industry, from bartenders and promoters to DJs and drag queens. I also enjoy a good night out.

So as someone who believes aspects of the NSW Government’s alcohol laws introduced two years ago were both necessary and appropriate, this puts me in a precarious position. Although I am definitely not alone, with a recent Galaxy poll showing strong public support for the laws, this is not the most popular stance to take right now among my social circles.

A significant backlash has also been evident on social media, and in the anti-lockouts rally held in Sydney over the weekend. There are some legitimate grievances, but at the same time a lot of the opposition is based on misinformation verging on propaganda. The problems that existed before the laws were introduced are also far too often dismissed.

I had good reasons to support key elements of the Baird Government’s response to alcohol-related violence and its associated impacts. I was born and bred in Sydney and have been going out since the late 1990s. As the years passed by, I noticed things on the street began to seriously deteriorate.

The explosion of extended and 24-hour licences in areas like Kings Cross, Oxford Street and parts of the CBD had dire consequences. The profits to be made in the late-night binge-drinking economy disrupted the business mix and chased away many of the daytime traders such as cafes, travel agents and clothes shops. They were replaced with convenience stores, nightclub extensions and gambling lounges.

In 2012, a number of high-profile restaurants on Oxford Street shuttered their doors, with the operators citing the intensity of nearby nightclubs and the accompanying violence and ugliness as key reasons for their closures. This is often forgotten in the current debate around business impacts.

Sydney’s so-called “entertainment precincts” became magnets for drunk morons and troublemakers. Not everyone out for the night could be branded that way, of course, and what was happening on the street didn’t account for some of the good things happening in the clubs and venues, like music, shows and socialising.

But walking through any of these precincts on the way to my favourite clubs or bars (or even just to a friend’s house) after midnight on a weekend was disturbing. The scene typically involved thousands of young, extremely drunk revellers all over the streets: girls vomiting in gutters; guys urinating wherever they felt like it; over-the-top aggression; rubbish everywhere; and a general lack of respect for the surrounding environment.

Calling it ‘vibrant’ was a stretch. It wasn’t the sort of vibrancy I had experienced in places like New York and parts of Europe. The truth is it was embarrassing, and it came with a cost.

The price tag for alcohol-related harm in Australia is estimated at around $36 billion. In NSW, it has been reported that police spend over 70 per cent of their time dealing with alcohol-related issues. In 2010, a City of Sydney study observed more than 80 incidents of serious anti-social behaviour between 1-2am on a Friday night in one location in Kings Cross.

The obvious conclusion was that we had an issue with our drinking culture that needed to be addressed. Excessively liberal licensing laws clearly weren’t working for parts of Sydney and that’s why restrictions ended up being part of the mix.

Modest reductions to alcohol trading hours have been shown not only to significantly reduce assaults and antisocial behaviour, but also to transform the drinking culture for the better.

In areas where access to alcohol has been tempered and the emphasis has been taken off drinking to get drunk, positive cultural shifts have often occurred. One prominent pub owner now sees the benefits of such an approach. Even the Kings Cross Liquor Accord recently said they are willing to accept the 3am cessation of alcohol service. That the NSW government allows venues to stay open after this time if they so choose, minus the sale of alcohol, is smart and backed by experts. Risk-based licensing is another important measure the government recently introduced, which should have the effect of encouraging smaller, lower impact venues. Density restrictions could also be part of the solution, helping to avoid the same mistakes that led to the incredibly inebriated incarnation of Kings Cross.

But at the same time, I can’t ignore the arguments and concerns of many of my friends in the nightlife industry. We should listen to the calls for a vastly increased police presence in problem areas, and the 1.30am lockouts could be reconsidered after consultation with emergency workers.

The debate is passionate because we all love this city. But as frontline doctors have argued recently, what we had before wasn’t working. I’m sure there’s a compromise that can be reached but it has to involve moderation, and that includes retaining key aspects of the measures that have been proven to work, such as the 3am booze cut-off.

We want a city where there’s plenty of work for DJs and drag queens, but also a city where public health, safety and amenity are given top billing.


This article was first published on The Drum. Photo credits: Dane Meale 

Steve Pate

Steve Pate

Steve Pate is a community campaigner and activist with a special interest in alcohol-related violence and its associated impacts.

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