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Lockout laws: ACT Govt misinterprets the evidence

With laws to combat alcohol-related violence, including lockouts, reaching their third year in parts of Sydney and being prepared for roll out in Queensland, the same can’t be said for Canberra.

Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Chief Minister Andrew Barr recently announced that his government would not be following the examples of New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland and introduce lockout laws as part of the ACT Government’s response to alcohol-fuelled violence.

I was disappointed that the Chief Minister had rejected lockout laws that appeared to be working elsewhere to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence.

I’m a little bit surprised by the misinterpretation of the clear evidence that when lockouts came in, particularly in Newcastle, there was a marked reduction in alcohol-related violence and violent injuries presenting in the emergency department.

I have called on the Labor leader to visit an emergency department in the early morning to understand the benefits Canberra could enjoy with extra controls on bars and clubs.

There are big pressures on emergency waiting times in the ACT and it’s so difficult having drunk people and victims of violence there.

NSW and Queensland

The NSW lockout laws, as they apply in certain parts of the Sydney CBD, Kings Cross and Darlinghurst, ban takeaway alcohol sales after 10pm with a venue lockout in place from 1.30am and last drinks at 3am. Alcohol-related violence has reduced significantly since the new laws were introduced and NSW Premier, Mike Baird, has cited a 42 per cent reduction in assaults over the period in the area where the laws apply.

An independent review of the effectiveness of the NSW laws is currently being undertaken by former High Court justice, Ian Callinan. The review, which will report in August, will also consider the impact of the new laws on “business viability and vibrancy”.

Meanwhile, in Queensland the Palascuk Government has been successful in getting new lockout laws through their parliament. The new laws, which are to take effect from 1 July this year, will see a number of changes but primarily will introduce a new requirement that sale and service of alcohol will cease at 2am.

The exception to this will be venues trading in a “safe night” precinct that will be allowed to continue serving alcohol until 3am on the condition that they have a 1am lockout.

ACT Govt White Paper

To their credit, the ACT Government has been going through a lengthy white paper process to review local liquor laws including extensive consultation with stakeholders. This has resulted in the release, earlier this month, of the Government’s Building on Liquor Reform white paper.

In relation to late night alcohol-related violence, the Government proposed three options:

  • Restrict last sale of alcohol on premises to 3am and retain current licensing fees
  • Restrict last sale of alcohol on premises to 4am with a 300 per cent increase in licensing fees
  • Restrict last sale of alcohol on premises to 5am with a 300-500 per cent increase in licensing fees

The white paper proposes that additional revenue from licensing fees would be used to fund safety measures such as additional police or infrastructure.

At the same time, small venues, that seat 80 or fewer guests, will have their licensing fees reduced by 75 per cent.

Exemptions from the NSW lockout laws apply to smaller venues as they do for some tourist locations and restaurants.

While there is a balance to be struck between lockout laws and citizens’ rights generally, doctors working in any major hospital know only too well the sorts of cases they are likely to see on a Friday or Saturday night. The dilemma faced by the ACT Government is that they propose to go down a different path to NSW and Queensland in circumstances where the NSW evidence seems compelling.

At least by August we will have the outcome of the Callinan review of the NSW laws and will be better informed all round.

This article is an edited version of a piece first published in March 2016 by the AMA ACT publication, Canberra Doctor.

Steve Robson

Professor Steve Robson is the President of the Australian Medical Association (ACT)

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