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NSW residents want government to hold the line on alcohol measures

Regulations to make Sydney’s nightlife safer are an unqualified success; an incredibly important example of preventive health in action; and are exactly the measures – all of them – that the people of NSW continue to support.

This is what representatives of the NSW/ACT Alcohol Policy Alliance (NAAPA) – a group of health professionals, trauma surgeons, emergency department staff and law enforcement members – have told the Joint Select Committee on Sydney’s night-time economy.

Today I sat with my frontline health colleagues who were heartfelt in urging the Committee members to not forget the overwhelming success of the harm-reduction measures.

It’s important to remember it was the first-hand experience of harm that first inspired these trauma surgeons, nurses, ambulance officers, police, emergency staff and others in the public health sector to join together to create the NAAPA coalition.

Sydney vascular and trauma surgeon Dr John Crozier warned the Committee that any watering down of the measures would lead to surgeons around the Sydney CBD having more blood on their gloves.

We reminded the Committee of what prompted the late-night measures to keep people safe. In 2014, Sydney was a city in crisis. Blood on the streets, not hyperbole, but a reality. The package introduced by Premier O’Farrell in 2014 have had a significant and positive impact – as a suite of integrated measures.

I expressed how galling it has been for all these groups to hear constant public debate and be drawn into stakeholder discussions that pivot exclusively around alcohol venues when Sydney’s night-time economy is so much more complex.

However, the Committee persisted on focussing on last-entry. In response, I provided new evidence from the Queensland Government’s extensive analysis of the late-night measures in that jurisdiction, which does not include a last-entry measure. It can be argued that the absence of this measures was evidenced by the unrealised benefit of the harm-minimisation reforms, with the results less dramatic than that seen in Sydney or Newcastle.

The Inquiry process itself is disappointing in that it has enabled disproportionate representation of groups opposed to the measures – in other words, those with vested interests in alcohol sales. As one of my colleagues noted today, so much of this debate has been around selling more alcohol.

Just scanning recent media, both at a federal and the NSW level, the influence of industry on political decision making is unprecedented. This week our organisations have been campaigning to save the National Alcohol Strategy from vested alcohol industry interests – and the same pressure applies in this setting.

For example, it is deplorable that the only researchers appearing before the Committee are researchers with evidence yet to be peer reviewed and researchers who are on the alcohol industry payroll. Dr Rohan Miller is a former employee of pokie machine giant Aristocrat Technologies, and consultant for the Australian Hotels Association and ClubsNSW.

We have been informed by the Committee’s secretariat that he did not make a submission to the Inquiry but was specifically requested to appear on Monday.

It is also disappointing to see such an overrepresentation of the alcohol industry when the night-time economy is so much more than alcohol consumption.

People must be put before profits. We strongly urge the Committee to prioritise community interests and retain the life-saving policies introduced in 2014. They are supported by overwhelming peer-reviewed evidence and are strongly supported by the community.

Every year FARE commissions YouGov Galaxy to conduct a nation-wide poll that tracks Australians’ attitudes to alcohol policies. The NSW residents represented in that poll taken in January this year showed overwhelming support, 84 per cent, for a closing time of pubs, clubs and bars of no later than 3am, and that this support has actually increased since 2014 – up by 14 per cent.

The NSW Government can be confident it has achieved the right policy settings knowing there is also widespread support for the policies among young people with 90 per cent of 18-34 year olds supporting a closing time for pubs, clubs and bars of no later than 3am.

The measures are supported, and they are making Sydney a stronger and more vibrant place. As the Lord Mayors’ report shows, the City of Sydney has the strongest and most concentrated night-time economy in Australia, with year-on-year growth since 2011.

Sydney’s night-time economy comes in all shades and is about far more than the sale of alcohol in the early hours of the morning. It involves a complex mix of economic performance, wages stagnation, recreational spend and changing consumer behaviours, to name a few.

The political leaders who were willing to listen to scientific reason ahead of industry rhetoric and to prioritise public health and safety above alcohol industry profits in 2014, must display the same willingness to act now and stand firm. A night-time economy that is dependent on the sale of alcohol is not a healthy, vibrant or sustainable one.

There is nothing vibrant about kids being hospitalised from alcohol-related violence or alcohol poisoning. There is nothing vibrant about police or emergency department workers being abused or assaulted. There is nothing vibrant about people feeling unsafe or excluded.

With the violence gone, it’s time to focus on the vibrancy, which, as we are witnessing, is an extraordinarily interwoven cultural system and complex economic equation.

Michael Thorn

Michael was was Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) from January 2011 until November 2019

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