Healthcare workers and the police are unhappy at the Premier’s suggestion on Sunday that her government should relax alcohol restrictions to boost Sydney’s night-time economy. Why wouldn’t they be? Extending the sale of alcohol back to 5am runs against their experiences on the frontline, and the research evidence.
I write as the author of several peer-reviewed papers examining the effects of trading hour restrictions in Newcastle and Sydney; whose findings have been scrutinised extensively and never credibly challenged. I have observed public and political debate since the Liquor Administration Board’s infamous Newcastle decision in March 2008. That quasi-independent body was abolished a few months later, its functions placed under the direct control of government.
The machinations of alcohol regulation in NSW highlighted the limitations of my work as a behavioural scientist. It was not that I expected scientific evidence to dictate public policy. Science speaks to causes and the effectiveness of countermeasures, not to societal values or political realities. It was more that decision makers seemed unwilling or incapable of taking a rational, transparent approach to their task.
Starting from the top, why would the Premier announce her government’s intentions before the select committee it set up to review the matter has concluded its work? And what had changed since Judge Callinan’s review in September 2016 to warrant another costly review?
In an increasingly complex world, we need governments that can employ science to inform their decisions. When faced with a problem to solve that means determining what knowledge is needed to inform action, and checking carefully whether it already exists, to avoid waste.
The systematic review, a method used in medical science for decades, is one way of doing that. Systematic reviews start with a replicable strategy for identifying relevant research, and carefully assess the potential for bias in each study. This is routine practice within the NSW Ministry of Health and ought to be applied to all policy-making. In the case at hand, what were the select committee’s “rules of evidence”? How were submissions evaluated in terms of the pecuniary interests of those making them? Without this, how much trust can we place anyway in the recommedations the committee makes when it does eventually report?
Where relevant evidence is lacking, as is often the case, governments must realise that their role is not merely as consumers of science, but as partners in the production of useable knowledge. That means treating the policies they implement as experiments that help guide future decisions – and commissioning independent research into the outcome.
In the case of Newcastle, and to a large extent, Sydney, we had only administrative data (arrests or hospitalisations for assault) to investigate what effects those landmark decisions had on population health. Unless the effects are large, as they were in Newcastle and Kings Cross, such blunt instruments do not enlighten, and in unskilled hands, may mislead.
This means that we will probably never know to what extent the reductions in assault seen in these cities reflect the effects of the 1:30am lockout versus 3am last drinks, how patron behaviour changed, whether police activity or hospital coding practices biased effect estimates, and why effects seem to be smaller in the CBD than in Kings Cross.
Debate on the Sydney restrictions has included frequent, voluminous, claims from industry of its beneficial impacts on the night-time economy and costs of the restrictions. These need to be carefully scrutinised and also counterbalanced by an assessment of the wider costs of those businesses. Where is the economic analysis counting the cost of caring for young people who suffer permanently disabling brain injury? What does it cost to process offenders through the judicial system?
Again, well-developed methods already exist, but government has to ask the questions and make sure they’re answered. As it is the Premier is making her decisions flying in the dark.
This article first published on 10 September 2019 by the Sydney Morning Herald as Leaders aren’t acting rationally when it comes to lockout laws