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Public interest and public input abandoned in threat to Newcastle alcohol controls

The deadly spectre of Newcastle losing its life-saving package of alcohol licensing conditions has taken another step towards reality with the NSW Labor opposition supporting the alcohol industry’s demand that Sydney’s rollback of late-night measures flow to its northern neighbour. 

Since their inception in March 2008, in response to having the State’s highest rate of alcohol violence, assaults on police and drink driving, thsuccessful Newcastle conditions have been a burr in the Australian Hotels Association’s (AHA) saddleWhat the AHA has steadfastly refused to admit was that their Newcastle CBD late trading pub members – the only group that profited from Newcastle’s alcoholfuelled weekly blood bath – agreed to a compromise deal on the conditions with the Police in August 2008 to end their costly appeal to the NSW Liquor Court. 

It has been the alcohol industry’s continued willingness to misrepresent the facts, and its connections with political parties thirsty for donations, that places the public, police and public health practitioners advocating for evidence-based law reforms in such precarious situations, continually on the defensive. 

Unlike the Sydney laws contained in the NSW Liquor Act, the Newcastle conditions are enshrined in licensing conditions endorsed by the NSW Independent Liquor & Gambling Authority as late as 31 August 2018. 

Any unilateral action by the NSW Parliament to appease the powerful alcohol industry by lumping Newcastle into reported imminent changes to the Act to scrap the lockouts in Sydney would be nothing short of a coward punch to the people of Newcastle and our brave front-line emergency workers. 

Newcastle was not in the Terms of Reference for the Sydney inquiry. The Review Committee, containing some politicians who had previously supported the abolition of the lockouts and had reported connections with the alcohol industry, made a secret visit to Newcastle to hear from the alcohol industry, its supporters in Newcastle Council and the Police. No genuine notice, input or inclusiveness were afforded the public. 

Any observations and conclusions drawn by the Sydney-based inquiry regarding the Newcastle situation, subsequently relied upon by the NSW government, would be therefore potentially unreliable and fundamentally tainted. Newcastle Council has a serious pecuniary conflict of interest owning two inner city pubs with an apparent profit share arrangement with a well-known late trading venue.  

It comes as no surprise that the Council supported the AHA’s 2017 application to revoke or vary elements of Newcastle’s package of licensing conditions that enjoy overwhelming community support. The Council also supported itself becoming that primary decision-maker of licensed premise approvals and conditions under a neoliberal untested ‘incentivisation – deregulation’ model. 

Labor MPs suggested the party was taking an “evidence-based” approach to the future of the Newcastle conditions. Yet Labor and the NSW government continue to disregard the advice from the region’s leading health and police officials, which is to retain and even strengthen our package of licensing conditions. 

They are blind to the crime statistics showing that Newcastle’s safer streets resulted in a 110 per cent increase in licensed premises in the CBD, and a 72 per cent reduction in reported weekend night assaults, up until the ironically-named Newcastle “Revitalisation” Project forced the closure of many CBD businesses. 

In October 2019, the Newcastle Herald reported details of a Council of Capital Cities Lord Mayors report (including the Newcastle Mayor) that showed drink establishments account for 14 per cent of Newcastle’s night-time economy, almost double the NSW and Australian ratios.  

Yet the Member for Newcastle Tim Crakanthorp recently told the Daily Telegraph that, “Newcastle traders have also suffered under these (lockout) restrictions”. This opportunistic statement contradicted his earlier accurate representation of local businesses’ complaints that a state Newcastle Revitalisation project building a costly light rail causing lengthy street closures, had a devastating economic impact contributing to many business closures including a well-known small bar. 

Unfortunately, both the NSW government and Opposition have been very selective in the sources and accuracy of information they have relied upon to justify the scrapping of Sydney’s and likely Newcastle’s modest life-saving alcohol controls. 

The ICAC’s current investigation into political lobbying has identified the constitutional obligation of all public officials to always act in the overriding public interest – not ‘pub for short. This includes ensuring transparency, integrity, fairness and merit-based decision-making. 

It appears that what our elected leaders have to offer in Sydney and Newcastle is again, unleashing the beast of alcohol violence by extending its availability and supply and promoting industry self-regulation. This may fall far short of the above ideal gold standard of governmental integrity and delivering a civil and safe society. 

An abridged version of this post was first published in the Newcastle Herald on Tuesday 12 November 2019. 

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”.

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