WHAT’S THE STORY?
FOR many in Sydney the news that rocker Bruce Springsteen was unable to go out with his band for a few drinks is proof the city’s nightlife is being ruined by draconian licensing laws.
They believe the new rules brought in to curb late night violence – which has resulted in the deaths of two young men in separate incidents – are misguided and an attempt by moralising evangelists to sneak in prohibition.
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Opponents to the laws claim they are forcing nightclubs and bars to close and throwing hundreds of people out of work.
They hope that the retiral of “Casino Mike” Baird as premier of New South Wales will see the new state government relax the laws before Sydney becomes “more boring than Melbourne”.
However, since the laws, known as “lockouts”, were introduced in 2014, assaults have dropped substantially.
“There’s been a dramatic drop in assaults in Kings Cross and the Central Business District (CBD) and no spillover anywhere else,” said Don Weatherburn, of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
IS THERE MUCH LESS VIOLENCE?
IN June last year the bureau reported that Kings Cross had seen a 59.2 per cent decrease in assaults between 6pm and 1.30am and a 93.9 per cent decrease between 3am and 6am.
“These staggering results confirmed that the laws had finally succeeded in stemming the alcohol-fuelled violence that poured through our bloodstained streets,” said Dr Tony Sara, spokesperson for the Last Drinks Coalition, comprised of police, paramedics, doctors, nurses and health workers.
Before the laws were introduced there were up to 40 assaults per month at Kings Cross, many resulting in serious head injuries. Then came the tragic deaths of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie which became the catalyst for the new laws.
Both 18-year-olds lost their lives through a single punch in unprovoked attacks.
Facing an immense public outcry over the deaths, the government of New South Wales, led by Baird, introduced the laws which ruled that bars and clubs in certain areas of the city had to lock out any new patrons from 1.30am onwards and stop serving alcohol at 3am. Sales from off licences were barred statewide after 10pm.
There was an immediate impact on the violence with assaults in Kings Cross falling to below 20 per month and the number of patients admitted with serious head injuries at nearby St Vincent’s Hospital falling by 50 per cent.
HOW HAVE BARS BEEN AFFECTED?
HOWEVER, there was also an immediate impact on some of the country’s best known clubs and bars.
Hugo’s Lounge, six times winner of best nightclub in Australia, closed with the loss of 170 jobs after a 60 per cent drop in trade. Dozens of other licensed venues followed with Oxford Street, centre of the city’s world-famous LGBT entertainment area, particularly badly hit.
“Before the lockouts, I was running Spice Cellar, a very successful live music venue in the city,” says Murat Kilic. “We brought in performers from all around the world. We never had an incident in three years.
“Then the lockouts came and within a year revenue dropped 60 per cent. We had to close the business and let go of 20 staff and all our contractors.
“It’s pretty much unanimously accepted in my industry that nightlife in Sydney has been obliterated. It is financially untenable for most late-night venues to stay in business.”
IS THIS PROHIBITION?
AS Kings Cross’s biggest licensed premises, the X Studios have managed to stay in business but owner Ron Creevey says the lockout is costing him £123,000 per month.
“My heart bleeds for the families of those two kids who were killed. But there’s no logical reason to penalise bar owners in a certain geographical area because of something that happened on the street. In Sydney we can’t even buy a bottle of wine at a liquor store after 10pm. What are we, children?”
“To call this prohibition is not an exaggeration,” says Tyson Koh, campaign manager of anti-lockout advocacy group Keep Sydney Open. “I have sat around tables with people from vocal health lobby groups like St Vincent’s Hospital that have a very clear agenda to restrict the sale of alcohol whenever and wherever possible. They have made it very clear they have no interest in the culture or nightlife of the city.”
HOW ABOUT CASINO MIKE?
BAIRD, who was dubbed Casino Mike after it became clear that the city’s Star Casino and another planned casino are outwith the lockout area and therefore exempt from the laws, said people were right to say the lockouts were really about moralising.
However, in response to pressure he relaxed the laws in December slightly with some music venues allowed to open for another half hour of trading.
It was too late for Bruce Springsteen and his band who sought entry to a nightclub on their recent tour but were refused.
City Councillor Jess Scully believes the laws should be reformed as she thinks they have “criminalised a cultural expression” and the “right to party”. She is calling on new premier Galdys Berejiklian to look at them again.
“Whichever way you look at it – lockouts are unsustainable,” said Scully. “You can’t say Sydney is a global city where tourism is one of the main economic drivers and then have Bruce Springsteen going home and telling everyone he couldn’t get a drink after midnight.”