13 May 2019

Cool Little Capital or bedtime for Canberra?

| Gavin Findlay

Just months after receiving the Cool Little Capital action plan from MusicACT and the LMO (Live Music Office), the ACT Government has caused a public outcry due to the recommendation in its recently released Liquor White Paper to introduce a 3am cutoff for service of alcohol at all licensed venues. The proposal has sparked a vigorous “Keep Canberra Open” campaign, for fear that the devastation caused to the Sydney’s CBD nightlife would be reproduced here.

The Cool Little Capital plan has outlined 25 innovative and practical recommendations to support Canberra’s growing live music and cultural events sector, bolstered by best practice gathered from around Australia. The genesis of the report lies in frustration voiced by many musicians and cultural producers in Canberra at the barriers that stifle the development of music-making in the ACT.

MusicACT held a series of industry consultations during 2014 that identified a continuing lack of suitable venues, overzealous and outdated noise and liquor regulations, Kafkaesque approvals and land planning processes and a lack of recognition of live music in the ACT Government’s arts policy.

“The Cool Little Capital plan has outlined 25 innovative and practical recommendations to support Canberra’s growing live music and cultural events sector”

The response to the report to date has been encouraging, with the ACT Government promising to deliver its response to the recommendations in full in the near future. The White Paper does include several recommendations taken directly from Cool Little Capital, including that the Liquor Act be amended to take into account the live music, art, entertainment and tourism industries, and that not-for profit organisations should be able to sell liquor at up to six small fundraising events each year without a permit.

Unfortunately the Liquor White Paper appears to be formed of two halves that are pulling in contradictory directions. One part of the paper calls for Canberra to emulate Melbourne’s laneways culture, while another part calls for the lockout laws-by-stealth that Melbourne tried, and rejected.

The paper talks about venue density and sound levels only as problems to be policed rather than part of doing business in a world-class city. Trying to put the city to bed at 3am is provincial and we can do much better with some creative thinking and dialogue between the players involved.

To make it worse, the evidence that has been presented in the White Paper about licensing restrictions is limited and selective. It says very little about the damaging effects the trading hours and license fee measures would cause to the nighttime economy. This is not acceptable when there is still significant public debate about the application of similar measures in other places.

One of the important lessons from the experience of live music venues since the Sydney CBD plan of management (lockouts) was introduced is the recognition that live music venues need to be able to cater to different types of music presentation, and ideally, be able to present two separate events on the same night. Being flexible enough to have both bands and electronic music is crucial for venue sustainability and to be a destination for younger audiences.

MusicACT believe that there are much better alternatives than the reduced trading hours and license fee measures proposed. We need a risk-based approach where capacity and primary purpose considerations could recognise well-run venues focussed on music rather than those primarily concerned with alcohol sales, as has been adopted in Victoria. We are confident that the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, understands the bigger picture and that these issues would be far better addressed by the creation of an ongoing industry/government co-regulatory roundtable.

See the MusicACT website here

Gavin Findlay is President of MusicACT
He has been a musician and cultural events producer in Canberra for more than 20 years.
He holds a Master of Public Policy degree and is currently undertaking a PhD at the ANU.

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