10 May 2019

Lockout Laws suck and we should say "No Thanks!"

| Alex Tricolas

In light of vocal and relentless opposition to the Baird Government’s lockout laws, and amid accusations of collusion with and/or cowering to casino operators in the once vibrant city of Sydney, it may behove our own politicians during this period of review to carefully consider alternatives to lockouts in our city rather than just take the lazy option that is being advocated by groups like The ACT Alcohol Policy Alliance.

One hopes that when the time comes to make the hard decisions, our rather creative and progressive pollies are not as lazy as their reactionary and regressive counterparts in NSW. Because let’s face it, this uncompromising wrecking ball of a policy has run rampant through the late night economy and destroyed a special part of what makes Sydney great.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not about to advocate for the type of binge drinking boganism that passes for a night out in some places–good riddance to those places, I say. After all, who can argue with the fact that alcohol related violence has been reduced in the areas that have introduces the lockout laws? This is the upside.

On the downside however, the lockout laws have given the mother of all ‘coward punches’ to the reputation of Australia’s global city; and it may be fair to assume that at some point down the track, Sydney will see a decline in tourism as the ‘Nanny State’ label sticks.

Beyond that, there is a fair chunk of good and decent Sydneysiders whose quality of life is enhanced and enriched by the experiences of a late night culture that feel they are being unfairly punished for a crime they didn’t commit. All the while, ‘high rollers’ at the casino get to drink to their hearts’ content as long as they keep throwing dollars at the tables.

On last week’s QandA, I was taken aback by Senior Australian of the Year, Doctor Gordian Fulde’s reply to a young man, when he suggested that if he wished to drink past the lockout, he could always “go to the casino.” This struck me as a particularly clueless comment and one that betrayed ignorance on Doctor Fulde’s part about what makes people actually want to go out, and what informs their choices.

Simply herding people to the casino with the promise that ‘that’s where the booze is at’ is not a good enough answer. Many people simply do not want to patronise a corporate owned, generic gambling den that serves no cultural purpose, that gives them no enrichment or sense of community and that they see as soul destroying.

These people’s prime motivation may not be free flowing booze until they pass out. They may want to support live music, they may be into the dance scene, they may be the thousands of hospitality workers that want to have a quiet drink after a shift serving you, or they may simply enjoy a fine whisky on the rocks after midnight–all activities that can be and regularly are enjoyed with moderate consumption of alcohol and without violent results.

These same people probably consider themselves responsible drinkers who frequent particular venues for more reasons than just to get shit-faced, and they feel their favourite venues have been unfairly lumped in with the binge-drinking element that is causing most of the trouble. They may have a point.

“Sydney type lockout laws would seem a little over the top in light of this, but one can never be sure with what zeal some elements of the community will go after something.”

To be fair to Doctor Fulde, a highly successful and accomplished surgeon who can inform us of life at the coalface should not also be expected to have all the answers when it comes to the social and cultural issues around this topic, but it serves to demonstrate that perhaps more voices need to be heard in this debate.

I wonder if the relevant authorities have listened to alternative voices or considered alternative solutions. I wonder if they have taken the time to look into the diversity of attitudes that surround alcohol consumption. I wonder if they have thought to investigate the violent episodes they wish to eradicate with a view to gaining a better insight into what factors other than alcohol may play a role in violent behaviour.

If they have, then they don’t have to look too far. A report titled Key Issues in Alcohol-Related Violence, published in December 2009 by the Institute of Criminology, found that “the strongest predictor of violence in licensed premises is the characteristics of the venue itself (Quigley, Leonard & Collins 2003).”

It goes on:

“Understanding why certain licensed venues are more problematic than others is important. There is evidence that the characteristics of venue patrons, such as young males who drink heavily, are associated with increased likelihood of violence. However the strongest predictor of violence in licensed premises is the characteristics of the venue itself.

Premises that fail to discourage aggressive behaviour while exhibiting particular physical and social characteristics that are more conducive to aggressive behaviour will more frequently attract patrons who are most likely to become involved in aggressive behaviour.

There is strong evidence for adopting strategies to create a positive physical and social environment to attract patrons that are more likely to be well behaved.”

The report also outlines “the risk factors for licensed premises relating to the characteristics of patrons, the venue, social environment, staff behaviour and the wider environment… Understanding and addressing the range of factors associated with violence in and around licensed premises is critical to the development of effective interventions.”

(My italics)

In a nutshell, there is a type of person, in a type of venue that is more likely to behave violently. I think we all know that, and I think we can use that information to guide us and achieve a more equitable outcome. It may perhaps be a harder road. It may require real thinking, real insight and real problem solving. It may require strategies that encourage the right type of venue that attracts the right type of patron.

And it may also require addressing the issue at the heart of the problem, and that is to help those in our community who have a problem with alcohol and violence. Even Doctor Fulde, one the Lockout Laws’ biggest advocates, had this to say in an interview with The Australian:

“There is a very small group of people who go absolutely out of control after even a small amount of alcohol. They are known to their girlfriends and boyfriends, friends, parents. These people should be identified and assisted to look for help.”

In Canberra, our situation is far different to that of Sydney. Certainly, there have been a couple of ‘one punch’ attacks in recent times that have been caught on CCTV and reignited the debate, but our venues seem to have self regulated to a point or simply responded to the lack of demand, as there just aren’t that many places open after 2am. Sydney type lockout laws would seem a little over the top in light of this, but one can never be sure with what zeal some elements of the community will go after something.

Today, Mike Baird stated on radio that he was open to suggestions and that, while unconvinced that things should change, was willing to listen. I would like to think that he will allow more voices to contribute to the debate, and I would like to think that we here in Canberra are too smart to follow in his government’s footsteps to date.

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