What’s this Lockout Law all about?
There's been plenty written about the legislation that Barry O'Farrell's office pushed through both houses of State Parliament last week. In response to the growing community demand for action against alcohol-related violence - including a petition of 142,000 signatures, started by the family of Thomas Kelly - the NSW government has introduced a range of measures, with this end in mind.
The 'coward's punch' half of the legislation has increased the maximum sentences for those who commit assault while intoxicated by two years across the board. A mandatory minimum sentence of eight years has been introduced for assault leading to death, whether directly or indirectly, where the perpetrator is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Further, voluntary intoxication by either drugs or alcohol will no longer act as a mitigating factor during sentencing. These measures are already in effect.
The legislation has delineated a new CBD Precinct, covering from Central Station to The Rocks, and stretching east to King's Cross and Oxford Street. The 'lockout' half of the new laws, to be implemented on the 24th of February, will apply to venues within the CBD Precinct. Bars, pubs and clubs in the area will be forced to close their doors to patrons at 1.30am, and stop the service of alcohol at 3am. There will also be a new licensing scheme introduced, with increased fees for venues in high-risk areas, though these fees can be reduced 'through improved compliance.' Additionally, no new liquor licences will be issued to new venues within this precinct. Bottle shops statewide will be forced to close by 10pm.
While everyone can agree that aiming to curb alcohol-related violence is laudable, the recent legislation has been met with its share of controversy. The Sydney Late Night Culture Alliance - comprising MusicNSW, FBi Radio, GoodGod Small Club, Oxford Art Factory and inthemix, amongst others - has started the '1.31am Keep Sydney Open' campaign, emphasising the cultural cost of the new laws. The live music and performance industry, they suggest, will be crippled by the new legislation, and Sydney's reputation as a thriving entertainment destination will suffer.
Beyond the cultural impact on Sydney's nightlife, pragmatic issues with the legislation have been raised. There are concerns that the free buses connecting to the CBD will be insufficient to deal with the enforced early morning exodus from venues (anybody who's ever tried tackling late night public transport in Sydney is right to be skeptical!). This problem of transport looks to be exacerbated by the already frustrating lack of cabs around the 3am changeover time. Further, many have questioned the logic of forcing people onto the streets, where the appalling acts of violence are predominantly taking place; it's not unreasonable to think that a 3am cut-off will lead to a CBD-wide half hour of accelerated drinking - a rush to buy and chug before cut-off - only to have patrons from all venues spill onto the streets at once, drunk and frustrated.
It's not just the restrictions on venues that have raised eyebrows. Recently, NSW Supreme Court Justice Tom Bathurst has encouraged discussion on the legislation, questioning "whether, regardless of the circumstances in which an offence was committed and regardless of the circumstances of the offender, a particular mandatory minimum sentence will always be justified." Bathurst suggests that a discourse on the new legislation should consider any unintentional influence on legal proceedings. Certainly, the new laws are likely to discourage early guilty pleas, and it's possible that juries may be less likely to give a verdict of guilty, knowing the full extent of the sentence attached.
As the NSW Premier himself has said (with a somewhat unfortunate choice of words), "it's incumbent upon all of us to play our part if we are to stamp out this unacceptable behaviour and change the culture that surrounds it." The intention behind the new legislation is commendable, and taking action to reduce violence on our streets is, unfortunately, absolutely necessary. However, the hurried introduction and potentially problematic implementation of this new legislation has, thus far, only caused frustration. Broad, prescriptive, blanket measures certainly send a strong message, but cannot hope to effectively deal with a problem so multifaceted. If we are to see an end to the violence that has plagued Sydney of late, we need reasoned discourse and coordination between all involved parties.
Again, from Barry O'Farrell; "If we have to come back and revisit this, if we have to fine tune, we will, because we are determined to put in place an effective regime." Well, now's the time to start.
By Jake Ausburn
Ed. Backyard Opera will continue to provide weekly coverage and updates of events affecting the Lockout Laws as they unfold. Even upon writing this article, a number of new developments have emerged - it has just been announced that the Lockout Laws will be in place from the 24th of February. In the meantime keep an eye on The Sydney Late Night Culture Alliance, a group of Sydney music and performance venues, cultural organisations and music industry stakeholders who have joined together to fight the new laws imposed on the hospitality industry, for day to day information.