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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-Oct-2007

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 889

Time to raise the bar on Sydney’s risible rissole culture

Elizabeth Farrelly

Don DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man, features a performance artist whose work is to drop silently and without warning from public platforms, bridges or buildings and then to hang, stiffly posed, from a leg-rope hidden inside his business suit.

We don’t have a lot of performance art in Sydney, not beyond the silver body-paint fake-statue variety that is the performance equivalent of the hand-carved rose-scented soap koala. This is partly context. Falling Man – both the work and the novel – is a response to 9/11. We don’t have that intensity of stimulus, and long may it be so. But it’s also attitude.

The performance art we do have we tend to miss, like last week’s Raise the Bar protest outside Parliament House. Forty or 50 people gathered in 33-degree midday sun to read identical books and sip identical glasses of chilled chardonnay. Yes, OK, it was ironic. Middle class. A play on Australian Hotels Association president John Thorpe’s insistence that “we don’t want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book. That’s not what Sydney wants”. Like, who’s he anyway? It was also a pro-gesture for Clover Moore’s Liquor Amendment (Small Bars and Restaurants) Bill and an appropriately civilised protest in favour of civilisation. As councillor and protester John McInerney said: “This is not about drinking, it’s about culture.” As in, having one.

Moore’s bill was introduced to Parliament – ably assisted by the otherwise invisible Opposition – the very day Frank Sartor gazetted planning amendments meant to encourage live music in small venues. If successful, Moore’s bill will do what the Government’s pre-Olympic Liquor Act amendments purported but failed to do; namely, establish a small, cheap alcohol licence for the small, local, hole-in-the-wall bar.

Instead of costing up to $100,000, such a licence will be yours for just $500. That’s if the bill ever comes up for debate. With one hour a week allocated for debating 30-odd Private Members Bills each session, it could be a while coming. Maybe this week … and then again, maybe not. Ah, the fine art of filibuster.

The reason, for both AHA eagerness and government chain-dragging, is clear. The AHA’s liquor monopoly dates from pre-Askin days, and mindset. They’re exceedingly happy – as in determined – to keep it that way. The Government, while professing equal determination to end said monopoly, does very nicely from it, via taxes, donations and pub-held fund-raisers. It’s not like they haven’t had time to make changes.

(Interestingly, when Premier Cahill legalised poker machines in 1956, the tax revenue was to go directly to public hospitals. Tell that to the Royal North Shore.) No, the money motive is clear, however seductively clad as harm minimisation, noise control or fire safety.

What’s less clear is why we tolerate it. It takes a power cut for Sydneysiders to enjoy what people in other cities – from Paris or London to tin-pot Auckland – can have any day, any week. That is, a choice of small, casual neighbourhood bars and cafes in which to read, chat or ramble on all night over a beer, margarita or chardonnay without pokies in one ear and footie in the other.

For the AHA’s John Thorpe to claim that the book-and-chardonnay experience is not on Sydneysiders’ wishlists is arrogant, anti-competitive and hypocritical, directly contradicting the simultaneous argument that deregulating liquor will jeopardise hoteliers’ livelihoods. The fallacy of this is shown not only in the increasing frequency (and tastelessness) of local pub renovations, but by simple common sense.

If they’re right, and you can’t make a living selling alcohol sans pokies, there won’t be any competition, will there? If, on the other hand, they’re right to anticipate a significant drinker drift to the new small bars, there is clearly a demand waiting to be met.

Which poses the obvious question why, though, after so many Friedmanite decades, we supinely accept this particular monopoly? What does it say about Sydney that we have a deregulated airport, in a field where competition is impossible, so that we now pay $12 to park and $4 for a barely operable trolley, but we refuse to deregulate liquor, where the spin-off benefits for city life, physical fabric and urban culture would be immense?

Is it, perhaps, just another outbreak of old-style Sydney rissole culture? The culture-phobia that ticks as true blue the ersatz, obesogenic screen culture of pokies and cocaine-fuelled football but resists and resents anything involving talk, engagement or creativity?

It’s the same thinking that sent Lachlan Macquarie packing in 1821 for having the hide to build us decent public buildings – like the Rum Hospital that now houses Parliament itself. It’s the thinking that lets us empathise with racing-industry types temporarily impoverished by horse flu but not with the legions of musos and creatives permanently crippled by antiquated liquor laws.

Fact is, Falling Man couldn’t fall in Sydney without a host of licences, reports and committee-based approvals tucked into his knickers – not unless he beamed it to us through pay-TV. It’s almost like we want to think colonial; resisting all the way the tightest, toughest performance art that is the city itself.


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