Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
New ways to whet the appetite
A change in drinking laws won’t necessarily mean the transformation of a city’s cultural make-up, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s not just about alcohol. That would be complicated enough, in a booze-soaked society such as ours. No, the argument over liquor licensing in NSW takes in gambling, music, planning, health, competition and the creation, or not, of that mysterious nature-grappling device we call culture.
And although – this is the good news – there are three major liquor reforms under way in NSW, none seems likely to go the whole hog and line our streets with funky neighbourhood drinking holes a la Melbourne.
This sheets back to government, and the old, vexed question of whether we can trust it: not just to be honest, but to have our best interests at heart. The liquor issue is looking like an instructive microcosm of why democracy, Sussex Street-style, is unable to deliver even what we want – like a lively, interesting city – much less what we don’t want, like any deviation from the climate-change lemming-walk.
The core of the issue is humanity’s driving conflict. We want the alcohol, but not the harm it can deliver; the party, but not the hangover. This dilemma became material in 2003 when the Carr government received two near-diametrically opposed reports on drinking in NSW. One was the National Competition Policy Review of liquor licensing in NSW, conducted by the Office of Gaming and Racing, dated October 2003. The other was the Interim Report of the NSW Summit on Alcohol Abuse, dated December 2003.
The competition review recommended simplifying and deregulating the liquor system, more flexibility, and fewer, cheaper licences. From where it sat, deregulation and community interest were identical. The alcohol summit focused on harm minimisation, drawing strength from Bob Carr’s much quoted view that “our love affair with alcohol has its roots in the earliest days of the Australian colony when settlers were paid in rum … Drunkenness soon became part of life and we have been grappling with it ever since.”
Here, the facts are undeniable. The Government puts the cost of alcohol abuse at $7.6 billion annually. Alcohol contributes to most violent crime: 80 per cent of domestic violence, 42 per cent of homicides, 16 per cent of child abuse and 12 per cent of suicides. The Australian Medical Association estimates that up to 25 per cent of all medical consultations involve harmful use of alcohol.
We all know the scene: people for whom socialising involves mainly guffawing about how legless they were last night or how off their face they’ll be tonight. And it’s not just middle-aged blokes. Across Australia, booze cuts a swathe through the indigenous population, killing 1145 people between 2000 and 2004, average age 35. It kills one Australian teenager a week, says the Perth-based National Drug Research Institute, and in NSW it puts 100 under-age drinkers in hospital every month. Schoolchildren everywhere binge-drink habitually, and often.
The knee-jerk response is to regulate with tougher laws, more intensive policing, harsher punishments. If alcohol causes harm, make it harder to get. In particular, make the liquor licence hoop harder and more expensive to jump through.
One such rule has been the dreaded “social impact assessment”, a prerequisite for any hotel or off-licence application so beloved by the Iemma Government that it is about to extend it, albeit in reduced form, to all other licence types. The assessment is a fat, consultant-produced report that collects local information on liquor outlets and demography – noting, in particular, numbers of young, indigenous, poor or unemployed people – in order to minimise harm to patrons and the neighbourhood.
This looks like caring government, in a clunky, nanny-knows-best sort of way. But think again. Since the assessment is commissioned and paid for by the applicant, it not only adds $50,000 to $100,000 to the licence cost but often favours that applicant in its findings. Its most profound effect, therefore, has been to encourage large, wealthy, existing drinking establishments over small, new or impecunious ones.
So directly has this served the monopoly lobby, aka the Australian Hotels Association, that it might as well be renamed the big hotels policy. It could, of course, be an unintended side effect. Or it could just be another convenient hypocrisy that just happens to privilege the very industry that, between 1998 and 2005, laid golden eggs worth more than $3 million in the Sussex Street nest.
But there’s more at stake here than government honesty. If harm minimisation is the goal, it’s clearly not working. As Superintendent Frank Hansen, head of the police drug and alcohol co-ordination unit, noted recently, alcohol-related crime absorbs about $50 million a year in police time – “that’s 1000 police salaries” – and it’s not the restaurants and nightclubs. “It’s the big hotels that take up police time.” Around Oxford Street, pub violence is so bad that police are running at “full authorised strength” for the first time in years, says Surry Hills superintendent Daryl Donnolley. The city council has had to establish a new “drop-in safe space” on Oxford Street for people feeling threatened by violence.
Behaviour modification is always tricky. We know that prohibition is never the answer and partial bans like the six o’clock swill of the 1950s simply lead to “power-drinking”, concentrating drunkenness as a dam concentrates water. Arguably, the big hotels policy has the same effect, only in space, not time; pooling the drunken brawling around particular pubs.
A better strategy might be closer to the counter-intuitive “naked streets” idea that has seen driving behaviour improve, rather than worsen, in response to deregulating traffic. Giving people more freedom and responsibility, it seems, can make them behave less like children, more like civilised adults. Within a year of New Zealand’s 1989 liquor deregulation, for example, the big pub police teams were disbanded.
The NSW Government’s new liquor amendment bill, unveiled this week, will scrap the Liquor Administration Board, leaving the approval processes up to the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing. It will replace the social impact statement with a smaller, less onerous and more finely tuned community impact statement. And it will reduce and simplify licence categories, making small bars possible.
This is a victory for the Raise the Bar movement and for the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, who took advantage of the years of government paralysis to sneak her own small bars bill into Parliament, forcing the Government to filibuster while frantically negotiating under the covers. That’s reform No.2.
The third is the new state planning policy, gazetted last month, that streamlines music venue approval by putting it into the in-tray of the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor. A fourth reform is the new gaming guideline, expected any day, that will follow South Australia’s example in redirecting a portion of pokie revenue to the arts.
Of course, Moore’s bill won’t get up. But the Government’s will, taking many of her ideas on board. What else might need to change, though, for Sydney drinking to smell and feel less like dinosaur rissole and more like the thriving, adventurous scene in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, London or Wellington? Sadly, still quite a lot.
In those cities bars are more like cafes. They start almost casually, often run by artists, musicians and sympathisers needing a home venue. Such bars may live or die, but collectively they establish a kind of sea-grass nursery for an entire reef ecology of colourful cultural animals. And once the artists come, so do the patrons, locals and tourists.
In New Zealand, says the Restaurant Association’s president, Mike Egan, “the big booze barns eventually closed”. This is what scares the Australian Hotels Association protectionist oligarchy.
Even with the new liquor bill, it won’t happen any time soon. Say you wanted to open a small bar where like minds could take tea or absinthe, talk weather or existentialism, listen to rap or haiku, play chess or pinball in darkest Wollongong, Parramatta or Chippendale, what would you have to do?
Apart from a liquor licence, if you want to offer any form of live entertainment, from the occasional haiku reading to weekly hip-hop, you become a Place of Public Entertainment. A PoPE. And, Vatican quips aside, being a PoPE in NSW is no joke. As a PoPE you are required by state law to get council certification of compliance with the fearsome Class 9B of the (federal) Building Code of Australia. This means flame-retardant construction, disabled access and toilets, emergency lighting and two or more metre-wide fire exits. Three levels of government; many, many dollars.
As a PoPE in Sydney’s city centre you must also satisfy council’s new draft late-night trading premises plan, which means full documentation of acoustics, numbers, fixed and unfixed seating, noise attenuation, security arrangements, consultation with local police, street control, resident-friendliness, trial periods and so on.
The Liquor Act 1982 defines entertainment as specifically live. In 2001, the Supreme Court’s Justice Peter McClellan found that merely providing entertainment doesn’t make a pub a PoPE. But the Local Government Act 1993 defines any “theatre, or public hall or … licensed premises” as a PoPE, thus implicating all bars, pubs and clubs. All, that is, except pokie premises.
Both state law and city policy specifically exempt “approved gaming machines” from counting as “entertainment”. Not only does this hugely favour poker machines over any form of live entertainment, it also suggests that any publican worried he may own a PoPE need only install a pokie or two, and he’s home free.
So banning pokie machines from designated small bars, as the Government proposes to do, is all very well. But the PoPE will be there still, keeping Sydney’s cultural grain dull and coarse. None of the current liquor-reform proposals will abolish it. Could this relate at all to tax revenue?
TWO PHOTOS: Transformation … Albion Place between Kent and George streets, Sydney, could become a food and drink venue like Block Place, off Collins Street in Melbourne. Photos: Robert Pearce and Andrew De La Rue