Sydney to ease drinking 'lockout laws'

Controversial curfews will kick in half an hour later for large bars and nightclubs next year

Controversial curfews for drinking venues and alcohol shops in Sydney are set to be eased from January following concerns that the Australian city has become "soulless" and an "international joke".

But the plan by the New South Wales state government to ease the curbs has sparked fierce debate and prompted concerns that alcohol-related violence will increase.

The state government last Thursday announced a two-year trial in which the so-called "lockout laws" will be eased for large bars and nightclubs in the inner city. Currently, they are banned from letting people in after 1.30am. During the trial, the cutoff will be 2am. Live entertainment venues will be allowed to serve last drinks at 3.30am, rather than 3am.

The earlier curfew will still apply to nightclubs, karaoke bars and strip clubs.

In addition, a state-wide ban on liquor stores selling alcohol after 10pm will be changed to 11pm.

The original restrictions were introduced in February 2014 following a series of brutal alcohol-fuelled assaults in popular nightspots around Sydney's city centre, including the deaths of two 18-year-olds.

State Premier Mike Baird said the restrictions had helped to save lives and any easing would be reversed if violence increased. "There's no doubt they have been saving lives. At the same time, there have been strong views put that there has been an impact on live music and the vibrancy in this great city."

The original restrictions were introduced in February 2014 following a series of brutal alcohol-fuelled assaults in popular nightspots around Sydney's city centre, including the deaths of two 18-year-olds.

But the measures were divisive and have exposed the difficulty that big cities can face in finding a middle ground between encouraging a vibrant nightlife and preventing alcohol-fuelled violence.

Since the crackdown, there has been a 45 per cent fall in non-domestic assaults in the popular nightspot area of Kings Cross and a 20 per cent decrease in the city. In addition, there has been a 25 per cent drop in the number of victims of alcohol-related violence at St Vincent's Hospital in the inner city.

But the curbs - especially the lockouts - have led to a strong backlash from bars, nightclubs and the tourism and hospitality sectors, which likened the measures to the alcohol prohibition laws in the United States in the early 20th century. Foot traffic in Kings Cross has fallen by as much as 80 per cent and attendance at nightclubs and dance venues has dropped by 19 per cent.

There have been public protests against the laws and some recruiters claimed the laws have made it harder to attract high-skilled workers to the city.

In a widely viewed essay on LinkedIn in February, entrepreneur Matt Barrie said "the soul of the city has been destroyed".

"Sydney, once the best city in the world, has become an international joke," he wrote.

Opponents said the moves to ease the measures are inadequate. "We're still the laughing stock of the world in terms of night-time economies," said Mr Tyson Koh, campaign manager of a group against the laws, Keep Sydney Open. "Small businesses are still on the brink and 30 minutes certainly isn't enough," he told ABC News.

But medical experts said relaxing the restrictions  risked increasing alcohol-related violence.

Other cities worldwide have grappled with a similar challenge in trying to ensure responsible consumption of alcohol though  few, if any, big cities outside Australia have introduced curfews at venues. However, "last drinks" rules can be found in cities across Canada and the US.

Despite the controversy in Sydney, there appears to be broad support for the crackdown. In August, a Fairfax-commissioned ReachTEL poll found 70 per cent supported the lockouts, about 15 per cent opposed them, and the rest were undecided.

The trial has received cautious approval from The Sydney Morning Herald, which called the measures "sensible and pragmatic" but opposed the later closing times for bottle shops. "It's a tough balance," the newspaper said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Sydney to ease drinking 'lockout laws''. Print Edition | Subscribe