Sydney's alcohol curbs reduce street violence - and fun

Australian rugby fans watching their team lose to New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup final at a pub in Sydney on Nov 1, 2015.
Australian rugby fans watching their team lose to New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup final at a pub in Sydney on Nov 1, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Critics call for tweaks as they say 2-year-old law, under govt review, has hurt nightlife

Following a spate of violent street attacks in Sydney two years ago, the authorities decided to introduce a controversial set of measures to try to curb alcohol consumption and make the city safer.

The drastic move by New South Wales' government involved restrictions on bars and nightclubs, including strict curfews. Large venues in the inner city were subjected to 1.30am "lockouts", meaning they cannot let people in after that time, as well as a ban on serving drinks after 3am. In addition, liquor stores across the state were barred from selling alcohol after 10pm.

The moves have led to big drops in violence and were largely welcomed by residents in affected areas but have caused ongoing debate on whether the city's vibrant late-night atmosphere has been blunted, leading to calls to scrap the laws.

The state government is conducting an independent review of the laws but is reportedly planning to keep them in place.

"The independent review will consider factors including impacts on alcohol-related violence and... upon businesses and their patrons and impacts on community amenity," acting state Premier Troy Grant was quoted as saying by Sydney's Daily Telegraph earlier this month.

The measures, which came into effect in February 2014, followed a series of assaults, including the deaths of two 18-year-olds, Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie, in the popular nightspot district of Kings Cross.

The deaths of the teenagers, who were the victims of "one punch" blows in 2012 and late 2013, caused public outrage and led to the swift passage of the laws in Parliament.

In the two years since, there is little doubt that the laws have made the streets of Sydney safer.

According to St Vincent's Hospital, which is near the inner-city district affected by the lockouts, there was a 25 per cent fall in the number of seriously injured patients being treated on weekends in the year after the laws began. Emergency department data released in November showed the total number of patients with alcohol-related serious injuries dropped from 318 to 246 in the year after the changes.

"(The data) showed that there was decrease all through the week but the most significant decrease was over the weekend," Professor Gordian Fulde, from the hospital's emergency department, told ABC News at the time.

A study by the state's Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in April found assaults dropped immediately by 32 per cent in Kings Cross after the laws were introduced. Assaults in the central business district dropped by 26 per cent.

The bureau's director, Dr Don Weatherburn, said the figures suggested that the laws had made Sydney safer and had not - as some critics had predicted - simply pushed problems with alcohol from the inner-city to other parts of the city.

"It is certainly one of the most dramatic effects I've seen in my time, of policy intervention to reduce crime," he said. "It doesn't look, despite all the forecasts, as if the problem simply shifted elsewhere."

But the laws have forced several clubs and restaurants to close, with pedestrian traffic in popular nightspot areas reportedly down by as much as 85 per cent. Public protests have been held to urge the government to change the laws and "unlock Sydney".

Critics say the measures should be calibrated to ensure safer venues such as live music clubs and restaurants are given exemptions.

"There's been an over-policing of fun, spontaneity and creativity in Sydney," protest organiser Chris Lego told Fairfax Media last month.

In Australia, liquor laws are governed by state and territory governments. Most have introduced curfews and other measures to curb excessive late-night drinking.

Queensland state is debating a controversial proposal to force most venues to stop serving drinks after 2am. The debate has heightened this month following the death of 18-year-old Cole Miller, who was punched by two men on a street in a nightclub district in Brisbane on Jan 4.

An expert on alcohol-related harm in Australia, Professor Kypros Kypri from Newcastle University, said the authorities should focus on stopping the sale of drinks at earlier times - a measure which had a proven impact on alcohol-related violence. Research has shown that assaults dropped by 20 per cent for each hour of trading removed.

However, Prof Kypri said there was little evidence to show that "lockouts" had any impact.

"We should be focusing on what we know works," he told The Straits Times. "The key is that people stop drinking. It is very unclear whether lockouts add anything to restricting alcohol consumption."

He said the measures in Sydney were welcome but the authorities could have gone further and cut last drinks back to 2am. 

"You shouldn't need a rule book to go out," he said. "You could just have one simple rule - such as in California, where you can't drink in a licenced premises after 2am... It is a question of balance - whether you will accept the alcohol-related harm in return for the loss of amenity and economic activity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2016, with the headline 'Sydney's alcohol curbs reduce street violence - and fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe