The controversial one-size-fits-all approach to Victoria’s liquor licensing laws is again under fire after a Queen Victoria Market wine shop was classified as a “high risk” in the same league as a 1,000-capacity South Melbourne superclub.

In a echo of the scandal that caused storied rock pub The Tote to shut its doors yesterday, Swords Wines, which specialises in refillable flip-top bottles, is regarded as dangerous because the produce markets in which it trades open before 9am. Under the new laws, “ordinary” trading hours are between 9am and 11pm.

Swords operates four outlets at markets across Melbourne and has a retail store at Clifton Hill. On a Saturday it opens at 6am at the Queen Victoria Market, alongside other shopfronts in the Dairy and Produce section.

Managing Director Brendan Beattie told Crikey he has been saddled with an extra $11,697.60 in fees this year, which were due to be paid on 1 January. Beattie applied for an exemption, but because he employs over 5 full-time staff, the request was slapped down in a tersely worded letter from controversial liquor licensing chief Sue Maclellan.

“The recent amendments to the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 do not provide a process for an exemption from payment of fees or an alternative classification for premises such as yours,” Maclellan wrote on 7 January.

“I regret I cannot be of further assistance.”

In a previous letter, Maclellan infers that Swords’ business could propagate “alcohol related harm”, presumably wrought by early-morning revellers on their way home from nightclubs that share its “high risk” status.

swordswine

Swords Wines, which is in the same “risk” category as King Street nightclubs under the Brumby government’s liquor licensing laws

Beattie said the new fees had the potential to gut his business.

“It’s going to be huge, it’s just another overhead that’s added on and it’s not as if you can turn around and increase your prices. The last 12 to 18 months have been very tough, with the GFC and the wine glut.”

Beattie said that liquor behemoths, including many Dan Murphy’s stores, were only required to pay the base fee of $795 — $5565 less than Swords’ Victoria Market outlet.

“When I spoke to Sue Maclellan she simply said you are obliged to pay the fees this year and we’ll try and consider you next year. There was never any consultation and I don’t believe they’ve given it any thought.”

He said he has no choice but the pay the fees, which are now due on 21 January, otherwise he would be forced to shut his doors.

The controversial changes to the Liquor Licensing Act, based on a contested report by a group of external consultants, have already claimed one scalp with yesterday’s forced closure of The Tote amid a $60,000 doubling in compulsory security costs.

Victorian Shadow Consumer Affairs Spokesman Michael O’Brien told Crikey the laws, introduced into state parliament last year, were a “disaster”. “The fees have increased to $35.8 million this year and this is just an excuse for a $20 million tax grab.”

“The law can’t be risk-based if it doesn’t discriminate between a King Street nightclub and The Tote, or a mum and dad corner store and a Dan Murphy’s.”

In country Victoria, O’Brien said some small business had decided to stop trading rather than cop the massive fee increase for trading outside the normal hours on public holidays, which places them in the same category as a tranche of troubled regional nightspots.

In an emailed statement compiled by her advisers, Maclellan said Swords Wines was able to apply for a reduction in trading hours, which would see a “significant reduction in fees”. However, Swords told Crikey they were required by market management to align their opening hours with other stores on the premises.

Last night at The Tote’s swansong, high-profile bands including The Meanies and Spiderbait slammed the state government and the Liquor Licensing Commission and expressed their support for outgoing Tote licensee Bruce Milne.

On Sunday, Maclellan launched an extraordinary attack on Milne, lashing The Tote for a string of license breaches and accusing the music scene stalwart of dishonesty.

Peter Fray

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