S-x prices in Sydney are set to rise after the NSW election on March 26 due to a major reform of NSW brothel regulations if the Liberal Party wins government amid claims by the Australian Christian Lobby and major Sydney brothel barons the mooted reforms are ill conceived.

Just before Christmas the Liberals announced their brothel policy that involves the greatest reform of the industry since pr-stitution was decriminalised in 1996.  Among the reforms is the introduction of a Brothel Licensing Authority, annual brothel licence fees, probity checks for owners and a big crackdown on illegal brothels.

Shadow Minister for Intergovernmental Relations Chris Hartcher has been busy out on the hustings pushing the new agenda and hoping that it will prove a vote winner. In some swinging electorates brothels are an issue particularly out in Parramatta Hartcher exclusively told Crikey his policy is anti-illegal brothels — not anti-brothels.  However, he did outline greater restrictions on the legal industry that will likely include limitations on the number of brothels a person could own, as well as limits on the number of rooms a brothel could have.  “A working party will have a specific objective (our announced policy) and will be concerned with implementation of that policy, not simply investigating a range of options. It will be chaired by a ministerial policy adviser and will be on a time deadline,” he said.

While you would think the religious groups would be happy with any reduction in the number of brothels, the powerful Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) sees several  weaknesses in the policy.  ACL’s spokesperson for women’s issues, Michelle Pearse, told Crikey, “The NSW Liberal Party is following the same failed models of brothel regulation as Victoria and Queensland. In Victoria, 50% of s-x workers remain illegal and in Queensland, the Pr-stitution Licensing Authority has only managed to regulate 10% of brothels and s-x workers.”

Pearse’s views are also shared by many in the legal brothel industry in NSW that I contacted for this article. Helen Bateman, owner of one Sydney’s longest existing establishments Liaisons, told Crikey, “The Liberal Party is naive to think that its brothel policy will in anyway regulate the outbreak of illegal brothels.  Its licensing system will mean that legal brothels will be asked to pay large sums of money in order to get a licence to operate a brothel while the illegal operators will simply go underground.  If they were successful in closing the illegal operators, then I wouldn’t mind paying the fees but the experience in the other states shows it doesn’t work.  It will create an uneven playing field.”

If Hartcher follows the Queensland way where currently the Pr-stitution Licensing Authority requires legal brothels to pay the following: $5840 application fee, $7608 licence fee and a further $3043 per each room of the brothel it will have a flow on effect on the price of s-x in NSW. “Liaisons has 10 rooms so these ridiculous amounts will force the price of s-x up as business would seek to recover these costs from clients”, Bateman said.

In the 1990s Bateman owned two legal brothels in Melbourne but she said the various restrictions on legal owners such as advertising, multiple ownership and a limit on the number of rooms made it impossible to compete with illegal brothels that just went underground to avoid the authorities.  “Finally I moved to Sydney and have been here for over a decade only to read in horror the Liberals’ brothel policy, which will clearly help accelerate the growth of illegal brothels as legal brothels slowly start to go out of business. Perhaps this is what the policy is meant to do,” she said.

Yesterday the Courier Mail ran a lead story and editorial on the failure of the Queensland licensing system.  The authorities up there have done a good job at keeping legal brothels accountable, but they have failed to keep in check the illegal industry, which has been allowed to flourish virtually unimpeded.  Meanwhile in Victoria a story in The Age this morning has the Baillieu government cracking down on Melbourne’s illegal s-x trade and overhauling the way laws are enforced, amid fears that unlicensed brothels have flourished across the city and are being infiltrated by crime groups.

I see merit in the Hartcher reforms but he will need to tread carefully and learn from the mistakes of the Victorian and Queensland failed models.  He and the Liberals will come to power after 16 years of Labor neglect and they have a great opportunity to make a significant mark in this important social issue.

In that vein he should look at the Swedish pr-stitution model where it is illegal to buy s-xual services, but not to sell them. The criminalisation of the purchase, but not selling, of s-x was unique when first enacted in 1999, but since then Norway and Iceland have adopted similar legislation, both in 2009. The new laws led to the number of women involved in pr-stitution being cut by two-thirds, the number of men buying s-x falling by 80% and a huge drop in women being smuggled into the country for prostitution.

What Sweden found was that punters didn’t like being arrested, fingerprinted and their names being made public as frequenters of a brothel.  Could you imagine this happening in Sydney?  It would make great reading and the mind boggles of the identities and backgrounds of some of the potential infringers.  That’s why it has cut down on the demand.

ACL’s Pearse makes the point: “Does the Liberal Party truly believe that by regulating and cutting down the number of brothels that men will stop using prostitutes?  This is the failed thinking that has caught Victoria and Queensland in a situation where brothels are out of control.  As long as there is a demand for pr-stituted women, the number of brothels will continue to grow because there is money to be made.”

While Pearse wants the Swedish model adopted for all brothels — legal and illegal, I can’t see why Hartcher cannot adopt it just for the illegal industry.  Indeed there are reforms to the Western Australia brothel laws currently in Parliament where they will apply the Swedish model to the illegal industry only.

The final word to Pearse: “This is the only model in the world that has seen a reduction in the number of women pr-stituted and a reduction in the number of brothels, but most importantly trafficking in women has significantly decreased because traffickers do not see Sweden as a profitable market.  The UN has listed Australia as a destination country for s-x slaves and this is only possible because of our weak state policies that allow for women to be ‘legally’ exploited in a countless number of brothels across the country.”