While Melbourne likes to think of itself as Australia’s cosmopolitan capital and rarely misses an opportunity to promote its laneway bars or nightlife, three polls that ended Monday remind us that some links to its wowser past still remain.

Residents are being asked to approve liquor licences in what are known as the city’s “dry areas”, a small pocket of about a dozen suburbs in its eastern suburbs. Taking in parts of the cities of Boroondara and Whitehorse, these areas are subject to such severe restrictions on the issuing of liquor licences that they are without any pubs and limited other licensed venues.

The situation is a hangover from a time when the Temperance movement had a significant influence in determining Melbourne’s social values. In the 1920s, local opinion polls were taken and residents of these areas voted for the creation of a dry area. This prohibited the granting of a liquor licence without a formal vote of approval by local residents. Council amalgamations have meant that these restrictions now divide municipalities and in some cases individual suburbs.

While some may think the concept of suburbs in modern Melbourne being subject to such restrictions is an anachronistic hangover from times past, it doesn’t seem to be a subject that is getting local residents out on the streets. The prospect of local pubs returning to the streets of Camberwell or Box Hill any time soon is slim — advocacy is limited to a poorly supported Facebook page and local councils report they’re not aware of any other push. Even the normally vociferous Australian Hotels Association has stated it’s “ambivalent” about the matter.

The attitude towards allowing licenses for restaurants is different. In 1999 the City of Whitehorse did away with individual polls for restaurant licences by conducting a municipal-wide poll on whether the measure should be removed. It was narrowly passed. The City of Boroondara has also contemplated such a poll but has baulked at the estimated cost of $185,000.

It wrote to the former state Labor government requesting the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 be amended to remove the need for such a poll in relation to applications lodged by restaurant proprietors. The government declined this request. Since then, a small number of restaurants in the Boroondara dry area have been able to obtain a liquor licence through individual polls by Liquor Licensing Victoria.

The three latest polls are of this sort. The polls are conducted by post and are compulsory for all enrolled residents in an area around the licence address as determined by the Director of Liquor Licensing. The Victorian Electoral Commission, which conducts the polls, estimates that each costs about $7000 to conduct. Since 2005, 22 polls have been conducted with every one being successful.

Josie Baalbaki, the owner of Zous Café, is one of the latest applicants. “We knew it was a dry area but we didn’t know the process would take this long,” she told Crikey. “We had to hire somebody to look after it for us. It has cost us thousands.”

Baalbaki supports the idea of changing the current state of play either by amending the legislation or by conducting a municipal-wide poll: “It shouldn’t apply to somebody with a café or restaurant. We are no where near being a pub or bar or anything like that.”

Crikey attempted to get a comment about the future of the dry areas from the office of the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Michael O’Brien, but our calls were not returned.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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