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Apr 30, 2014

Forget the media hysteria: O’Farrell delivered a safer Sydney

Despite the media hysteria about alcohol and violence, the O'Farrell government presided over a big drop in assaults in Sydney to make the city its safest in years.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

The media hysteria that drove the New South Wales government to crack down on a supposed epidemic of alcohol-driven violence in inner Sydney over summer occurred as assaults fell to their lowest level in the city since the 1990s.

New figures for the last quarter of 2013 for NSW, released at the start of April by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, were mostly ignored by the media, and particularly Fairfax, whose journalists and editors campaigned hard in January to portray Sydney as swamped by a rising tide of violence and drinking. The O’Farrell government eventually succumbed to the campaign and brought in arbitrary new drinking restrictions, minimum sentences for some offences (the proposed minimum sentences remain stalled in the NSW Legislative Council), and elevated sentences associated with steroid sales to levels equivalent to hard narcotics.

But according to data up to December 2013 released by BOCSAR, ex-premier Barry O’Farrell in fact had presided over a significant drop in violence in the city to levels unseen for over a decade.

Last year was the least violent year in Sydney in BOCSAR’s online records, which go back to 1998, with the “inner Sydney” subsection recording 4215 non-domestic violence assaults, compared to 4405 in 2012. Violence peaked in Sydney in 2002, when 5382 assaults were recorded; since then, assaults had fallen on average by over 2% every year. The month in which the media campaign began gearing up was the quietest December on record, with 386 assaults recorded, the first time fewer than 400 assaults were recorded in December; 10 years ago, the December number was over 500.

And these numbers refer to actual incidents, rather than the “incident rate”, which accounts for population. Over the last decade while assaults have fallen by 20%, the population of the Sydney local government area has swollen 32% …

Annual number of assaults (inner-Sydney)

Source: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

Much of the fall occurred after the election of the O’Farrell government: the last rise in assaults was in 2010, and since 2011 assaults in inner Sydney have fallen 8%. Last year also brought a big fall in assaults within inner-Sydney licensed premises, down 16% on 2012, and the fifth consecutive fall in assaults in public places to well below levels of the late 1990s (the best way to use the BOCSAR data is via its online query tool, which can break down data by crime, location and premises).

A similar trend applied right across the Sydney area, with non-domestic assaults in the wider Sydney region plunging below 20,000 for the first time in current records in 2012 and falling further to 18,602 in 2013. As recently as 2008, over 24,000 assaults were occurring across Sydney. However, some areas resisted the tide: assaults in the central western district around Parramatta rose slightly in 2013, though it was still the third-lowest figure since the 1990s. A similar story applied to assaults in the Blacktown area. The inner west recorded its lowest level of assaults since the 1990s, as did outer-western Sydney, which has recorded a dramatic fall of nearly one-third in the level of assaults since 2008; the eastern suburbs recorded a new low as well, with assaults nearly 40% below the level recorded a decade earlier.

Fairfax, which led the charge on the plague of violence in Sydney, ignored this new data, except to report the rise in domestic violence, which may have been an effort to address a persistent criticism of its media campaign: that it focused on young male victims of violence rather than mostly female victims of domestic violence, reporting of which is on the rise. The Daily Telegraph cherry-picked the small number of crimes that have gone up — fraud and shoplifting.

The coverage was a far cry from the hysteria of Fairfax and News Corp in January. “While crime rates have declined in almost every category over the past decade, assaults have not declined,” the Herald editorialised, which was a complete fabrication — even before the December quarter figures, assault numbers were down for inner Sydney, all of Sydney, and all of NSW, which in 2012 and 2013 experienced its least violent years since the 1990s.

The Fairfax campaign was in essence the demonisation of young men: the Herald launched a laughable DIY video contest in January and declared that it didn’t want to “castigate an entire generation” but that it was seeking to “change the culture of violence and intoxication among young men”. The Telegraph by then had joined the hysteria. “Alcohol-related issues increased since last New Year’s Eve. And so has the violence,” said one Telegraph writer, again patently wrongly. A Telegraph comment piece claimed that most assaults weren’t reported, but that would only undermine the falling trend in official data if people were increasingly not reporting assaults, an unlikely outcome given the relentless publicity given to assaults by the media.

But Fairfax was at least correct to switch its recent focus to domestic violence assaults: the BOCSAR data shows reports reached a 15-year high in inner Sydney as well as greater Sydney (15,412) and NSW (28,291), although hopefully that is due to increased reporting rather than increasing incidence. And while sexual assault reports in Sydney didn’t set a record, there has been a marked rise in reports since 2009 across the whole of NSW; 2013 recorded the second-highest level of sexual assault reports on record, again potentially reflecting an increased willingness by victims to report the crime rather than an increase in the actual incidence. Non-sexual assault sex offences like indecent assault did hit a new high both in NSW and in wider Sydney.

But when it comes to assaults, whether it’s in a pub or on the street, Sydney was significantly safer in 2013 than for most of the last 15 years, and getting safer, completely contrary to what Fairfax and News Corp insisted was the case.

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5 thoughts on “Forget the media hysteria: O’Farrell delivered a safer Sydney

  1. David Hand

    So Barry O’Farrell introduced draconian pub / club opening times that have transformed Sydney from a global city to a provincial town and now threatens to destroy dozens if not hundreds of small businesses that cater for the midnight to dawn crowd. You know, the business owners who the Liberals consider to be their natural constituency.

    It’s ironic that having caved in to people in suburbia who spend their leisure time watching The Biggest Loser on TV and never venture out after 9pm, the data shows that it’s at home where the danger of assault and death is growing, not Darlinghurst Road.

  2. MJPC

    I’ll raise a glass to salute Barry, just can’t afford $3,000 bottles of wine to do it.

  3. klewso

    Did he make the trains run on time too?

  4. Northy

    It should be pointed out that before the new lockouts and last drinks laws were put in place police and emergency services workers were under massive pressure with the amount of alcohol-related incidents and were crying out for something to be done. In the first 2 months of the new laws, they have reported significantly reduced alcohol-related assaults on the street and hospital admissions. Sorry Bernard, but the laws are working – just as all the evidence and research suggested they would.

    I’m a young-ish person and still like to go out from time to time. Before the new laws Kings Cross, George Street and Oxford Street were absolutely vile after dark. A global embarrassment. When the restrictions came in, the change was instant and overwhelmingly positive.

  5. David Hand

    So you go there now, Northy?