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NSW

Feb 12, 2016

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Never has the saying about a week — make that about half a week — being a long time in politics been quite as apposite as it has for New South Wales Premier Mike Baird. One minute you are Cool Dad, the next you are Casino Mike.

After an extraordinary social media backlash, Baird yesterday recanted — very, very nervously — on commercial talkback radio the breathtakingly ill-advised justification posted on his Facebook page claiming there was “hysteria” over the state’s egregious lockout laws.

Hours later he appointed former High Court justice Ian Callinan — author of racy novels and owner of a wine cellar of some note — to review the laws over the next six months.

But it wasn’t hysteria but angst, anguish, anger and general bewilderment over the laws that were applied to targeted areas, including Sydney’s storied nightlife districts Kings Cross and Oxford Street on the back of a couple of deaths.

The lockout has caused long-time businesses, such as Hugo’s Pizza Bar and Lounge in King Cross along with dozens of others, to collapse, and the Cross as well as Sydney’s gay nightlife — the heart and soul of the inner east — has been all but wiped from the cultural map. Punters have been forced out into suburbs like Newtown.

Yet some inner-city entertainment precincts are more equal than others — specifically Sydney’s Star City Casino, the premier venue in the misery industry that blights Australia and fills state government coffers in ways it does few other “developed” nations.

Freshly revamped (yawn, again) with more upmarket nosheries and its owns bars and clubs, the precinct is closer to the city than Kings Cross, and it is exempt.

The new casino at Barangaroo, which Baird’s predecessor Barry O’Farrell handed on a sliver platter to James Packer without a competitive tender process, is set to operate under the same no-lockout provisions. Star City’s annual results released in August last year show a whopping 25% profit increase. Win-win for shareholders, executives and the government

Why are the casinos and their attendant tenants subject to different rules to other business in the same business? Money, of course, and the power and influence that goes with it.

Gambling corporations in Australia are generally monopoly players; there is one casino in each of the state and territory capitals (Canberra being the exception — it doesn’t need the money, of course). So run properly they have fat, monopoly profits, which they split with lazy state governments. What better idea than to lock punters out of traditional entertainment venues and force them into venues where the government is getting a bigger cut?

What is perhaps most bewildering is that the lockout laws are a tacit admission that policing, community program and education in New South Wales fall so far short that Sydney needs such laws. In Melbourne — and as a long-time Sydneysider it irks me to have to say this — for many years now a far more inviting city to step out in, a similar program was tried and abandoned after a few months.

The police in all other state capitals are more than capable of separating the tiny number of troublemakers from the vast majority of peaceful visitors. Why not in Sydney?

The web of influence wielded by a vast network of highly paid former Liberal staffers on behalf of their casino bosses (yes, there is also one of Labor Party staffer, but that’s not the issues here and, in any case, after a few years they start to blend).

The casino companies pay big money to former staffers and hand them chunky expense accounts to talk their former colleagues and newer members of the network, many of whom will be looking to snag jobs in the same corporate networks. And so the money goes around.

Liberal president Chris Downy was appointed to a plum role at Star City just as its lovely set of numbers was released. A former minister, he headed the Australian Casino Association, whose president was a Crown executive, before quitting for three years with the Libs, during which time Crown was handed Barangaroo.

In December 2013 Rod Bruce, chief of staff to former deputy NSW premier Andrew Stoner, joined Star City’s owner, Echo Entertainment.

So pervasive has the nexus between the NSW Libs and big business in the state become that it has created its own faction, branded the “concierge faction” by none other than Fairfax’s right-wing firebrand Paul Sheehan describing a system where people become political staffers as a stepping stone to well-paid corporate lobbying gigs (sometimes called public relations, communications, etc).

Up until the un-ignorable events of this week, Sydney’s often compliant media, including the usually more critical Sydney Morning Herald, seemed determined to ignore it.

Ahead of Baird’s statement, one business owner was prepared to stand up and be counted, Matt Barrie, millionaire founder of online jobs site Freelancer.com, delivered a searing, lengthy disquisition on the lockout laws titled “Would the last person leaving Sydney please turn the lights out?“. Barrie wrote:

“The total and utter destruction of Sydney’s nightlife is almost complete.

“A succession of incompetent governments has systematically dismantled the entire night time economy through a constant barrage of rules, regulation and social tinkering.

“And oh, how ridiculous these rules have become in Sydney. A special little person has decided that there is a certain time at night when we are all allowed to go out, and there is a certain time that we are allowed into an establishment and a certain time that we are all supposed to be tucked into bed.”

The sustained reaction from voters to Baird’s comments has also demonstrated just how out of touch the Premier’s office has become.

The ham-fisted attempts by his staff to remove comments from his Facebook page only amplified his problem and again demonstrated no real understanding of how social media works.

More importantly, he should also now know that scrutiny of the NSW Liberal Party’s links with business, the root cause of the problem, will intensify.

There’s some serious housecleaning that needs be done at NSW Liberal Party HQ; it’s starting to get the same whiff that the NSW Labor Right had before its slow-motion implosion. But the problem with Baird and O’Farrell — in the main nice, decent fellas — is that they grew up in the NSW Liberal Party system. So did Arthur Sinodinos. It nurtured and rewarded them, so why would they think there is anything intrinsically wrong with it?

Does Baird have the capacity to see how rotten his party has become, and does he have the backbone and political will to clean it up, or, like former premier Bob Carr, will he skip off into the sunset and leave the mess to fester?

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