“The main complaints seem to be that you can’t drink till dawn any more and you can’t impulse-buy a bottle of white after 10pm.” “Now, some have suggested these laws are really about moralising. They are right. These laws are about the moral obligation we have to protect innocent people from drunken violence.”It’s this heavy scent of wowserism, and its implied superior virtue, that strikes many in Sydney’s music and hospitality scenes as hypocritical. Baird might be squeaky clean, but our political class as a whole has a serious problem with alcohol. Going back decades, there have been politicians with significant alcohol problems who have occupied high office across the land. Jamie Briggs lost his ministership over the summer after sexually harassing a diplomatic staffer. Alcohol was involved. The New South Wales Parliament has itself been the venue for alcohol-fuelled binges, as well as sexual assaults. In 2008, Labor’s then-police minister Matt Brown resigned after stripping down to his underpants and sexually harassing fellow MP Noreen Hay during a late-night office party in his parliamentary suite. In 2003, Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett drunkenly assaulted Liberal senator Jeannie Ferris, and in 2009 Tony Abbott notoriously slept through the vital stimulus package vote after “a couple of bottles of wine” at the parliamentary Members' Dining Room. The Keep Sydney Open protesters were of course complaining about more than just hypocrisy. They were pointing out that the industries they represent are major employers and have been seriously affected by the licensing crackdown. Food, drink and the live arts are major components of any global city, and indeed successive governments at state and local levels have been only too happy to champion the “night-time economy”, boost the tourism and hospitality sector, and set up taskforces to spruik the “creative industries". A significant number of Australians, particularly younger Australians, work in these industries. PwC figures from 2009 figures suggest perhaps 190,000 Australians work in the pubs and hotels sector. There is a small army of freelance creatives who earn real livelihoods as DJs, performers, music promoters, graphic designers, sound and lighting producers, sommeliers, baristas, and all the other night-time trades that have sprung up or regenerated over the past 20 years. Many combine casual employment with study. Many care deeply about the scenes in which they work. For these people, night-time activity of the type that the New South Wales government has directly restricted is not just a way to pay the rent, but a legitimate career and even an artistic calling. These activities may well rely on alcohol sales for an important source of their industry’s revenue. But this doesn’t make their commitment to that industry any less heartfelt or genuine. There’s no doubt that many in the night-time industries would prefer to gloss over -- or even deny -- the increased violence and harm that accompanies their activities. As I argued back in 2012, many in the arts remain in denial about the alcohol-saturated nature of many of their artforms and workplaces, and the damage done to young lives. But there’s plenty of denial from the pro-lockout crowd too -- for instance, about the negative impact of the lockout on Sydney’s cultural industries. Statistics released last week by the National Live Music Office shows that live performance revenue is down by 40% since the lockout was introduced. The Live Music Office is calling for exemptions to the lockout for live music venues, galleries and theatres. Late-night workers in the cultural industries are hardly alone in the pursuit of a harmful occupation. Construction workers, miners, truck drivers and farmers also do dangerous jobs that result in horrific injuries or death. Transport and storage, for instance, is by far Australia’s most dangerous occupation, with 65 killed on the roads and in warehouses in 2014. Public debate about this industry has been relatively muted, and there is little impetus to impose new regulations aimed at safety in trucking. Debates about public health in those industries have not been loaded with overt disdain for the very occupations themselves. Drill down far enough into the lockout debate, and some disconcerting questions arise. Why are the casinos exempted? No sound reason has ever been advanced. And what about other recreational drugs? A public health approach to the consumption of recreational drugs would also have to admit that our drug policies are wildly inconsistent, and that prohibition as the default position for all non-alcoholic drugs is a century-long failure. A live music industry based around the legal consumption of safe, government-licensed ecstasy would almost certainly be safer and less violent than the current alcohol-based structure. Of course, we only need to put write the sentence to realise the political impossibility of such a regime. It is possible to imagine a different type of nightlife, one that supports cultural activity and that is not marred by violence or fear. On Saturday night, Melbourne held its fourth White Night festival, throwing open the city’s streets to all-night arts, music and, yes, eating and drinking. According to Victoria Police, crowd numbers were estimated at an astonishing 580,000. Many were out until dawn. There were no reported assaults or injuries.
Are Sydney’s lockout laws killing nightlife or saving lives? Yes.
Proponents of the lockout laws say they are keeping Sydneysiders safe. Opponents say they are killing a vital part of Australia's cultural scene. Unfortunately they are both right.