Mike Baird

NSW Premier Mike Baird has set his sights on settling the bitter political controversy over pub lockout laws, and many of his backbench critics are bracing themselves for another backflip.

In the past week, Baird has postponed the greyhound racing ban, backtracked on shark nets on the North Coast and improved financial compensation to property owners facing compulsory purchase along the route of Sydney’s WestConnex motorway.

As one of his advisers told Crikey: “The Premier is clearing the decks.”

Now Baird has to decide whether to accept the advice of former High Court judge Ian Callinan QC, who recommended a very modest relaxation of the current lockout legislation, or to reintroduce opening hours as they previously existed.

The original lockout laws were introduced by former premier Barry O’Farrell two and a half year ago, in the midst of a furious media campaign led by News Corp and commercial radio to stamp out drunken “sucker punch” street violence. O’Farrell introduced a “quick fix” to silence his media critics and the professional agitators in the NSW Police Association, but his harsh lockout laws were never intended to be permanent or to shut down the city’s night life.

[Greyhound ban backflip: since when did Alan Jones become a NSW crossbencher?]

Baird inherited the lockout mess when he became premier in April 2014 and became alarmed by the unintended consequences of the across-the-board shutdown: his vision of Sydney as the next “global city” was fading into after-dark gloom.

He responded by appointing Callinan, a Liberal Party favourite, to conduct a seven-month review of the economic and social impact of the legislation’s 1.30am lockout and the 3am cessation of liquor sales.

To stop Baird from backtracking, the Coalition’s right-wing faction claims that a well-publicised poll gives them a 70% approval rating for maintaining tight restrictions on pub, club and off-licence hours, while opponents say that the poll is flawed and its findings suspect.

Tyson Koh, convener of the Keep Sydney Open movement, challenged the 70% majority to stage a street protest in Sydney to show the true size of their public support. It wasn’t taken up.

However, a rally by Keep Sydney Open on October 9 attracted thousands of supporters as well as the backing of rock legend Jimmy Barnes, actor Sam Neill and Jezabels’ lead singer Hayley Mary.

Barnes said: “I made a career playing in live venues in Sydney. I learnt my craft playing in those venues.

“The lockout laws aren’t working. We’ve got to help keep music alive and keep Sydney alive. Let’s find a better way to do it.”

Award-winning actor Sam Neill said that Baird’s policies had “sucked the life out of Sydney” and turned the city into “a pointless place”.

“I’m grumpy,” he said, “because Sydney used to be such a vibrant and exciting place in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

In the past two days, cabinet ministers have faced intense lobbying  from both sides of the argument, with some doctors, ambulance personnel and police pointing to a drop in attendances at hospital emergency rooms and the other side pointing to the closure of many city nightspots with the loss of hundreds of part-time and full-time jobs.

[Cui bono? The curious case of the grim industry that thrives on the lockout laws]

Koh has suggested a compromise between maintaining the city’s vibrancy on one hand and ensuring street safety on the other.

“It is important to get the balance right,” he said. “Melbourne has a late night culture that’s the envy of the world and that’s what we want to strive for.”

He said Callinan’s call for a trial extension of lockout laws by 30 minutes was “not enough” and recommended investment in 24/7 public transport to be introduced alongside a more relaxed approach to city licensing hours.

Deputy Premier and Justice Minister Troy Grant this week imposed life bans on two former operators of the Dreamgirls strip club in Kings Cross, using the Liquor Act.

They had been convicted in court of operating a clandestine illegal bar and turning a blind eye to the sale and use of illegal drugs.

The tough decision by Grant, the NSW Nationals leader and a former police inspector is an indication of the approach the cabinet may take to deal with publicans and bar owners who continue to serve drunken patrons and sell alcohol after legal hours.

MPs from all sides of politics are increasingly frustrated by police reluctance to deal with law-breaking publicans and bar owners. The liquor industry remains a significant source of graft, with police benefiting from free booze for Christmas parties as well as other station-based, and also private, celebrations.

As one former minister told Crikey: “We wouldn’t have the level of street violence or drunkenness at city night spots if the cops did their job. They have plenty of laws at their disposal, so why don’t they use them?”