Keep Sydney Open lockout laws protest
A 2016 protest against the Sydney lockout laws (Image: AAP/Paul Miler)

Sydney’s controversial lockout laws will be gone next month, as the Berejiklian government tries to breathe life into the city’s stagnant night time economy.

From March, Sydneysiders across the city will be able to enter a bar after 1.30am. Last drinks will be at 3.30am.

On the surface, the government is spinning this as a measure to fire up small business and drive the post-pandemic recovery. With alcohol-related violence down in the ghost towns of Kings Cross and the CBD, the laws, we’re told are no longer necessary.

But there’s also an admission that lockouts have changed Sydney for good. Kings Cross is gone, the nightclubs closed, the suburb eaten alive by the poke bowls and barre studios of Potts Point. And a whole generation who came of age with 1.30am lockouts and watery shots are now used to earlier bedtimes. 

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Perhaps the Berejiklian government has realised that in the midst of the moral panic which gripped Sydney in early 2014, her predecessors went too hard too fast.

A tale of two punches

Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie were young men tragically caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both men, fresh out of high school, were felled by one-punch attacks on one of their first nights out — Christie in January 2014, only months after the initial five-year sentence for Kelly’s killer had caused public outcry.

The call for action after Christie’s death was led by the media. With politicians on holiday, and in the traditionally slow news period after New Year’s Day, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph had the perfect vacuum to push hard for politicians to “do something”, says University of Wollongong criminologist Julia Quilter.

Do something they did. Then-premier Barry O’Farrell brought parliament back early and pushed through the laws in a day — 1.30am last drinks in the CBD and the Cross, with special exemptions carved out for The Star casino and James Packer’s planned phallic monstrosity in Barangaroo. The government also introduced mandatory minimum sentences for one-punch killings.

“They had to respond, because the pressure had mounted so intensely,” Quilter told Crikey. “[O’Farrell] recalled parliament to pass the lockout laws — very little consultation with anybody.”

Did we need them?

Lost amid media anguish about unacceptable levels of violence in the Cross was this: across Sydney crime was falling.

In greater Sydney violent crime was down 2.7% between 2010 and 2014. In the city and eastern suburbs it had fallen 4.6% and 5% respectively over that period. Non-domestic violence related assault had fallen 5.7%.

The data problem, Quilter says, is complicated. While crime was indeed tracking down, if you looked at specific areas — and in particular accident and emergency statistics from the CBD and Kings Cross — things were different.

Indeed, much of the moral push for the laws came from doctors at St Vincent Hospital who rather viscerally described the “conveyor-belt of carnage” brought through their doors by alcohol-related violence. And by this metric, the lockouts worked. The same doctors reported a 25% decrease in alcohol-related facial injuries within a year of the laws.

Within three years of the laws, assaults had fallen 50% in the Cross but rose in surrounding areas.

Quilter says while she saw the need to do something about alcohol-related violence, she felt the way the laws were rushed through and the focus on policing was problematic.

“Rather, what they needed was a whole of government response, which would include things like regulatory response, improving public transport options, education campaigns around alcohol and violence,” she said.

An admission of failure?

The lockouts lasted six years. So why the backflip?

This week, Premier Gladys Berejiklian told the media Kings Cross had transformed and was ready to evolve. Several government MPs talked about revving up the 24-hour economy and becoming a global city.

But this seems to betray a tacit admission that many of the lockouts’ toughest critics were right — that Sydney has become a joyless cultural backwater fit for property developers and suburban Bible-bashers.

Quilter says the debate around lockouts, once so centred on safety and public health, is now focused on the economy.

“They’ve wanted to backtrack a bit because of the economy, and the labelling of this government as being the nanny state.”

Perhaps the government’s lockdown backflip is explained simply: it’s all about business.