NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

This time last year, Sydney felt like a strange dystopia. Minors were being stripped naked and searched for drugs. Sniffer dogs invaded pubs. Commuters were being patted down behind privacy screens at train stations and pubs were struggling to stay open, with late-night punters directed to the only place still open: the casino.

Amid the pandemic, Sydney has turned into a new city. Live music is encouraged, police presence is reduced and plans for a new casino have been axed.

Did Premier Berejiklian finally see the light? Or did community revolt finally outweigh Liberal Party donations?

Murder of the dancefloor

Between 2014 and 2019, NSW’s nighttime economy shuddered to a halt thanks to the lockout laws and a liquor licensing freeze.

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Events were cancelled and major festivals threatened to pull out of the state after legislation mandated organisers would have to pay to bolster police presence to reduce drug-related incidents. Police were given more powers to investigate drug dealers and strip searches done after drug dog “indications” doubled in 2016 alone.

Property developers swooped in to buy broke venues. Historic pubs faced challenges from residents in newly developed properties who complained about the noise, while others were confronted with new restrictions simply for hanging a disco ball.

During this time, the NSW Liberal Party thrived on donations from property tycoons and gambling lobby ClubsNSW, and senior Liberal Party figures took up new jobs with The Star casino.

Young people saw all this for what it was: a war on music and a war on nightlife. They started leaving Sydney, many heading for Melbourne where nightlife was still alive.

Unflattering graffiti featuring then-premier Mike Baird and later Berejiklian popped up around the inner city. Berejiklian remained unpopular in at the 2019 state election in the City of Sydney and the inner west.

Bogged down by policy

Berejiklian’s policies were counterproductive. The city was losing out on $16 billion a year due to the undeveloped nighttime economy. Violent assaults simply moved to areas outside the lockout law zone. Many also criticised the hypocrisy of allowing The Star casino to operate while underreporting assaults.

Coronial inquests also found that a heavy police presence caused more drug overdoses, and the new festival restrictions made no change in the number of serious drug-related presentations.

It all came to a head during a damning inquiry into the use of strip-searches. This found that police were acting unlawfully and inconsistently when using their powers. NSW Police gave incorrect figures on the success rate of drug-detection dogs, forcing minors to undress in front of police with little accountability for rogue officers.

What changed?

The pandemic did something no amount of scrutiny or reports could do: it got the Berejiklian government to start encouraging live music and events.

The lockout laws have lifted and Crown casino was deemed unfit to hold a casino license, triggering a potential gambling license reform. Sniffer dogs are still patrolling pubs and train stations, but a lot less frequently than before. And, following a long lockdown, young people are fleeing Melbourne with many making their way up to Sydney.

Notably, the pandemic has also caused a significant drop in political donations — including from Liberal favourite ClubsNSW.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

While there might be fewer police on the inner-city streets, that doesn’t mean they’re idle. The NSW police force received a record $4.8 billion budget last year.

Proposed laws will give them even more power to detain anyone convicted of a serious drug offence in the past decade, and police are implementing the proactive Suspect Target Management Plan, which has been criticised for targeting vulnerable groups including juveniles and First Nations people.

The festival bill remains in place, forcing organisers to pay mammoth sums for police presence. Pill-testing is still a non-starter. No legislative changes have been made to limit strip searches.

The city might be a little more party-friendly, but Berejiklian’s police state remains in place.