State Independents say lock-out laws should be wound back

8th February 2019

Source: Sydney Morning Herald | By: Jacob Saulwick and Megan Gorrey | Posted: February 8, 2019

Independents and minor parties in the NSW lower house, who stand to be empowered in the event of a tight vote in the March election, are increasingly of the view Sydney’s CBD and Kings Cross lock-out laws should be wound back.

Five years after the lock-outs were introduced by former premier Barry O’Farrell to combat alcohol-fuelled violence, the inner city has been changed completely: violent assaults have plunged in Kings Cross and dropped in the CBD, but at the cost of nightlife, and some damage to the city’s reputation as a place to come for a good time.

The laws continue to be supported by leaders of both major parties, as well as health and police unions. They also have the support of the Parliament’s newest independent, Wagga Wagga MP Joe McGirr.

But most cross-benchers support moves to either repeal or more modestly wind them back, to help stimulate activity in the inner city.

"I said at the time on the issue of restrictions we have a cultural problem around drinking,” said Greg Piper, the independent Member for Lake Macquarie, who supported the lockout laws when they were introduced in 2014.

“But I said at the time this is not something that we can’t then pare back over a period of time."

Mr Piper said he opposed “this conservative line that we solve all our problems by denying the mass the opportunity to do something".

A different perspective, however, was offered by Dr McGirr, elected to Parliament last year. “I’ve previously worked as an emergency physician at St Vincent's [hospital] and I have colleagues there. The problems that we were experiencing before the lock-out laws were pretty unacceptable really.”

For hospitality workers and small businesses in the CBD, the impact of the laws is frequently described as disastrous and harrowing.

Tim Philips-Johansson and two of his friends - self-described “hospitality lifers” - opened Bulletin Place in Circular Quay in 2012 after moving to Sydney from Melbourne.

“At the time, Sydney was really booming. We did really well the first three years, we really started to hit our stride,” Mr Philips-Johansson said. Subsequently, however, the lockout laws were introduced, light rail construction started, and a number of nearby businesses relocated to Barangaroo.

“It’s really sad and it’s a ghost-town,” Mr Philips-Johansson said.

Darlinghurst bar owner Luke Ashton opened This Must Be The Place on Oxford Street in 2015, after the laws were introduced, in a bid to “inject some life” into the area.

“We’ve seen a significant decline in foot traffic in that part of Oxford Street in Darlinghurst and Kings Cross,” Mr Ashton said. “I think the lockout laws have definitely strangled the Darlinghurst precinct and the Kings Cross precinct.

The state government has made some changes to the laws. Following a 2016 review by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, some venues with live entertainment were permitted to allow patrons to enter after 2am, and last drinks were extended to 3.30am.

Those changes were due to be reviewed in two years. A spokesman for the review said the process would start soon.

Support for winding back the laws has emerged from both the right and the left of the major parties.

Greens MPs and Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich support their relaxation, as does the Shooters and Fishers Party.

“I’m aware of concerns that businesses have had in Sydney,” said Phil Donato, the Shooters’ Member for Orange. “I think they need to be reconsidered and reviewed. I think there can be some tweaking.”

Both Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Labor leader Michael Daley, support the laws, which, according to a 2017 study by the Bureau of Crime Statistics in Research triggered a 49 per cent drop in non-domestic assaults in Kings Cross, a 13 per cent drop in the CBD, somewhat offset by a 17 per cent increase in nearby areas such as Bondi, Double Bay and Newtown.

Mr Daley’s erstwhile challenger for the Labor leadership, water spokesman Chris Minns, said in November that the lock-out laws should be dropped, while Deputy Premier John Barilaro has reportedly pushed for their scrapping.

Labor’s Inner West Council Mayor, Darcy Byrne, said the state party had “missed an opportunity” to engage with government MPs who were sceptical of the laws.

“There are senior people in both the government and opposition who recognise that the lockout laws have been reactionary and heavy handed and that if we want to rejuvenate George Street and the CBD and the city’s live music scene, they do need to be rolled back in some ways,” Cr Byrne said.

Cr Byrne has worked with Planning Minister Anthony Roberts on measures to make development easier for venue owners in the inner-west - for instance, automatically allowing craft breweries to operate as small bars.

But Mr Roberts continues to support the laws. “Everyone with a child wants to know when that child goes out in an evening, or it could be a sister or brother or a friend, you want them protected from some of the worst elements in society," he said. "We saw what was grossly unsocial behaviour."

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