An Intoxicating Influence On Our Streets


One of the most powerful lobby groups in NSW is the Australian Hotels Association (AHA). This organisation has received many benefits from the NSW government over the past years that have greatly enriched its members. These include allowing gaming machines in hotels (which increased the earnings of many publicans), long delays to introducing non smoking areas in hotels due to pressure from that industry, and expanding the granting of controversial extended trading hours. 

Why does the AHA have so much influence over the NSW government? The big contributions the AHA and its members make to the political parties — largely at fundraising events — are a crucial factor.

Each of the major political parties has nine divisions in Australia — the federal division and one in each state and territory. If we look at the money flowing into the coffers of the parties’ nine divisions over the past 10 years, we find that the NSW divisions of Labor and the Coalition received 53 per cent of the contributions nationally from the AHA. South Australia was second — but it only received 18 per cent of the AHA’s money. New South Wales obviously is seen as an excellent investment by this lobby organisation.

The past president of the AHA (NSW) John Thorpe is notorious for comments like this 2004 clanger, reported by ABC’s Stateline and repeated in 2006. He said, ”Democracy isn’t cheap.”

”Everybody’s involved with assisting political parties because at this stage we need to keep these people in place to have the democracy we have today,” he went on. ”Look, what helps is this — you attend as an observer, as I did at the ALP national conference. Yes, it costs money. But we did get interviews with ministers, we did get interviews with staffers, and that does help us in our policies and our regulations.”

His Clubs NSW counterpart agrees. Former Clubs NSW chief executive Mark Fitzgibbon told The Australian in 2009 that political donations bought their lobby group government access, which it used to influence policy.

"There was absolutely the view that supporting fundraising helped our ability to influence people," Mr Fitzgibbon said. "We did support political party fundraising, which was a legitimate activity, and it certainly assisted us in gaining access. I have no doubt it had some influence."

In the past 10 years while Labor has been in power, the AHA and hotels companies have contributed over $4.5 million to the NSW ALP. The Coalition only managed to obtain a little over $2 million during this period.

The contrast between Labor and the conservatives is more striking when the period from 1990/2000 through to the 2007 state election is examined. During that time over $4.1 million flowed into Labor’s coffers — while the Coalition received much less than half that amount, approximately $1.6 million. Each year during this time the ALP received from 63 per cent to 94 per cent of the total donations from hotels to political parties.

After the 2007 NSW election the pattern of contributions from hotels began to change with the ebbing fortunes of the Labor government. Hotels’ contributions, including their peak body the AHA, shifted from Labor to the Coalition. During the last reporting periods for which we have data, 2009-2010, Labor received less than $20,000 from hotels and the Coalition $285,000. Money obviously flows to the party donors believe will soon be in power.

Probably the most contentious and destructive concession to the hotel industry in NSW has been the extension of trading hours. Extended hotel trading hours were introduced by the Coalition in 1989 and successive Labor governments have allowed 24-hour openings to flourish. At the time of the 2007 state election, over 70 per cent of all hotels in Australia that operate with such licenses were located in NSW. By late 2010 inner Sydney had 1318 licensed premises and 181 late trading venues — with the numbers rapidly growing.

Alcohol fuelled problems have increased along with the venue numbers. One major serious problem is increased assault at night. As the director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics, Don Weatherburn, said, ”I don’t think it is possible to have both: more pubs and longer trading hours as well as lower rates of assaults.”

In order to lobby against inaction by the government concerning alcohol related violence associated with the proliferation of late night venues, the Police Association of NSW, the Australian Medical Association (NSW), the NSW Nurses Association and the Health Services Union (representing ambulance personnel) launched the Last Drinks Campaign a year ago.

The organisers say that ambulance officers, nurses, doctors and police are sick of dealing with the effects of intoxicated patrons of licensed premises late at night and early in the morning. They are regularly abused, intimidated, threatened, assaulted and injured — more often than not because of alcohol-fuelled violence.

The goals of Last Drinks include a 12 month trial throughout NSW in which all bars will close by 3am with a lock out at 1am. They argue for a prohibition on the sale of shots, mixed drinks with more than 30 ml of alcohol and ready mixed drinks stronger than 5 per cent alcohol by volume after 10 pm. The adoption of such measures in Newcastle helped bring the number of alcohol-related assaults after dark in the region down by at least 30 per cent. Last Drinks ask that the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research evaluate the effectiveness of these measures on violent crime.

The hotels industry has argued very strongly against such a move. Both the Labor government and Coalition are also opposed to early closing times and lock outs. Premier Keneally and Barry O’Farrell use the glib excuse that one size doesn’t fit all situations. Labor’s Hassle Free Nights plan and the Coalition’s "three strikes and you’re out" policy haven’t drawn the ire of the AHA.

Will the Last Drinks campaign be successful? While some NSW local government councils have eagerly signed up, such as Manly and Randwick, few NSW MPs have embraced their goals. Even those MPs who have pledged their support to Last Drinks may not be totally on board. For example, Sydney MP Clover Moore has pledged her support — but Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore argues for 24 hour trading by "good" hotels.

Some will argue that the AHA and hoteliers have lost much power over the NSW government since from January of this year they are banned from making political donations. However, they still can run third party campaigns on special issues during elections and spend up to $525,000 on their efforts. And as they only have to register one week prior to the next election, we might yet hear more from them.

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