Take On The Pub Lobby, Barry


Once again the issue of alcohol-related violence and licensed venues has come under the spotlight. And once again a government carrying bucket loads of campaign donations from the alcohol industry stands accused of failing to protect venue-goers and the public.

Since its election in March 2011, the O’Farrell Government has been reluctant to take on the pubs and their peak industry body, the Australian Hotels Association.

That’s hardly surprising given the staggering $472,000 the AHA donated to the NSW Liberals and Nationals in late 2010, just before laws banning the industry from giving money to political parties came into effect.

It’s even less surprising given recent agitation by both Coalition parties against the ban on donations on close associates and directors of corporations profiting from alcohol, tobacco, gambling and real estate development.

Once again, public health and safety play a poor second to the political imperative of gathering cash to fight elections.

The AHA is desperately trying to shield its members from measures that would cut into their profits.

CEO of NSW Branch Paul Nicolaou first claimed that licensed premises cannot be held responsible for violence in the Kings Cross area.

When that didn’t wash with an increasingly angry public, he argued that the pubs and clubs have done "everything in their power" to alleviate any anti-social behaviour caused by alcohol misuse. He also opposes additional measures such as "wind down" times to sober people up before they leave.

As the AHA began to struggle, NSW Hospitality Minister George Souris stepped in and ran interference for the big pubs industry.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, the Minister claimed that small bars had "a lower level of surveillance, a lower level of supervision, a lower level of compliance. For some reason the bigger venues that also have gambling associated with them are better policed, better supervised than those smaller venues".

Souris also expressed concerned about the impact of the "proliferation" of small bars clustered around Kings Cross.

Unfortunately for the Minister, his "proliferation" turned out to be just five small bars in or around the Kings Cross precinct. Further, there is mounting evidence that small bars contribute to the transformation of the drinking culture away from heavy and dangerous consumption.

While small bars might detract from the profits of the big licensed outlets, with the lower levels of anonymity, greater emphasis on wine and beer rather than hard liquor and their provision of food these new venues are increasingly seen as part of the cure, not the problem.

Souris and the AHA are busy trying to distract attention from the role of the large outlets while the rest of the community is grappling with the range of possible solutions.

It’s clear there is no single magic bullet for the level of violence associated with Kings Cross. It is a venue of choice for tens of thousands of young people and it would not be good public policy to restrict their enjoyment without good reason and sound evidence.

One key factor is the failure of the pubs and clubs to fulfil their legal responsibility for Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA).

A NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2012 report (pdf) found that 92.9 per cent of intoxicated persons were not refused service by license premises. Of the people surveyed 87.6 per cent were not asked to leave the licensed premises despite being very intoxicated.

There would be dramatically fewer dangerously drunk people if licensed venues obeyed the law and refused service to patrons who were intoxicated.

In 2011, the O’Farrell government introduced "Three Strikes" legislation which the Greens supported, despite some concerns that it failed to include hard penalties for clubs.

This attempt by the Coalition to look like they were responding to alcohol-fuelled violence has been spectacularly ineffective. Only four Sydney venues have been issued with "strikes" in the last seven months, one being Shi Gol Jip Korean Restaurant.

Under intense public scrutiny, Minister Souris this week announced a blitz of Kings Cross venues. Unfortunately, this acted as a tip-off, ensuring that the worst pubs will clean up their act before the inspectors came knocking at their door.

The up side of the public attention has been the opening up of the agenda to a range of other measures, including 3am closures, 1am lock outs, "wind down periods" where venues stop selling alcohol and offer soft drinks and better public transport away from the Cross. Some of these might work, others might have unintended consequences.

The key issue is that the focus has to be on protecting the health and safety of venue goers, the local community, the police, paramedics, nurses and doctors while not closing down opportunities for young people to enjoy themselves.

Until the spectre of campaign donations from the alcohol industry is entirely removed, this focus will remain blurred.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.