The dust had barely settled on the local government ballot boxes when Barry O’Farrell announced his new plan for Kings Cross.
Kings Cross has been the focus of media for many decades. From the behaviour of bouncers, to its bikie gangs, red light district, and "colourful spruikers", the Cross has long fascinated the Australian public.
This fascination became a focus on violence with the much publicised and tragic death of teenager Thomas Kelly, who was fatally bashed in July.
For a few weeks there, everyone in the Cross was getting up and having a go. Licensees sparred with local residents groups. The Australian Hotels Association issued grave statements about the possible impact of licensing restrictions. Politicians juggled the right to drink against public safety considerations. Weary emergency and social workers talked about the mess they had to clean up each weekend.
Police demanded extended powers. Clover Moore, Malcolm Turnbull and most of the pubs wanted better public transport options. The strangest intervention was by the Minister for Hospitality, George Souris, who, with apparently no evidence blamed small bars for the strife. Restricted opening hours, lockouts, drinks served in plastic cups, no more shots of hard liquor were all floated — everyone had an idea.
Many figures were bandied about: the number of venues in one location, the number of people who come to the Cross each weekend, the number of people arrested, drinks served per hour. What wasn’t mentioned, however, was that many cities around the world — from Hong Kong and Shanghai to Paris and London — have areas with greater concentrations of bars, fewer restrictions and longer operating hours — and much less violence.
The Kings Cross problem has more to do with Australia’s culture of aggressive and excessive drinking than with venues.
Barry O’Farrell promised to act, and this is what exactly he did on Tuesday when he unveiled his new plan to clean up the Cross. He said the plan was a tough one that should "sound alarm bells for thugs and hooligans".
As with most policy announcements these days, it makes for good headlines but lacks any real substance.
In fact, it will not to worry the big hotel players much. The O’Farrell approach isn’t likely to affect the levels of violence. It might even make matters worse — and it continues a long tradition of demonising young people from the suburbs.
Firstly, the government has decided to keep the freeze on new licenses in the area until December 2015. This means existing licensees will be able to carry on as usual without any new competitors.
In other words, we keep a number of badly-run venues alongside well-run venues. Rather than opening them up to competition and diversity, the venues that are flouting responsible service rules are protected. Such a freeze does nothing but serve existing interests — and it makes O’Farrell look like he is doing something.
The Kings Cross Liquor Accord (pdf), which restricts service of alcohol after midnight on weekends and imposes some further trading conditions, has been extended to cover more venues in the Cross and surrounding streets.
But again we need to question the point of this policy: even though Responsible Service of Alcohol marshals are already mandatory after midnight on weekends in many venues, a stroll down Darlinghurst Road late on a Saturday night showcases the failure of responsible service of alcohol policies.
Bizarrely, O’Farrell has followed Souris’s cue in targeting small bars. He’s introduced a new category of "small bar liquor licenses" limiting venues to 60 patrons or less. "This comes after concerns that licences approved for small bars were morphing into larger venues of 120 patrons," Souris said.
This creates two fundamental problems. The first, this size makes small bar venues financially unviable — a concern echoed by both Clover Moore and the president of the NSW Small Bar Association, Martin O’Sullivan. To remain viable under these conditions, small bar owners will need to maintain high turnover — which is likely to increase drinking.
Furthermore, this is an added restriction to diversity in venues and again works to protect the established big players. Rather than offering options that can attract a cross section of people to the area, Kings Cross gets a freeze on diversity.
The most concerning aspect of the plan is the whopping increase in police powers. Cops will be able to roam the cross with sniffer dogs without a warrant or explanation of how sniffer dogs will reduce alcohol-related violence. In an extraordinary expansion of jurisdiction, this power will also be increased to cover all metropolitan and inter-city train lines. High visibility police blitzes will kick off on the October long weekend.
Linked ID scanners have been introduced too. Patrons will be required to present their ID for scanning when they enter a venue. If they get kicked out of one, they won’t be allowed entry into another. Bad seeds detected by this system may be banned for longer periods of time.
This too seems ludicrous, as most of the violence has been identified to occur outside venues.
There are some positive measures such as increased supervision of taxi ranks and more buses have been announced. Such transport options aren’t unwelcome — though why busses that only fit 50 revellers and will add further traffic to already congested roads have been chosen ahead of trains is anyone’s guess.
Although the rhetoric of public safety is slathered on heavily, there’s a barely disguised contempt for the public in these measures.
The approach is also laced with a geographic snobbery: that it’s young people from the western suburbs and the Shire who cause the trouble, not inner-city locals. Again, there is no firm evidence to suggest this.
The irony of the O’Farrell’s plan for the Cross is that it coincided with the expression of concerns from alcohol researchers that the alcohol industry has too much advertising power.
So what it is the solution? Firstly, to remove the freeze on new licences and promote rather than discourage greater diversity of entertainment venues. This includes a promotion of small bars, live music venues, and late night markets.
Second, there must be a more thorough response to Sydney’s poor transport options. Trains to Town Hall that are timed with 24-hour Nightrider busses would begin this process.
Thirdly, we need to respond to our culture of drinking by education and by limiting the advertising of alcohol.
There’s a problem with violence and alcohol in Kings Cross. That can’t be denied. But O’Farrell’s tough new plan targets the punters and the small bars. It does nothing about our culture of drinking, the power of the alcohol lobby and yields to the power of the AHA. In other words, we can expect more of the same.
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