What Could Be: A Look At Australia’s Idiotic Lockout Laws

By Terry Gotham

For the Aussie Burners, this is going to be old news, but I wanted to take some time to explain what’s occurred across Australia, as it relates to the continued specter of clamp-downs, permit-driven events and the challenges cities like LA & NYC present to even the most seasoned producers. Lockout laws have eviscerated the once legendary Australian nightclub & dance music scene. After following the story for months and seeing a second Australian state engage in this idiocy last month, I couldn’t stay quiet anymore. New South Wales is one of the fronts in the war against drug checking, with pill testing being done at festivals, despite government bans or restrictions. The parallels between our fights provide opportunities for learning, while showcasing champions of harm reduction, like Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and business leaders willing to stand against the pearl clutchers.

Since 2010, lockout laws (laws forcing bars & clubs to stop serving alcohol and shut their doors early) have been enacted across Australia. In Sydney, a survey way back in January purported to find that 68% of NSW (the state Sydney is in) residents supported lock outs. This was interesting because a similar number (60%) also said they considered the city unsafe on a Saturday night. In the United States, in a lot of suburban areas, I bet you could probably find similar levels of support for Blue Laws (laws that prevent the sale of alcohol) and dry ( totally alcohol free) counties. In Baltimore, for example, last call is at 1:30, sometimes earlier, which ensures a lot of drunk people end up on the street, sometimes, before they’re ready to leave. The survey didn’t provide location data or any real information on demographics, only 353 people were polled, and it was sponsored by The Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education, an anti-alcohol advocacy organization, we can see who could be on the other side. There’s a healthy amount of fear-mongering going on, which is surprising, given that Sydney was voted the safest city in the world as recently as 2013, as referenced by their own Tourism page. Oh, and for anyone keeping score, dry counties in the USA have severe meth problems. But, enough about hyperbole and exaggerated claims. What’s actually happened in Sydney?

  • Introduction of 1:30a “lock-outs” (if you leave you can’t go back in) & 3a last drinks.
  • State-wide shuttering of liquor stores at 10p.
  • On-The-Spot Fines of up to $1,100 for disorderly conduct or disobeying a police officer.
  • Police allowed to impose “immediate” precinct ban of up to 48hrs to anyone they see fit.
  • Freeze on new liquor licenses (even if venues with existing licenses shut their doors)
  • A couple of good things, like free buses.

Over the last 4 years, King’s Cross, a storied region for bars, clubs & restaurants in Sydney has lost 84% of its foot traffic, forcing 40% of small nightlife based businesses in the region to close. Oxford Street, another thoroughfare, lost a similar 82% of foot traffic, with a commensurate drop in revenue. Venue after venue has closed their doors for the last time. This is salt in the wound to a nightlife market that saw a 60% drop from 2010-2012 when precursor regulations kicked in. The only institutions that are exempt from these laws are casinos, which is hilarious and terrible. If a casino is the only place you’re able to drink after a certain hour, how long before you decide to play some slots with the change from your late night snack? How long until you start going out on the weekends just to go to play blackjack? I think we can agree that Las Vegas casinos can be nice and all, but casinos at large can be exceptionally predatory, much more so than a live music venue or even a bar, that’s the reason why it is better to go to an online casino like www.PokieGuide.nz, it is so much better. And they do so, because it’s staggeringly profitable for them to do so.

The Star Entertainment Group, one of the larger gaming groups in Australia, has seen its share price more than double over the last 3 years, from $2.30 in December 2013, up to $5.74 as of July 18, 2016. This increased revenue comes not only from Casinos being open later, but being there to grab customers who are looking for places to go now that 40 of their favorite live music venues have closed. Additional revenue comes from relaxing restrictions on daily gambling limits for gamblers with a problem, which is about as gangster as you can get. While the UK is protecting venues, Australia might as well be burning them to the ground.

The pretext for these laws includes a campaign to raise awareness about “one punch” attacks, a rash of overhyped violence similar to the “Knockout Game” that occasionally pervades the news cycle here in the United States. Penalties for “random” or “drug and alcohol fueled” violence are varied across the country, but were implemented after a couple of high profile assaults had conservative forces attempting to crucify live music in punishment. These laws didn’t reduce the assault levels, but that didn’t stop sitting members of government from saying they did.

Matt Barrie, prominent businessman & founder at Freelancer.com has spent the last several months rigorously documenting how bad these laws are. His first article, “Would the last person in Sydney please turn out the lights?” was exhaustively researched and exceptionally well-received was the #1 read article on LinkedIn when it dropped in February. His second one, is even longer & more exhaustively researched. If you’re into this kind of policy wonk stuff, I encourage you to read both. They’re a master class in how to dismantle institutional bullshit.

A bad idea usually spreads, much to the chagrin of the Brisbane nightclub & live music scene and Queensland. NSW’s neighbor state approved similar laws, with them taking effect last week. After midnight, shots can’t be ordered, some venues will be forced to close at 2am, with “late-night” venues closing their doors at 3am. It looks as if they’re totally ignoring the protests that occurred in Sydney.

The party people in Sydney have been fighting back as hard as they can. Rallies, internet campaigns, celebrity advocacy & parties have occurred for months to try and get the changes reversed. Millionaire, venue & construction company owner Scott Hutchinson has gone on record to say he’d be willing to bankroll “whatever is necessary” to get the Queensland’s lockout laws back off the books. Even if he can’t get them removed across the country, a state-by-state fight could be successful if planned correctly. A motley crew of supporters in Queensland is attempting to help Scott, but right now, they need all the help they can get.

Mike Baird, the NSW premier is not popular. No seriously, like, 84% negative reactions to his posts supporting lock out laws and anti-event actions. He demanded festivals “do something” about deaths, then refused to allow pill testing & other forward thinking harm reduction measures, I’d say he’s earned the ire he’s getting. Maybe getting compared to Vladmir Putin by morning radio in NSW is a bit much, but when morning shock jocks are calling you a kleptocrat that’s out of touch with the people, you’re probably not doing everything right.

Interestingly, Victoria (another Aussie state) cancelled their own 2am lockouts year sago. Melbourne tried it, and it went hilariously badly. No seriously:

Independent audit firm KPMG found the Melbourne lockout led to an increase in reported assaults between midnight and 2am and also between 2am and 4am. There were also more ambulance trips due to assaults between 8pm and midnight, compared to the three months before the lockout. ~The Age, 2014

The demands from protesters who are fighting against them are almost mundane. Lifting of late night retail restrictions, late-night transportation (San Francisco, take note), ending the new license freeze for live music venues & small bars (to help get new businesses back in the area), and the creation of a Night Mayor, a city official that New York City desperately needs. This includes a creation of a 24hr area of the city, with late night work & play spots, and administrator of that space, called the Night Mayor. By smoothing relations between that region & the neighboring communities, this person can greatly affect the success of nightlife, and how the live music/bar/club community is viewed by the city at large. It’s such a good idea, there are now Night Mayors in Paris, Toulouse, Zurich & Amsterdam, with London and Berlin debating creating one.

So, what does this have to do with LA, San Francisco & New York City? Los Angeles flirted with banning electronic music events entirely this spring, with that measure being defeated despite the best efforts of a number of groups. New York City is all but devoid of outlaw events, with retail venue rentals regularly exceeding 5 digits in booking fees alone. Economic activity from electronic & live music events could be not only shared by many more producers that don’t have the cool $35,000 to throw a party with actual headliners, and communities wouldn’t have to hate renegade parties and Burns, if we can learn from Australia’s mistakes. Berlin, London, Munich & Amsterdam could teach major American cities a thing or two.

Not just about how to make small business thrive, but how to keep partiers safe, by deploying smart, tested harm reduction best practices. With people willing to go to jail to deploy these practices in Australia, perhaps the Mayors of San Francisco, Miami, LA & NYC can see the gift horse being presented to them. This could lead to a lot of money being made by non-party people. Capitalize on the surprisingly non-deflated live & electronic music markets in their respective cities, and test out harm reduction/security/law enforcement tactics that have been honed across both oceans,  If all of a sudden, this stuff works, and it’s easier, and safer to throw events in these cities, who knows, it might spread. It’s fun to dream.

(Thanks so much to Stoney Roads for their continuing coverage of this story & general dopeness when it comes to music choice and their give-no-fucks attitude.)

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