Locked out of Sydney

What Happens When a 79-Year-Old Rich Guy Reviews Sydney's Lockout Laws

Former High Court Justice Ian Callinan has released his report on Sydney's nightlife. As you'd expect he thinks Sydney is still kicking, while Kings Cross is now an "attractive and convenient place to live."
14 September 2016, 12:00amUpdated on 14 September 2016, 5:31am

King's Cross station, Sydney. Image via Flickr user nicephotog

In response to the Keep Sydney Open movement, the New South Wales government has released an independent review of the state's controversial "lockout" liquor laws to the public. Naturally, the government tapped a 79-year-old constitutional law expert to review the laws. Reading former High Court Justice Ian Callinan's report two things become very clear—there's very little desire within the government to step back from the laws, and Justice Callinan has probably (definitely) never set foot in a nightclub.

The Review of Amendments to the Liquor Act 2007 (NSW) report addresses all the arguments commonly levelled by those who oppose the lockouts, from the "destruction of vibrancy," to the fact "creative people have left Sydney for Melbourne and are thriving there."

These are obviously things that aren't easy to assess in an empirical way, which is why the Baird government appointed an expert—someone whose idea of a good night likely includes lots of activities affected by the lockouts, like the opera.

Oddly enough though, Callinan admits difficulty assessing how young people felt about the lockout laws. He said it was "not possible" to verify whether Sydney creatives were moving to Melbourne to escape the lock outs, although many opponents to the laws argued this was the case. Seems the Justice hasn't been hanging out in many Melbourne music venues lately.

"The legislation does not in terms discriminate against any group of people," Callinan argues, suggesting there's been no impact from the laws on young musicians. This might be technically true, if you're looking at the literal wording of the legislation. But his assessment lacks nuance—disregarding how many live music venues, once breeding grounds for local bands and DJs, have closed in recent months.

While Justice Callinan acknowledges there's been a "reduction of opportunities for live entertainers" since the lockout laws were introduced, he's unsympathetic. "I do not understand why some of those opportunities have not migrated to other areas or other times... I am not satisfied that all providers and customers have done all they could to adapt their programmes and habits respectively." Hear that, local bands? Playing a late night slot at your local pub isn't a right. Have you tried busking?

Throughout the report, Callinan takes on this strange moralising tone, reminiscent of a worried mum telling her 17-year-old that you don't need alcohol to have fun. "Vibrancy is not to be measured only by the amount of alcohol available or consumed throughout the night," he says sternly, warning that consuming alcohol simply encourages "squalid and sleazy behaviour."

This is what makes the report so interesting—while it professes to be concerned with alcohol-related violence, it seems just as interested in keeping things classy. Callinan's advice seems to be: If you have to get drunk, do it in the comfort of your own home, not on the streets.

Other concerns are addressed in the same non-committal way. Many of those protesting Baird's lockout laws have complained they unfairly favour the Casino, which has been allowed to stay open late. While Callinan acknowledges this is true, seeing as the Casino "does generate revenue for the government" it's okay by him. The increased prevalence of violence in the Casino precinct apparently isn't much of an issue either, because it doesn't outweigh the decreases in assaults recorded at Kings Cross and in the Sydney CBD.

Objectors to lockouts also point out that similar legislation has been rejected by cities like Melbourne, due to its ineffectiveness and threat to local live music culture. The report claims that it was impossible to obtain "reliable, relevant Melbourne statistics," which seems unlikely given the city's abject enthusiasm to promote itself in the media as a kind of anti-Sydney.

Meanwhile, the report tallies the various victories of lockout legislation—that "Kings Cross is now an 'attractive and convenient place to live,'" presumably if you enjoy staying indoors and watching TV. Callinan notes there have been reduced admissions to emergency departments, and restaurants "of a different style" have been allowed to flourish. Yes, exactly the kinds of restaurants you can afford to frequent if you spent years working as a lawyer and judge.

Callinan also notes that the burden on Sydney's police force since the introduction of lockout laws has been lessened, allowing them to "detect and prevent non-alcohol-related crime."

The report does recommend a slight loosening of some of the more overzealous lockout regulations. Callinan suggests the curfew on liquor stores be pushed back to the late hour of 11 PM, and that music venues get their lock out extended by half an hour—so the 1:30 AM lockout and 3:00 AM last drinks rule will change to 2:00 AM and 3:30 AM, respectively.

Greens MP Jenny Leong said in a media statement on Tuesday that her party will be reviewing the Callinan report closely, to "see whether the views of the 15,000 people who joined the Keep Sydney Open rally and the thousands of others who expressed their concerns to #CasinoMike about the unfairness of the lockout laws have been heard." Leong has just been instated as the head of the Greens' new Night-time Culture and Economy portfolio.

"It's essential that the things that are harder to measure, around the vibe of our city and the choices people have on their nights out, have also been considered," MP Leong said.

The Baird Government will deliver its response to the Callinan report by the end of the year.

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