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Is Sydney Finally Ready to Be a Party City Again?

Now that much-maligned Premier Mike Baird has resigned, we investigate if the city’s controversial lockout laws are likely to be rolled back—as well as how badly the scene has suffered.

by Nick Jarvis
Mar 10 2017, 9:00pm

In our Dancing vs. The State series, THUMP explores nightlife's complicated relationship to law enforcement, past and present.

When New South Wales' Premier Mike Baird abruptly resigned from office in January of this year, not everyone in Sydney was sad to see him go. The political commentator Andrew P Street summed up a widely-held sentiment among the city's nightlife community when he tweeted: "I guess Mike Baird figured that now Sydney is dead, his work is done." The 48-year-old former leader of the NSW Liberal Party had come to be known as the public face of Sydney's controversial lockout laws, regulations that drastically watered down the city's once-vibrant nightlife over the last three years.

Since the lockout laws were enacted in February 2014, more than a dozen clubs and bars have shut down, and venue owners claim that the mandates are costing them hundreds of thousands a year in lost revenue. Baird's replacement Gladys Berejiklian, however, has said she is in favor of the current system, dashing any hopes of the law being rolled back any time soon.

"You can't say it's all black or white, you've got to accept that protecting people is the best and most important job for government," Berejiklian recently said in a radio interview. "That's why I feel that where we've got to with the lockout laws is a good balance, because it means people can enjoy live music at a reasonable hour but also protecting young people."

Despite Berejiklian's stance not being the one Sydney's nightlife community was vying for, in recent months there have been glimmers of hope that city's scene is finding its groove again. Venue owners are reporting a steady increase in attendance at their clubs, and tenacious promoters have started throwing parties in other parts of the city. This all raises the question of whether Baird's departure has paved the way for the long-awaited revival of Sydney's nightlife.

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

Three years ago, the lockout laws were rushed through parliament by Mike Baird's predecessor Barry O'Farrell, in response to two widely publicized deaths from alcohol-related street violence in Sydney's red light district Kings Cross. The state's two largest newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald, ran editorials calling for an end to the "carnage from alcohol-fueled violence," and for the government to take action. Despite the sensational media coverage, official statistics showed that alcohol-related assaults in Sydney had actually been declining since 2008 and were at their lowest since 2002, rating at 184.8 assaults per 100,000 people in the year. Nonetheless, the laws were drawn up and pushed through parliament in ten days. It didn't take long for their effects to ripple through the city's nightlife scene.

The new regime put in place a sweeping and complex range of nightlife restrictions across the state and also in the smaller lockout-zone of Sydney's Central Business District (CBD). All across NSW there are currently bans on liquor store sales after 10 PM and selling of shots or doubles after midnight. You can buy a scotch or a vodka, but you have to mix it with soda, or you're breaking the law.

The rules apply most stringently within the lockout zone—an area officially known as the "Sydney entertainment precinct." Geographically, they affect a very specific area of about two square miles that cover the red light district, Kings Cross, and most of the city center that houses around 1300 pubs, clubs and bars, including Sydney's biggest and best known clubs, Ivy and Chinese Laundry. In this area, you can't enter a venue for the first time after 1:30 AM, and alcohol service stops at 3 AM (meaning most clubs shut down right after 3AM). Approved venues with live music were recently given a half hour extension, meaning they can keep their doors open until 2 AM and serve until 3:30 AM.

Image via Flickr.

Before the laws, Sydney used to be a city where you could go bar and club hopping until you ran out of energy or money, from hipster-as-hell whiskey and dive bars like the Baxter Inn and Frankies to reliable eclectic band and club venues like Q Bar, Oxford Art Factory and Hudson Ballroom (formerly Goodgod). There were also the perennial sweaty bass and house basements like Chinese Laundry, the rowdy red light strip of Kings Cross or, for those in need of top shelf house and techno playing past sunrise, the revered Spice Cellar. It was a city where you could party until 7 or 8 AM, then roll straight to the beach for a revitalising dose of smashed avocado on toast, sunshine and sea water. But those days have but come and gone. Since the lockout laws came in, a night out is no longer spontaneous—you have to either plan your partying ahead of time at a scheduled event outside the CBD lockout zone (like the occasional Mad Rackets or a secret-venue Motorik or Picnic party), head to the now-overcrowded strip of Newtown's bohemian King Street, or be prepared to pack it all in before 3:30 AM.

Now, walking the streets of Sydney's CBD and Kings Cross after 2 AM, it's hard to find a cab or a kebab, let alone some place for a dance or a quiet nightcap. When Time Out debuted its Global City Index of the world's "most fun cities" in 2016, Sydney ranked in a miserable third-last place, while sparring-partner Melbourne landed in second place (just behind Chicago), a sobering defeat for proud Sydneysiders.

Sydney's DJs and promoters were furious to see the scene they helped build become slowly suffocated. "Australian clubbing is so fucked up right now...and not in a good way," Aussie ex-pat and current-Las Vegas headliner Tommy Trash tweeted back in 2015. "AUSTRALIA... WORLD LEADER IN KILLING NIGHTLIFE...if these current laws in Australia were in place while I was an upcoming DJ... they would have totally fucked my career."

"The city was alive [before lockouts]," Aussie-bred OWSLA artist What So Not wrote on Facebook earlier this year. "People would turn out in masses, lines down the street at every venue in the Cross... Looking back now I see how important this time was for me and so many other artists. If we didn't have this creative ecosystem to kick start our vision, none of us would have made it."

On the surface, the lockout laws achieved what they set out to do. The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) found that two years after lockouts started, assaults had dropped by 49% in Kings Cross and 13% in the city. However the statistics only told half the story: another way to understand the sharp decline in assaults in Kings Cross was that there were simply less people going to that part of the city. Research by Sydney's local council showed that the number of people out late at night in the city dropped by up to 80% between 2012 and 2016.

However the anti-lockout lobbyists have fought back by pointing to new data from BOCSAR, realized this week, that shows alcohol-related assaults have actually increased to 299 in suburbs around the lockout zone, suggesting that the lockouts have merely pushed alcohol-fueled violence into other fringe areas. Assaults in suburbs next to the lockout zone like Ultimo have increased by 12%, while assaults have increased by 17% in suburbs like Newtown and Surry Hills, that have plenty of pubs and bars but are outside the lockout zone.

Photo by Amy Piddington via the KSO Facebook page.

Putting aside disputes over data, anecdotally the effect of the laws on the city's scene was obvious. The once-crowded streets of clubbing areas were emptied out, and the venues struggled to survive. In the 18 months since the laws came into effect, iconic clubs, bars and dives like Spice Cellar, Q Bar, Soho, Backroom, The Flinders and Hugo's Lounge all shut their doors. Club-owners and punters weren't the only ones hit, as bands and DJs lost gigs because venues couldn't pay them, restaurants lost money, and even late night take out restaurants and news agencies started shutting down. World Bar in Kings Cross was one of the worst examples—documents submitted to the lockout law review revealed that the laws were costing them close to $225,000 (US$169,000) a year in extra security and lost revenue.

"Two years ago we would have had six bands playing on a Friday night, now it's just two," World Bar's General Manager Greg Turton wrote to THUMP. "This is the story we hear across Sydney. With more and more venues closing, there are fewer venues for artists to practice and get heard."

In response to the laws, a grassroots movement mobilized within Sydney's music community to campaign hard to get them overturned. The activist group Keep Sydney Open sprung up and was among the first to take a public stand against the laws, organizing a large protest in February 2016 to coincide with the official government enquiry into whether lockouts should stay or go. An estimated 15,000 people turned out to ask for the laws to be repealed—a significant number in a city of just over four million—but the response from government was a token half-hour lockout extension for live music venues.

The movement has even spread overseas, with New York's expat Aussie community throwing a Keep Sydney Open protest and fundraiser in February of this year at East Village venue Nublu. Other community organizations like Reclaim the Streets have been running their own regular resistance campaigns and protests, while a new coalition of Sydney hoteliers and venue owners, City Safe, is also lobbying government to grant exemptions from lockouts for venues that comply with safety requirements.

The founder of Keep Sydney Open, Tyson Koh, said that the choice should be "between lockouts and a smart policy that will keep Sydney safe and also give us the late night culture a city like Sydney deserves," in an open letter to new Premier Gladys Berejiklian. "It's more important than ever to let the government know that sacrificing nightlife for safety is shamefully unnecessary, and we won't stand for it."

But the response from government hasn't been all positive. Former Premier Baird called the opposition to lockouts a "growing hysteria," writing on Facebook that the post-lockout city is "more vibrant than ever". The stipulations have also proven popular with mainstream voters across greater NSW: a poll at the end of last year found that nearly two thirds of voters support the extension of the lockout laws.

The new Premier Gladys Berejiklian isn't open to making any drastic changes either. Speaking with THUMP, Berejiklian said "I feel the NSW Government has reached a good balance on this issue, as we relaxed lockout laws [by half an hour] for live entertainment venues following a review last year."

"It means people can enjoy live music at a reasonable hour [while] also protecting young people," Berejiklian recently told a local Sydney radio station. "Mums and dads in the suburbs are worried about what their young kids are doing when they're having a good time...you want to make sure you've got a government in action that's really thinking about what we can do to keep kids as safe as possible."

One unforeseen upshot of the lockout laws has been to reinvigorate nightlife in other parts of the city, as plenty of enterprising promoters have seized newfound opportunities in the restrictions. Many parties have migrated outside the lockout zone; the past two years have seen a surge in clubs opening (or reopening) in suburbs on the fringe of the city, like Goodbar in Paddington, Jam Gallery in Bondi Junction, Tokyo Sing Song in Newtown and Sly Fox in Enmore.

Semi-industrial inner west suburbs like Marrickville and Alexandria, which played host to Sydney's nascent rave parties back in the 90s, have also seen a resurgence in after-dark activity. The progressive local council of Marrickville is even planning to capitalize on the lockouts and rezone an industrial area to turn it into an entertainment precinct full of live music venues, bars and cafes. And Mad Racket, the famed underground house and techno party that's run at Marrickville's lawn bowling club since 1999, has been cranking regularly since lockouts came in.

Some clubs inside Sydney's lockout zone are even reporting an uptick in patronage in the past year, as a new generation of clubbers who've only ever partied under lockouts start bringing life back to the city and Kings Cross. The Hudson Ballroom and Oxford Art Factory are still going strong, and James Menzies at World Bar—one of the biggest remaining music venues in Kings Cross—told THUMP they've seen a "return to form" for the Cross in the past year.

"We still only have two bands on Friday nights [but] we have started to bring more artists in on Thursdays and also bigger acts on Wednesdays and Saturdays," Menzies said. "It has been encouraging to see people return to the Cross, especially those that would frequent this part of the city before lockouts were enforced."

18 and 19 year-old clubbers have only ever known Sydney's nightlife under lockouts, Menzies says, and it isn't helpful for older punters to keep telling them that things were better back in the old days.

"The overall feeling in the industry is that the worst is over," Menzies said, "And it's time to focus on what we do best: throwing the best damn parties we can and making sure everyone is having a great time."

Nick Jarvis is a freelance writer based in Sydney covering music, film, subculture and politics. He's on Twitter.

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