I’m writing this from a bar in central Sydney, moderately soberly — although I have just ordered another beer, so who knows? — not because it’s a regular pastime at 3am on a Wednesday morning but because it might be my last chance.
For the record, I don’t feel like king-hitting anyone. Nor do I feel particularly like the target of Barry O’Farrell’s new blitzkrieg against liquor. Rather, I feel caught in the crossfire of a strange battle that has ceased to take place in the domain of reality and is now submerged in the murky waters of moral panic.
For a few weeks now, there have been demands to ‘do something’ about the apparent crisis of alcohol-fuelled violence in this city. It’s no trivial matter — people have died. Not just anyone but two middle-class white male teenagers: the very people who aren’t supposed to die. Many more women have perished at the bare wrists of their partners, but their crusade will have to wait for another, distant day.
The NSW Premier’s solution is semi-prohibition: no admittance after 1.30am and no booze after 3am. The regime will apply throughout the city’s prime drinking zones, from the CBD to Kings Cross to Oxford Street. There were other measures but this is the jewel in the crown; the ‘Newcastle solution’ the tabloids have demanded. Glorious Sydney — that sparkling, iconic, buzzing metropolis — is to be reduced to a regional town.
This is a draconian and ruinous overreach, and it will destroy the city. Make no mistake: Sydney is over. It has been a difficult place to take seriously of late, what with our restrictions on shots and bans on glassware after certain times. It is impossible to feel like an adult here: we have been made into children.
And for what purpose? The statistics tell a very different story to the media narrative. Across the state, assaults are down. In Kings Cross, violent incidents inside premises have declined, while those on the street are stable. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem but it confirms there is no crisis.
The notion of a crisis has been manufactured by media organisations: one of them famous for lies and manipulation, the other so deprived of resources it can do little more than pursue easy campaigns that run contrary to fact. They should be culpable for the damage they will wreak upon the city.
The bar I’m at falls just outside the regulation zone, for now, which is just as well because it hasn’t seen a punch thrown in six years. As for the industry, the barman says the losses will be huge. He laughs at the Premier’s suggestion that revellers need not go home once last drinks are called.
‘You can’t expect anyone to buy a soft drink,’ he tells me. ‘They’re gonna leave. There’s nothing keeping them there.’
People like drinking, and they like taking drugs, for any number of reasons, not least because it offers momentary escape from their drab and meaningless lives. That fact is intractable, and yet our lawmakers will not let it permeate their decision-making.
The assaults are never, ever going to stop. And the people who applaud this government for ‘taking a stand’ are pitiable for believing they might. We have to be realistic enough to accept a baseline level of violence.
Those who put their hands on their hearts and look to Newcastle are liars and frauds. What works in some one-horse town does not work in a global city, and to ascertain that you need only look at the results from Melbourne and Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.
It’s not even worth a try, which is the last-resort argument of the wowsers. Curtailing the liberty of the majority warrants strong evidence of a substantial benefit to a significant group. This benefit does not exist, and O’Farrell has not attempted to demonstrate it.
The assaults on Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie took place before midnight. And yet we are supposed to accept that a 1.30am lockout is the remedy.
‘What happens to the blokes who get locked out at 1.40am?’ my bartender asks. It’s a good question. They’re intoxicated, on the streets and unable to access any venue. The hour is early — nobody is ready to go home. It is a recipe for disaster.
Meanwhile, those of us who simply wanted to burn the midnight oil are also turned away, unable to be trusted because of the crimes of a tiny minority. You could almost forgive the government if this minority were in any way sizeable or growing, but it isn’t.
And our politicians won’t make the case. They are powerless in the face of talkback and tabloid panic. As a journalist it pains me to say it, but we do not have your best interests at heart. We are not fair, equitable or measured. Too few of us deal in numbers; too many deal in sensation and narrative. Too few of us drink these days; too many ride bikes and high horses. We cannot be relied upon to argue based on evidence and no doubt our politicians can’t be either.
This is a structural weakness that must be addressed, and soon. One wonders if Liberal hands quivered when Cabinet waved through this unprecedented incursion on liberty. The opposition is even worse. Labor leader John Robertson is advocating a ban on shots after 10pm. This may seem like a trivial freedom to sacrifice, but wait until you find yourself serving your American friends Fanta smoothies from a plastic cup at 11pm and you may reconsider.
The other component of O’Farrell’s remedy is mandatory minimum sentencing. These are the real menace: they disproportionately affect the disadvantaged and they take power away from careful, deliberative judges and deliver it to screaming, belligerent shock jocks.
And again we are supposed to believe that boofheads — spun out on booze, steroids and testosterone – will pause in their moment of imagined glory and consider this penalty. Would that it were so.
If these arguments seem intuitive and unoriginal, that only serves to underscore the failure of our lawmakers, who have proven they are impervious to logic. This package of legislation is a classic kneejerk, and it will irretrievably sully the soul of Sydney. It might yet infect other parts of the country. It should be resisted every day, in every way.
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