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Key must not turn on alcohol lockout laws

Toby Hall - Sydney Morning Herald
September 2015

Two years ago, on any Friday or Saturday night, the emergency department at St Vincent's Hospital Sydney would be awash with victims of alcohol-related bashings and accidents. It was a war zone.

Now, 18 months after the suite of measures known as Sydney's "lockout laws" dramatically changed things for the better, an array of special interest groups are working to have them watered down or struck from the books.

First, Senator David Leyonhjelm has established a Senate inquiry which has given him and the liquor industry a platform to advocate for the removal of the lockout laws.

He says he wants to make Kings Cross "naughty" again and hold committee hearings in nightclubs to attack the "fun police".

Next, the alcohol lobby is pushing to have a central plank of the reforms – the 10pm closure of NSW's bottle shops – eased in regional communities, no doubt with an eye to metro areas in the future.

Meanwhile, other activists are gaining a profile by saying the measures have pushed alcohol-fuelled violence from the city's entertainment precinct to Newtown; a claim not supported by the independent NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

These groups hope that as time passes, the public's memory of the chaos that characterised Sydney's entertainment district prior to the lockout laws will fade; that they will accept the softening of reforms.

However, for emergency personnel, clinicians, nurses and social workers – those who worked at the bedsides of victims and broke the terrible news of their injuries to loved ones – those events feel like yesterday.

At St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst, it is a different place to what it was a few years ago on Friday and Saturday nights.

Admissions linked to alcohol-related violence in Sydney's entertainment precinct has been reduced significantly and yet it has within its catchment the greatest concentration of licensed premises in Australia. The number of patients with serious head injuries admitted between 8pm and 8am has more than halved.

And it's not just the 1.30am lockout/3am last drinks in Kings Cross and the CBD that we can thank for that change.

The 10pm bottle shop closure was designed to address the practice of "preloading": people buying cheap alcohol to consume at home before heading out to a pub or club that night.

That's not just an issue in Kings Cross or the CBD, but throughout NSW. Studies show 60 per cent of people with injuries at emergency wards consumed store-bought alcohol in the hours leading up to their injuries.

Newcastle, which brought in modest measures around the sale of alcohol in 2008, shows what can happen if we stay the course. Its night-time economy is thriving because smart venues have adapted and changed their business model.

The number of licensed premises in inner Newcastle has more than doubled (up by 110 per cent) since late trading hours were reduced, mostly in new restaurants and smaller bars.

At the same time, the city's emergency departments have experienced a 26 per cent drop in night-time presentations.

Kings Cross can have the same.

As those against Sydney's lockout laws organise, it is important to remind the public what the CBD and Kings Cross were like before the laws' introduction and how far we've come; how police and ambos were routinely spat on and threatened when trying to bring order to the city's madness.

How local residents feared for their safety and how our doctors and nurses were overwhelmed by the victims of alcohol-fuelled violence.

We will not go back.