After introducing a raft of new measures to crackdown on licensed venues in Sydney in an attempt to curb violence, the cultural crusaders inside the New South Wales government have pressed ahead with plans for new legislation to tackle the ultimate electoral strawman – alcohol-fueled violence.
Despite figures which show that assaults have declined 37 percent over the past five years in the Kings Cross area, new legislation will make ID scanning compulsory with each venue forced to introduce scanning machines system linked to a central database.
Police will also have access to the database of information from the scanners, which will be used to ban patrons from all licensed venues and will help police identify offenders or victims when alleged crimes have occurred.
But the government won’t be paying for the new scanners or their installation, with the costs being passed on to pubs and clubs who will be forced to use them.
The new legislation, to be introduced later this year, will also include changes to the law that will allow police to patrol the streets with sniffer dogs and will allow them to use the dogs on members of the public without requiring a warrant.
The government will also be setting up a ‘sobering-up’ centre, as well as extending bus services in the Kings Cross area to help disperse large crowds of revellers and trialling pre-paid taxi fares similar to a scheme already operating in Victoria.
The government also plans to introduce a freeze on new liquor licenses for the area for at least another three years, and will extend the area covered by the Kings Cross Liquor Accord to take in nearly 100 new premises in Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay.
Hospitality Minister George Souris, who controversially blamed small bars for the violence in Kings Cross, will also introduce a new category of small bar liquor licence which would limit small bars in Kings Cross to hosting 60 patrons or less at any one time.
“This comes after concerns that licenses approved for small bars were morphing into larger venues of 120 patrons,” Souris said. The new 60 person or less bar licenses would be exempt from the liquor licensing freeze in the area.
“We are creating a new specific ‘small bar’ licence category limited to 60 patrons to encourage investment and diversity and create a different business model for the industry,” Souris added.
But Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore isn’t convinced. “Instead of focusing on the big picture, this government has focused on small bars,” she said in a boradside against the governments plans.
“If you love small bars, and many Sydney-siders do because they offer a civilised alternative to big beer barns, then you should be very alarmed by what the government is trying to do.”
Liquor licensing and music venues became a political hot topic again this year following the death of teenager Thomas Kelly in a senseless attack in Sydney’s King Cross in July, and since then issue of alcohol-related violence has become a political platform for pokie-lined pub venues and politicians alike.
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell quickly assembled a task force to look into the issue of escalating violence in Kings Cross, with his hospitality minister pointing the finger at small bars and venues claiming they have “a lower level of surveillance, a lower level of supervision, a lower level of compliance”, adding that pokies venues “are better policed, better supervised than those smaller venues”.
The Premier is also keen to reintroduce either a 1am or 2am lock out in the CBD, supported by the Foundation For Alcohol Research, despite the attack on Thomas Kelly occurring early in the evening and unrelated to any licensed venues in the area.
A lock out is not part of the legalisation proposed by the government, but O’Farrell says the option is not off the table. “We leave that (lockouts) on the table. We will monitor the progress of this package and if there isn’t improvement those options will again be considered,” Mr O’Farrell said.
But the NSW Police are unhappy that the government has stepped back from the proposed lock outs, and association president Scott Weber told The Daily Telegraph at the government is making a mistake.
“The government has missed a big opportunity by not including reduced trading hours and lockouts for Kings Cross,” Mr Weber said. “When those measures were introduced in Newcastle we saw a 29 per cent decrease in alcohol-related emergency admissions and a more than 35 per cent decrease in alcohol-fuelled assaults at night.”
In the meantime as the government awaits the legislation to pass parliament, O’Farrell has introduced a ban inside 58 venues on the sale of shots and ready-to-drink beverages late night along with glass of any kind.
Also part of the new restrictions, on Friday and Saturday nights venues will not be able to sell alcohol in the hour before closing, and two responsible service of alcohol marshals will have to be rostered on if trading after 11pm.
The move comes at a fragile time for Sydney’s music community, with the increased regulations and falling patron numbers creating a perfect storm that could drastically change the future outlook for the remaining music venues.
The changes to the sale of alcohol and the rostering of ‘alcohol marshals’ will alone cost at least $8000 a month per restaurant or bar, said Kings Cross business owners, but will do little to curb drunken fights in the area who claim the new rules will send sales plummeting.
NSW Council of Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy has called the new mandatory ID scanning a “gross invasion of privacy”, adding that concerns remain about how personal information collected by the scanners will be used, with the increased risk of identity theft or fraud.
But Premier O’Farrell defends the mandatory ID scanning provision. “The point here is that what can currently happen is someone can be ejected from one venue for being objectionable, for being anti-social and simply roll down the street into another venue.”
“Under this system that would be stopped. It would be stopped so that someone could be banned from a premise from the night or if was believed to be warranted, in accordance with the guidelines, they could be banned for a longer period.”
The NSW government said the scanners would be installed in consultation with the Privacy Commissioner but Murphy says he doesn’t think there’s anything the Privacy Commissioner can do to make the proposal reasonable.
“No person in their right mind would hand over their personal information to an owner of a nightclub in Kings Cross. It’s a ludicrous proposal. We know that a license on its own is enough for somebody to use to commit identify theft and fraud. But handing it over is anybody’s problem but to colourful Kings Cross identities is just an absurdity.”