Don’t Close The Door On Our Envied Bar Culture

Premier John Brumby probably wasn’t expecting a backlash this big.

Nearly 30,000 distressed drinkers have signed just one of the many Facebook petitions opposing the 2am lockout — the Victorian Government’s new policy that will ban entry to bars, pubs and clubs in the inner city after 2am. And more than 6000 people have promised to angrily party on the steps of Parliament when the ban goes into force on June 3.

The lockout is being vigorously debated in street magazines and online music forums that would never think to debate the finer points of more “traditional” policy concerns such as means-tested baby bonuses or first-home buyers’ grants.

There is good reason for these protesters to be upset about the 2am lockout. It is a dramatic restriction on our freedom to go to our favourite venues that, in turn, want to have us as customers. The Government is obviously worried that the word “curfew” sounds a little too much like they fear a coup d’etat.

But even if you’re not convinced that we have been endowed with an inalienable right to party, the 2am lockout is still bad public policy.

Certainly, a lockout has precedents across the country. Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast has a lockout at 1.30am, Mackay locks patrons out at 2am, and Newcastle introduced a 3am lockout in March this year. In Victoria, Ballarat, Bendigo and Warrnambool all have lockouts in place.

In many of these cities, police claim that late-night violence has been reduced. But Brisbane has had a 3am lockout since 2005, and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital told a documentary film crew that it had seen no reduction in total assaults since the ban was enacted. The correlation between bar-hopping and violent assault may not be as simple as the Government would like.

In the absence of a clear model of cause and effect, the policy aims to restrict the behaviour of a huge number of Melburnians in the questionable hope that doing so will set off a chain reaction that ends in the pacification of a few violent idiots. But wishful thinking and guesswork rarely result in good policy.

The evidence from other cities reveals that violent behaviour late at night is clustered only around a few hot spots. In Wollongong, 67% of violent incidents are attributable to just six pubs. Identifying and closely policing these places would be a far more effective strategy to combat the violence than a lockout could ever be.

Unfortunately, haphazardly targeting all late night venues is clever politics. Whipping up fear in the community about violence in the street has always been an effective strategy to build political support. And imposing a lockout doesn’t require the Government to devote any extra resources to the problem. Lockouts don’t affect the state budget at all — the burden of administering the lockout falls squarely on the venues.

Furthermore, changes to liquor licences and lockouts target a group of people who do not have a strong electoral voice. Young people are not known for their skills as lobbyists.

While the 2am lockout has received the most media attention, it is only one part of the Government’s assault against late-night venues. Consumer Affairs Victoria quietly announced earlier this month a “freeze” on granting liquor licences that plan to trade after 1am.

This means that, at least for the next 12 months while the freeze is in place, there will be no new bars, clubs or pubs opening in the inner suburbs that can pour a late-night beer.

And any already operating venue that needs to alter its licence in some minor way — to build an outdoor smokers’ area, for instance, since smokers will no longer be able to go outside pubs after 2am without being locked out — will only be able to apply for a new licence that is loaded with the 1am limit.

Like many regulatory increases, these sorts of burdens disproportionately hurt small businesses, which do not have the resources to lobby for exemptions or the financial slack to adjust to the new regulations.

It all adds up to a major attack on Melbourne’s hole-in-the-wall bar culture — a culture that only a few months ago Sydney was enviously eyeballing.

It would be sad if in the future we had to fly to NSW to find the nightlife we have so long been enjoying at home.