Everybody has an idea how to fix the problem of “alcohol-fuelled” violence in the city. Last week, the Victorian Parliament tried another idea. It granted the liquor licensing authority $17.6million a year for 30 new “civil compliance inspectors” to patrol the city’s nightlife and fine pub owners. These inspectors can also enter premises without warrants if they suspect license breaches, and demand the names and addresses of patrons.
But surely there are certain legal powers in a liberal democracy that should be only held by the police? Police go through extensive education about the legal and practical limits of their powers. They are accountable to their superiors.
By contrast, the primary qualification that these new liquor inspectors require is the ability to pass a police check. They also apparently have to be of “good repute, character, honesty and integrity” – qualities that are hard to determine from a resume submitted via the internet. Should we be really giving such rudimentarily qualified bureaucrats a fair chunk of the powers of the police force?
Six months after the 2am lockout of Melbourne’s clubs and pubs resoundingly failed – late night violence went up during that period, not down – it is understandable that governments are trying new ideas to tackle the problem.
By far the most surreal idea to restrain city brawling has been Lord Mayor Robert Doyle’s recent proposal to make the hailing of taxis on the street illegal every Friday and Saturday night. He wants to direct all taxi-seekers to four giant taxi ranks around the city.
How this idea actually connects to the problem of violence isn’t entirely clear. Doyle’s plan appears to depend on the not entirely convincing theory that drunks would be less violent if they were all put in the same spot and told to wait for half an hour in a queue.
Other ideas to reduce violence are not much more convincing. Should we really ban the sale of single shots of liquor, as local governments have done in many smaller towns around the country? (Only if you believe that violent thugs exclusively drink Midori slammers.) Or should we stop people from purchasing more than a few drinks at a time, as they have done in NSW? (This rule effectively makes the Australian custom of buying rounds illegal.)
In fact, in NSW they are even stopping bars from serving alcohol for a 10-minute period every hour after midnight. In that 10-minute time-out, bar staff have to refuse any request for alcohol and offer water instead, even to those who lined up to be served well before the time-out began. Understandably, this policy tends to make drinkers more aggressive, not less.
Australians have a proud history of making a mockery of silly drinking laws – the legendary six o’clock swill was, after all, a massively counterproductive result of restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Getting around annoying regulations is just as much an Australian custom as buying rounds for mates.
Anyway, just because somebody comes up with an idea that will make buying alcohol harder, or more expensive, or just less fun, doesn’t mean that idea will prevent violent idiots from hitting each other at the end of the night.
If there’s one thing about Australian public debate, everybody has a lot of bright ideas – we don’t lack for initiatives or proposals or different ways to do things.
Every year small publishers release a few dozen books with titles like Reinventing Australia’s Green Future into the Next Century of Prosperity, or 27 Social Ideas for a Good Australia Now. These books are inevitably filled with possible new laws and government spending initiatives that are certainly creative, but are usually totally nuts.
Indeed, the only accomplishment of Kevin Rudd’s long-forgotten 2020 summit was to show just how many stupid ideas there actually were floating out there in intellectual-land – ideas that were vague, bizarre or, like the Lord Mayor’s taxi rank plan, completely disconnected from the problems they were trying to solve.
Government policies should be as direct as possible. The Government shouldn’t just arbitrarily punish drinkers and liquor licensees in the dreamy hope that the results will be politically beneficial.
While state and local governments have been dithering about with their own creative punishments for taxi hailers and pub owners, the most direct way to tackle violence still remains an increased police presence.
Unfortunately, like his predecessor Christine Nixon, new Chief Commissioner Simon Overland seems to believe that creative new regulations, not more police on the streets, will provide a solution to the city’s violence problem.
Sure, thinking outside the box is great. But when it comes to problems of law and order, don’t forget the box is there.