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Dear Sydney: I fought Newcastle’s lockout laws – here’s what I learned

It’s been both heartening and frustrating to see Matt Barrie’s awesome takedown of Sydney’s lockout laws gain so much traction.

Heartening because the response shows how much people care. And frustrating because I’ve seen this before, and Matt and those in furious agreement don’t win.

I’m not here to tell anyone to give up hope, rather to offer a bit of advice based on my own experience. The lockout laws can stop from being rolled out further – there may even be hope for reigniting Kings Cross – but there needs to be a significant shift in the narrative.

Suggestions that a lockout will just push a bunch of pissed-off drunk people into the streets and cause more violence don’t stack up.

That it may be a bunch of drugged up idiots – for whom alcohol and the other chemicals in their body are creating a volatile cocktail – causing the damage is beside the point.

Even businesses closing and jobs being lost won’t get the anti-lockout argument over the line.

I know because I’ve heard all these arguments – I made plenty of them myself. And now the town where I made them is held up as the reason Sydney should shut up shop.

In 2014, then-Premier Barry O’Farrell introduced what was referred to as ‘the Newcastle solution’ to Sydney’s entertainment districts – 1:30am lockout and 3am last drinks laws – to curb alcohol-fuelled violence in the wake of the tragic deaths of Daniel Christie and Thomas Kelly.

The Newcastle solution was introduced into the once-Steel City in 2007. Much like Sydney’s laws, the catalyst was the death of two people in the inner city. But the lives in the city just to the north of Sydney ended in starkly different circumstances to those in Kings Cross.

Lillie Wood, an 88-year-old eccentric who lived in the Newcastle suburb of Cooks Hill, died in her home in the early hours of March 2, 2007. At the time of her death she was being robbed by a pair of miscreants, one of whom was charged with manslaughter and admitted to having taken methamphetamine.

The same night Lillie was killed (it was a Thursday, just for the record), my cousin Andrew, my housemates and I had a few beers at our place. It was a relatively tame affair, but Andrew ended up crashing on our couch. The following morning, he walked home along Dawson St – the same street Lillie had lived and died on.

As he passed Lillie’s house, Andrew was approached by a reporter from The Newcastle Herald, to whom he said he didn’t know anything about what had happened. But then he was asked if he’d ever experience any violence after dark in Newcastle.

It just so happened that only a few months before, Andrew and I had been beaten up while walking home on a Friday night. A pack of five blokes we’d never seen before emerged from behind the trees in Civic Park (a park directly opposite Town Hall, just to give an idea of its centrality), surrounded us, beat us up, and ran off. They didn’t take our wallets or phones, they were just chasing the thrill of hurting people.

Having told the story, Andrew was asked by the reporter if he had any pictures of his injuries from the incident. Indeed he did.

Andrew Maher's busted face

My Mum took that picture the day after our run-in, and the Herald ran it on the front page with the headline ‘Battered: the face of our city after dark’.

I was pleased. The city was violent, there were no two ways about it. With some attention being shone on the issue, maybe people – mainly the police – would get serious about sorting the violence out.

This argument was made stronger by the death of Frank Newbery a week later. Frank was killed in the inner city, but again, like Lillie, it had nothing to do with alcohol-fuelled violence. Known as ‘the gentleman grocer’ poor Frank was stabbed to death in his shop in broad daylight, on a Monday afternoon. To this day no one has been charged with his murder.

Yet it added to the narrative: Newcastle’s inner city wasn’t safe, and something needed to be done.

But rather than a ‘more cops, safer streets’ campaign, a ‘let’s shut the pubs’ one emerged.

On the back of two elderly people killed in their home and place of work respectively, a vocal group of ‘concerned citizens’ (read: middle-aged people who live near pubs and are tired of the noise on a Friday and Saturday night) pushed for a blanket midnight shutdown of all the city’s pubs, with a 10pm lockout.

I couldn’t believe it – rather than making the city safer they were just going to shut it down? How was that the first option? What about more police, better public transport to disperse people, and maybe a few CCTV cameras in hotspots for assaults?

So I did the only thing a kid in his early 20s with no political sway could do in 2007. I made a MySpace page.

I wanted to call it ‘Save our town’, but that was already taken, so ‘Save our Newcastle‘ went up on what was the hottest social media platform of the day. I expected a few of my mates to tell me I was an idiot and that to be the end of it, but it struck a chord, and people flocked to the cause.

It sounds naff in this age of viral videos getting tens of millions of hits, but the few thousand people who signed up within a few weeks gave me credibility, and suddenly I was being interviewed on TV, radio, and papers, having somehow been appointed as the spokesperson against the lockout.

I had meetings with the city’s Federal and State members, as well as the Lord Mayor and council.

I even had a number of sit-downs with the police officer in charge of local area command, and organised for a group of officers to meet with a group of like-minded young people who worked in the bar industry and were worried about their job security. In one of the more enlightening and infuriating exchanges that took place, we asked why more police couldn’t work the weekends to ensure safety. The response was along the lines of, “Cops don’t want to work on weekends.”

It did not go over well with a group of hospitality workers, who did the lion’s share of their hours between Friday afternoon and early Monday morning.

The issue became a city-wide discussion, and the aforementioned ‘concerned citizens’ came out to voice their opinions. While they made the right noises to begin with – “We just want for you to be safe” – their true motives were soon exposed, as they complained about having to deal with the smell of urine and seeing vomit in their neighbourhood on a Sunday morning. And while no one wants to wake up to those sights and smells, the support was happenstance.

The reality was that rather than a legitimate push to make the streets safer, a section of the community actually wanted to make them quieter.

I decided the best way to show that young people can get together, drink, dance, have fun and not assault one another, was by doing exactly that.

My coup de grace was to be an event at the Cambridge Hotel called ‘Rockout against the lockout’, where we would raise awareness about the issue of the lockout. It would be the event to really put the issue on the front pages, and hammer home how condescending it is to tell people old enough to vote that they have a bedtime.

Then came the storm.

The weekend of June 8 – the week before our headline-grabbing event – one of the biggest storms to ever hit NSW lashed the Hunter. A coal loader washed up onto Nobby’s beach, countless homes were destroyed, and ten people were killed.

Pasha Bulker grounded

(Web107 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Suddenly, the slogan ‘Save our Newcastle’ to allow people to stay out past 3am seemed like a total slap in the face to anyone whose life had been destroyed by the worst natural disaster to hit the city since the earthquake.

Any news interest in my event literally washed away, and the fight stopped playing out in public, moving into the murky realm of politics.

The lockout was brought in, and though local publicans sought to battle it in the courts, almost nine years later it’s still in place, with no sign of being rolled back.

Because the cold fact is, the lockout works. The stats are irrefutable: fewer people are being harmed in Newcastle’s CBD, just as fewer people are being harmed in Kings Cross.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to ensure people have a safe night out. It’s just the cheapest.

Closing pubs is a politically safe way to ensure violence levels drop, because more cops, more transport, more CCTV – more anything – necessitates people being paid.

You know what doesn’t require any tax hikes? Creating a lockout. No extra salaries need to be paid for police or bus drivers, and no more expensive equipment needs to be purchased, installed and monitored.

Sure some jobs will be lost, but the economic loss won’t be felt for months, and will be staggered, meaning it’s easier to cope with. Plus, all politicians look good saying things along the lines of, “It’s worth it if we save even one life.”

Lockouts are politically safe. The results are fast, and the cost is minimal. That’s why the Newcastle solution is the preferred method.

But this is where Sydney’s debate needs to shift: away from suggestions a lockout doesn’t work, because it does. But so too would closing all the roads prevent automobile fatalities – drastic measures are effective, but that doesn’t mean they should be the only ones we entertain.

We instead need to have a discussion about what kind of entertainment districts we want, how we can ensure they’re as safe as possible, be realistic about how much they’re going to cost, and come up with solutions for how to pay for them.

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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