Lockout Laws, Overregulation And The Fun Police: Why State Governments Need To Get A Grip

The problem isn’t time, and the problem isn’t alcohol. The problem is fuckwits.

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Politicians love prohibition. It sounds stern, it looks active, and it appeals to self-righteous voters who are unaffected by the supposed problem.

For the last year, Sydney’s liquor lockout has had legislators frothing gently in their slacks in parliamentary offices across the land. Queensland wants to copy it, South Australia might be next, and lobbyists want Victoria to go round again after ditching a short-lived similar policy in 2008.

John Brumby was in charge then, having been taken from the wild bush herds of his youth and tamed by the Man from Snowy River. He thought a lockout in Melbourne’s CBD was a great idea because it would appeal to suburban families who never went there.

The weirdest part was how Brumby’s Labor government kept talking about safe streets for kids. Mate. If your kids are out in the city at 2am, chances are you’re a shit parent. Whatever is happening around them is scenery to your shit parenting. Unless your children are adults, in which case your children are adults.

Of course behind such legislation are the deaths of young adults – barely more than kids – killed by drunken punches. It’s very sad, and gives emotive weight to the arguments for an immediate response.

But there are a million points on a sliding scale where we could curtail public liberty to reduce individual risk. Cars might be safer when it’s dry, but we don’t ban driving in the rain. Lockout laws turn governments into parents, telling us when it’s our bedtime and when that music is too damn loud.

Lockout advocates claim violence has dropped in lock-out areas. Opponents say it has increased elsewhere. Damning percentages on both sides derive from a few dozen cases. Changes in violence also accompany changes in patronage. If a drunk throws a punch in the forest and there’s no one in his way… 


Picture by Rachel Atkinson.

City of Sydney research showed a decrease in “footpath congestion” by up to 84 percent in Kings Cross since lockouts were introduced. How that correlates to spending is unclear, but businesses are claiming a massive drop in trade, and several prominent nightspots have closed down.

The problem is a lack of understanding that different people like different things. For the average Parliament suit, 1:30 is the end of a massive bender. Other demographics don’t leave the house before midnight.

Venues running until daylight are more about the dancefloor than the bar. Late-night cocktail lounges aren’t the place to pound tequila shots. For shift-workers finishing at pre-dawn hours, a knock-off beverage and a go at the jukebox are part of staying sane. Lockouts shackle all venues and patrons with regulations only relevant to some.

The problem isn’t time, and the problem isn’t alcohol. The problem is fuckwits.

Of course enough booze can turn anyone into a fuckwit, like a vomit-caked Philosopher’s Stone. I’ve been there and most likely so have you. The key is to head it off at the pass. Venues actually enforcing Responsible Service of Alcohol would help a lot more than shutting their doors.

But street violence most particularly manifests around the kind of venues where insecure hyper-macho dudes preen for an audience. It’s about power and control and the fear of having neither.

If you want to address it, you have to address the deeper social factors behind it. The causes of anger and alienation. The toxic side of masculinity that manifests in simian arm-swinging. The ingrained culture that bypasses quiet drinks in favour of getting steamrolled. Things that can’t be solved by a single bill.

When a cyclist died after being hit by a car door in Melbourne this year, local politicians lowered the speed limit after midnight to 40 kilometres an hour. Never mind that he was hit during the afternoon. With the limit at 40. By a stationary car. They had to be seen to do something.

Our society has a complex and inextricable relationship with drink, including a lot of good. Booze can light up a social occasion, ease a date, smooth over a hard day. It underpins sporting events and fundraisers and restaurant culture. It’s an economic beast, sending dump-trucks of cash to Parliament House.

It leaves legislators sitting so hard on the fence that their sphincters become splinters. Either the demon drink is a stain to be scrubbed clean – a position that would attract only the narrowest electoral support – or intoxication is part of our culture, meaning that its problems need long-term and abstract solutions.

Limit everyone’s lives because of a few gene-pool laggards, and you regress to the collective reprisals of primary-school teachers and occupying armies. Our drinking problem is also collective, but has such variety in how it manifests or doesn’t. A lockout law will only ever be topical – both in that it responds to the headlines of the day, and that it treats symptoms at the surface without getting close to the cause.

However, many of the curators of Sydney nightlife will not let fun go gently into that good night, and have spoken out publicly against the laws and the affect they have in the real world:  

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Geoff Lemon is a writer, radio broadcaster, and the editor of Going Down Swinging @geofflemon

Feature image by Anthony Berlangieri.