NSW Premier Mike Baird’s Copping One Hell Of A Backlash Over The Sydney Lockout Laws

Not a good day for #CasinoMike.

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From exhaustively planning an “off-the-cuff” livetweeting session of The Bachelor with his advisers to inadvertently breaking copyright law while trying to make a viral video, NSW Premier Mike Baird has a pretty spotty history of trying to endear himself to younger voters on social media. The tension between Baird’s status as a senior conservative politician and his desire to get down with The Teens has been apparent for a while, but it came to a head last night when Baird took to Facebook to defend the state’s controversial lockout and alcohol restriction laws.

Responding to what he called “growing hysteria this week about nightlife in Sydney,” Baird claimed that alcohol-related assaults in the CBD were down 42.2 percent since the lockout laws were introduced, and argued that keeping people safe was worth the inconvenience and restrictions the laws have brought with them.

“From the outset, these laws have been about fixing a serious problem. Violence had spiralled out of control, people were literally being punched to death in the city, and there were city streets too dangerous to stroll down on a Friday night,” Baird said. “The community was rightly outraged. I was personally outraged. I met face to face with the families of victims. You don’t need to see that sort of pain too often to realise there is a problem that needs fixing. And the Government was determined to act.”

But it appears Baird’s fundamentally misread the mood of the room, and exposed himself to a good deal of political anger that’s been building for some time in the process. Thousands of people have disputed Baird’s rationale for the laws and the figures he used to justify them, pointing out that violent crime in the CBD was already in long-term decline before the laws were introduced and that the drop in assaults since 2014 has been far outstripped by the massive drop in late-night foot traffic the lockouts have resulted in.

Worse, the statistics Baird cited in his post, including the all-important one about CBD assaults being down by 42.2 percent, appear to be pretty far off the mark. On ABC 702 this morning, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics Director Don Weatherburn said that Baird’s figures were out by around 20 percent.

Commenters have also taken exception to the fact that high-end Sydney casinos like The Star and James Packer’s upcoming Barangaroo complex have been left out of the lockout zone. For one, doing so seemingly puts the lie to Baird’s professed desire for a safer city; assaults at The Star nearly doubled in the year after the lockout laws were implemented. But the larger concern being expressed online, via the pithy hashtag #CasinoMike, is that the two casinos receive special treatment from the government in return for political donations.

The close ties between state government and the gambling lobby are well-documented. Before the 2013 federal election, Crown Limited gave $42,650 to the federal Labor party, and $86,428 to the federal Liberals. In August last year, NSW Liberal Party president Chris Downy resigned to take up a senior executive role at The Star. Before serving as president of the NSW Liberals, Downy was the executive director of gambling lobby group the Australasian Casino Association.

It’s a similar story when it comes to Barangaroo, a development that was strongly pushed for by Baird’s predecessor as Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and Baird himself in the role of Treasurer. In a series of investigatory reports, Walkley Award-winning journalist Wendy Bacon tracked how Packer’s desire for a casino at Barangaroo was facilitated by O’Farrell and Baird at every step; Packer’s formal application was approved by state Cabinet in a matter of days in 2012 without going through many of the normal licensing, approval and tender processes. In 2012, Packer’s mother Ros donated more than $580,000 to the federal Liberal Party.

Making matters even worse, people have begun complaining that thousands of comments under Baird’s post have been deleted, turning a debate on Facebook into a political firestorm for the Premier. Even his Wikipedia page is getting a workout.

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The incident appears to have catalysed political opposition to the lockouts that’s been bubbling away for a while. A long-running petition to abandon the policy by anti-lockouts campaigning group Keep Sydney Open has seen a spike in attention, with nearly 40,000 people adding their signatures in total. For a Premier with famously high approval ratings, the lockouts look to be turning into a serious political liability. Whichever way the controversy plays out, Mike Baird’s likely to think twice before penning a defence of policy on Facebook again.