NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello says the impact of COVID-19 on Newcastle jobs has compelled the government to review the city's lockout laws.
Mr Dominello met with hotel industry representatives, small bar owners, Newcastle council, police and anti-violence campaigner Tony Brown on Wednesday at the invitation of Newcastle Labor MP Tim Crakanthorp and Upper House One Nation MP Mark Latham.
Newcastle's Labor lord mayor, Nuatali Nelmes, penned an opinion piece in Tuesday's Newcastle Herald calling for the 2008 late-trading restrictions to be changed, arguing the city's late-night drinkers were better behaved than they were 12 years ago and no longer wanted "beer barns".
The police union and Mr Brown criticised bipartisan attempts to change the licensing conditions, which include a 1.30am venue lockout and limits on the types of drinks that can be served.
The rules were imposed initially on 14 late-night venues but have since spread to other clubs, pubs and bars in Newcastle's inner suburbs.
Mr Dominello said at a joint media conference with Mr Crakanthorp and Mr Latham that it would be "irresponsible" of the government not to revisit the trading restrictions in light of COVID-related job losses.
"The night-time economy is an easy approach, provided it is safe," he said.
"If we can extend the amount of hours that people can be gainfully employed ... that is a win-win."
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported last week that Newcastle had shed 24,200 jobs between February and May, many of them in the hospitality industry, and the city's youth unemployment rate had jumped to 26.8 per cent.
The government lifted lockouts in Sydney's CBD in January and said it would review Newcastle's restrictions if the first year of Sydney's new rules was a success.
Mr Brown and the Police Association of NSW said on Wednesday that the government should wait until it had reliable evidence from the Sydney changes before examining Newcastle's rules.
Mr Brown called for the government to hold a "genuine round-table" discussion with residents and other stakeholders before making changes.
Mr Dominello said addressing the fallout of the pandemic trumped the government's commitment to a 12-month review period.
"To stick to a time frame that existed before COVID, I think, would be irresponsible to the people of Newcastle," he said.
"There is a thing called a pandemic that has hit the world. That means there are other imperatives that we need to put in place, such as those around jobs.
"If you want to increase the violence, increase those unemployed, because that is your biggest indicator.
"We need to get people moving back into employment in a safe way."
He argued that Newcastle was a "far more sophisticated city" than it was in 2008.
"It is important that we have a revisit of what took place in 2008 to see whether those settings still apply in 2020.
"The reality is we opened up Sydney in January, February and bits of March and obviously the pandemic hit, but the early signs in Sydney as we opened it up was very, very encouraging.
"It's not like there was an outbreak of violence in Sydney during the peak months of January, February and bits of March.
"I think we can demonstrate as Sydney evolves to be more sophisticated and vital and safe, then Newcastle can do the same same.
"We are not going to get tourists here from overseas for a long time, so that means there is a section of our economy, there is a gaping gap, so we need jobs to fill that gap."
Hunter New England Health said on Wednesday that its position had not changed since its submission to the 2018 Horton review of Newcastle's lockouts said they had led to a 30 per cent fall in violent assaults and should be strengthened rather than relaxed.
Newcastle police strongly supported the retention of the 2008 conditions in their submission to the Horton review.
Newcastle commander Superintendent Brett Greentree said on Wednesday that police supported "a vibrant night-time economy in Newcastle, however, safety remains our top priority".
"Police will continue to work closely with the NSW government and partner agencies, City of Newcastle, liquor accords and businesses and will await any decision from the government," Superintendent Greentree said.
Police Association executive member Ian Allwood said rolling back the late-night restrictions was "placing profits ahead of community safety".
"You can't review the Sydney restrictions because of COVID. We've been in lockdown since March, and now they're opening them up with space restrictions," he said.
"It's not fair to say Sydney's going OK. We haven't had a period that we're able to report on. I think it's a rush job. Let's get a year's worth of data on the table and then we'll discuss it."
Mr Allwood disagreed with the view that the late-night scene had become more "sophisticated".
"I think the mayor has come out and said things have changed in our community. Yes, they have. People are more violent," he said.
"There's a drug called ice which causes tremendous issues for my members on the streets. Combine that with late-night alcohol trading, I can see that there are going to be issues.
"Twelve years ago I remember very vividly the brawls we used to have to go to in the Newcastle CBD. I don't see that changing if we do that again.
"A whole generation have grown up with the restrictions in Newcastle and they understand how it works. I don't see how it's going to increase the vibrancy of the city; all it's going to do is increase the danger."
He said the lockouts were a "widely and deeply felt issue" among police, and officers at the union's Newcastle city branch had told him they were unanimously against watering down the rules.
"I haven't met a single police officer who's said this is a great idea."
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Mr Crakanthorp said Newcastle was the "most restricted city in NSW, if not Australia".
He said allowing small bars to stay open beyond midnight and serve cocktails after 10pm would help attract tourists.
"If you bring a visitor to the city, you go to a cocktail bar after a show, it's quite embarrassing that you can't actually serve them a cocktail," he said.
"I'm hoping the minister will have a good discussion with our stakeholders today and hopefully make some changes to benefit our night-time economy."
The Australian Hotels Association was one of the largest political donors in 2018-19, distributing more than $1.7 million in total to the Coalition and Labor, but Mr Dominello said accusations of bias were "completely unfounded".
Mr Brown questioned the motives of the "surprise threat" to the Newcastle conditions when a legal review process was already in place.
"There is no legal impediment for any Newcastle licensees to make a transparent application to vary any of their liquor licence conditions," he said.
"Instead, it appears they have gathered a posse of out-of-town politicians to do their dirty work.
"The Newcastle community is exhausted from our elected representatives continuing to side with the powerful alcohol and gambling industry while neglecting basic community safety and health imperatives."
Mr Latham, a member of a parliamentary joint select committee last year on Sydney's lockout laws, said the committee would have left the door open to reviewing the restrictions in Newcastle earlier had it known the pandemic and recession were coming.
He said there could be an argument to allow bars to stay open later given their seating capacity had been strictly limited by social distancing rules.
The AHA's Newcastle-Hunter president, Rolly de With, said the "deterrents" introduced in 2008 meant many venues did not meet the expectations of visitors to the city.
He said this was particularly the case for people visiting Newcastle from "cities without interventions".
"Times have changed, cultures have shifted," he said.
"Outdated legislation is shackling the industry's and the city's ability to find the way back from what have been an unprecedented set of circumstances."
Hunter Business Chamber chief executive officer Bob Hawes said the "blanket punitive approach" of the trading restrictions was no longer warranted.
"It is not reasonable for a small bar to not be able to serve cocktails after 10pm, or to have to call last drinks at 11.30pm, when that is their prime trading period," Mr Hawes said.
"A lot of these businesses were trading on slim margins before coronavirus."
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