NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello has flagged a trial of looser licensing restrictions on bars and restaurants in Newcastle before JobKeeper runs out in September.
Mr Dominello said on Thursday, a day after meeting with Newcastle political, police and hospitality industry representatives, that he had asked Upper House MP Mark Latham to form a Newcastle-based committee to "work out a time frame for a trial in relation to restaurants and small bars".
Venues in inner-city Newcastle and Hamilton are governed by 12-year-old late-night trading restrictions which include a 1.30am lockout and limits on when certain drinks can be sold.
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp and lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes have come out strongly this week in favour of changing the so-called "Newcastle Solution".
Mr Dominello said on Thursday that he supported starting the trial before September, when JobKeeper payments are due to end.
"Even if we're employing five more people through the small bars or 10 more people in a safe way, that's a good thing," he said.
"I am quietly optimistic that there is an appetite for a new look, and I think there is enough community leadership there to chart a path."
The stakeholders had expressed "universal acknowledgement" that trialling changes for restaurants and small bars posed a low risk.
"That is clear from the stakeholder engagement yesterday that they don't want it to go beyond that.
"We start with a trial in those areas and see how it goes."
Mr Dominello would not elaborate on which aspects of the trading rules would be relaxed under a trial but said he would be guided by the advisory committee.
The committee would include the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority, Newcastle politicians, police, Hunter Business Chamber and "anyone else Mark wants to invite".
It is understood the Australian Hotels Association, whose members would not be part of a trial limited to small bars and restaurants, will not be part of the committee.
Asked if he would rule out changing the 1.30am lockout, which restricts movement between venues until the mandatory 3.30am closing time, Mr Dominello said he was "not ruling anything in or out".
The committee would examine how the trial's success would be measured, including how many jobs it created.
Unlike Sydney's partially repealed lockout laws, which are enshrined in legislation, Newcastle's late-trading restrictions are enforced by licensing conditions.
Mr Dominello said the "cleanest way" of relaxing them was via a statement of regulatory intent to guide Liquor and Gaming's enforcement approach.
The Police Association of NSW, NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, Health Services Union and Hunter New England Health all oppose attempts to water down the trading restrictions, which have led to a reduction in alcohol-fuelled violence.
"I am appalled that the government is considering rushing through a rollback of Newcastle's lockout laws, despite overwhelming evidence these measures have made the city's night life safer," HSU secretary Gerard Hayes said on Thursday.
"Any paramedic in NSW will tell you that these laws have significantly reduced alcohol-fuelled violence.
"For the government to exploit the COVID-19 slowdown, and put profit over the public's safety, is abhorrent."
NSWNMA general secretary Brett Holmes said the restrictions had saved lives and "millions of dollars in public funding of health care and rehabilitation".
"Now we see attempts by the alcohol lobby to claw back control of liquor laws under the guise of a strategy to reinvigorate the night-time economy," he said.
"How many more lives have to be lost to alcohol-fuelled violence before governments stop manipulating these laws? It is reckless."
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates Newcastle shed 24,200 jobs between February and May, many of them in the hospitality industry, and the city's youth unemployment rate 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 Crakanthorp said a "small-scale" trial was a well balanced start to loosening restrictions.
"I'm really pleased we are taking steps forward, and I thank the minister for working collaboratively with me to support Newcastle's night-time economy," he said.
"We had some really constructive conversations on Wednesday."
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