The NSW government has announced an end to pub and club lockouts in inner-city Newcastle under a 12-month trial to start in the middle of this year.
Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello launched the changes on Wednesday, the last day of a six-month trial of relaxed late-night trading restrictions in small bars and restaurants.
Mr Dominello, flanked at a media conference by Newcastle Labor MP Tim Crakanthorp, Liberal parliamentary secretary for the Hunter Taylor Martin and One Nation MP Mark Latham, said the bar trial's success justified the broader trial.
He said "stage two" of the trial would include removing drink restrictions and 1.30am venue lockouts and extending liquor trading hours from 3am to 3.30am for venues which applied to participate.
Business Hunter and the Australian Hotels Association praised the move, but anti-violence campaigner Tony Brown slammed the trial as a "betrayal" of the emergency workers and community members who had fought to keep the "life-saving" conditions intact.
Inner-city Newcastle and Hamilton are the only parts of the state with lockouts still in place after the government removed them in Sydney's CBD and Kings Cross.
Mr Dominello emphasised that the changes announced on Wednesday were a trial but said "gone are the days of blanket bans across an entire city".
"What's good enough for Sydney is good enough for Newcastle," he said.
Newcastle police commander Wayne Humphrey said in a Newcastle Herald report last month that axing lockouts would be "absolute lunacy" until the inner-city's rates of alcohol violence matched the state average.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and police and nurses' unions have also publicly opposed attempts to water down licensing laws in Newcastle, where lockouts came into force in 2008 to combat growing rates of alcohol violence.
Hunter New England Health confirmed on Wednesday that its position had not changed since its submission to the 2018 Horton review said lockouts had cut violent assaults 30 per cent and should be strengthened rather than relaxed.
Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures show rates of alcohol-related violence in the inner-city were more than five times the NSW average last year.
The 2018 review of Newcastle's trading limits by Jonathan Horton QC recommended they remain, though he said their impact on businesses had been "substantial".
The state lifted lockouts in Sydney's CBD in January last year after a parliamentary inquiry and said it would review Newcastle's restrictions if the first year of Sydney's new rules was a success.
Police Assistant Commissioner Max Mitchell said at Wednesday's announcement of the new trial that police supported a "vibrant, diverse but importantly a safe entertainment precinct throughout this city".
"I was the commander who put the restrictions in place back in 2007, 2008, and right then I actually said to many of the licensees, 'It's about learning self-regulation,' because I never foresaw that these restrictions would stay in place for years to come," he said.
"We will be working very diligently with all agencies, particularly [Liquor & Gaming NSW], to ensure that we have operations running, that licensees are held to account, because we must make sure that as we move forward we are not going back to the old days.
"If a licensee or a licensed venue can't participate safely, then we'll be putting straight to the minister that that licensed venue should be removed from the trial."
Hunter New England Health lodged a submission last week opposing the expansion of the King Street Hotel, quoting BOCSAR figures showing existing rates of alcohol violence double the state average across the local government area in the year to September and 4.5 times the NSW average in the 2300 postcode.
The bar trial allowed small venues to open until 2am serving cocktails and other stronger drinks, which were banned in Newcastle after 10am.
The new trial will extend to larger venues, allowing customers to move between venues after 1.30am and drink shots and cocktails until later in the morning.
Dr Anthony Cook, the resident representative on a government committee overseeing the bar trial, said people living in the inner-city had been "dismissed and disregarded throughout the process".
"The government is talking about the trial results before any analysis has been performed, despite undertakings to the contrary," he said.
The trial committee last met on February 9.
"With only 7 per cent of eligible venues choosing to participate in the small bars trial, many of them not trading during the allowed extended hours and failing to provide the required trading and employment data, I can't see how it is possible to draw any conclusion."
He said the community had been given assurances that the bar trial was not a precursor to weakening restrictions on larger venues.
Mr Latham, who chairs the committee overseeing the changes, told the Newcastle Herald in August that the bar trial was "clearly not" about ending the city's lockouts.
"If you want to get on the schooners and drink yourself silly until three in the morning and throw a few punches, then there are hotels that stay open until three," he said in another interview in September.
"But, if you're a more grown-up, middle-class-type person visiting Newcastle for a conference and you want to have a cocktail drink after 10pm in a responsible way, that's not possible."
On Wednesday, he questioned why Newcastle should be the only part of the state with late-night lockouts at pubs and nightclubs.
He said opposition to relaxed conditions was "shameful" because it cast "a terrible slur suggesting the people here are drunks and thugs and can't be trusted as they are in the rest of NSW".
Asked if the bar trial committee members were aware of the new trial expanding to address lockouts and other drink restrictions, Mr Latham said: "The trial committee will be informed of that."
He said BOCSAR statistics showed the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie local government areas were just as safe as the rest of the state.
Asked about the figures for inner-city Newcastle, he said: "Well, I've just given you the most important data."
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes, who is on the committee but was not at Wednesday's announcement, said the "finer details of the trial seem yet to be finalised".
"I would have preferred a more consultative approach with the broader community similar to the data and consultation that has formulated the city's after-dark vision and place activation," she said.
She said it was "reasonable that the laws be tested" but said it was "imperative" the community had the data to make decisions based on evidence.
"It's up to visitors, venues and Newcastle people to demonstrate if the lockout laws need to continue."
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Business Hunter chief executive officer Bob Hawes described the new trial as a "positive step for Newcastle's growing and maturing night-time economy".
AHA Newcastle and Hunter president Rolly de With also said the trial acknowledged that Newcastle had "matured significantly".
"What's good enough for Sydney is certainly good enough for Newcastle," he said.
"Small changes like the rise of Uber have had a big impact on the ability of people to safely and quickly disperse when they leave a venue. The presence of CCTV at venues and around the city has increased.
"There has also been a cultural change. It's obvious anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated by hoteliers or the wider community."
He said the AHA supported penalties for any venue or operator who did "adhere to creating a safe and responsible after-dark".
"Current trading hours will not be extended, and it will also be at each venue's discretion as to whether they choose to keep current entry policies in place."
Mr Brown, who is completing his PhD on the regulation of alcohol in NSW, said residents, police and HNEH had been "locked out" of decision-making on community safety.
"There is an existing legal process in the NSW Liquor Act which provides safeguards to ensure the community can provide input into such decisions," he said.
"It's a complete capitulation of the government to the powerful alcohol lobby. Pub profits have been put ahead of public and police safety."
The Newcastle Herald spoke to three customers at Queens Wharf Hotel on Wednesday who supported the lockout trial.
Friends Ashley Woods, 21, Emma Wicks, 20, and Belinda Hall, 21, work in hospitality and said a later lockout time would make going out after a shift much easier.
"If you want to leave a venue and go somewhere else, you'll be able to and not have to worry about lockout," Ms Hicks, of Shortland, said.
Ms Woods added: "You kind of have to stay where you are now, and, if it's not good there, you can't leave because lockout is done."
They were unconcerned about potential anti-social behaviour arising from the changes and said they only occasionally saw fights.
"Probably like once a month you'll see a fight," Ms Woods said.
"Not every time you go out," Ms Hall added.
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