The rapidly expanding number of Newcastle's inner-city residents, our brave frontline emergency workers and parents of kids who attend our inner-city night-time drinking precinct must be deeply alarmed by the government announcement on April 1 that our life-saving package of modest alcohol licensing conditions is to be effectively scrapped.
Distilled from the usual political and alcohol lobby spin, the main justification for the unilateral decision to remove the conditions was the predictable industry mantra that Newcastle has matured, becoming a beacon of vibrancy, diversity and sophistication that justified the lifting on any modest controls limiting the service and consumption strength of alcohol and delivering a boost for struggling pub profits. It was also admitted the decision had not been discussed with the Newcastle committee overseeing the small bar changes.
I believe the announced 12-month trial of the removal of the conditions for the much higher-risk pubs and clubs was foreshadowed as early on January 14, 2021, in the Newcastle council chief executive's opinion article in the Herald.
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Prior to the article, local residents received numerous official assurances that the small bar trial that only involved 7 per cent of eligible venues would not be relied upon as a precedent for any subsequent trial for removed harm controls for much higher risk pubs and clubs. These undertakings were completely ignored. A responsible city does not lock its residents out of critical decision-making processes.
This trial practice of weakening alcohol controls emerged in Sydney council. I believe they historically have lacked independent scientific rigour and reliability, with predictable outcomes. Newcastle's experience to date is remarkably similar.
The most adamant political spruiker at the recent press conference for the removal of the Newcastle conditions was One Nation's Mark Latham MLC. He appears to know Newcastle better than us. Mr Latham was originally appointed by NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello to lead a trial of weakened licensing conditions for smaller bars that had no terms of reference.
Mr Latham, in reaction to repeated questioning from NewcastleHerald journalist Michael Parris, alleged that those who supported the retention of the Newcastle conditions were part of a campaign to shamefully slur Novocastrians as "drunks and thugs" who could not be "trusted". Unfortunately, none of the other politicians present disagreed with Mr Latham's "sophisticated" allegations.
Those cast within Mr Latham's broad net of those who support the existing independent, evidence-based harm controls and their regular impartial review in either direction, include Hunter New England Health, Newcastle City Police District, the NSW Police Association, the Royal Australian College of Physicians and other professional medical associations.
The unwillingness by those who determine the laws for our city's safety and liveability refuse to acknowledge and accept the inconvenient truth that Newcastle CBD still has a reported non-domestic assault rate at least three times greater than the NSW average, according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).
Good reason for the retention and strengthening of existing harm controls.
I believe this denial provides a frank example of the lack of impartiality, maturity and intellectual honesty in the deadly decision to end our modest intoxication controls.
Any BOCSAR or health statistic that contradicts the alcohol lobby assertions is rejected as "flawed".
If our city has truly matured and become more sophisticated and responsible as alleged by Minister Dominello and the powerful alcohol lobby, then why are such critical decisions impacting upon the safety of our young people and emergency workers being led by Mr Latham?
Why does the best advice of our local health authority and Newcastle police district superintendent Wayne Humphrey, who in the Herald described the attempt to weaken the alcohol controls as "lunacy", continue to be ignored?
An inner-city residents' network has received legal advice that the directions to the police and licensing inspectors to ignore the pubs' non-compliance with existing legal conditions via a statement of regulatory intent is unlawful. Unfortunately, the cost of a legal challenge in the Supreme Court is insurmountable without a white knight.
These above honest and sober warnings by our most trusted public officials seemingly no longer carry any weight with our elected leaders and the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority.
Sadly, it is our most respected emergency services workers who will be picking up the pieces when things go wrong.
They and inner-city families seeking a civil and safe neighbourhood and drinking environment for our kids have been betrayed.
This is no April fool's joke. Our night economy risks degenerating back to a drunken bloody nightmare.
Tony Brown is a community advocate evidence-based alcohol harm prevention. He is a PhD (Law) Candidate and conjoint Fellow School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, NSW
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