Less than six months ago, following my belated appointment as a community representative, I attended my first meeting of the Newcastle small bars "trial" committee, after the "trial" had already commenced.
As a medical doctor, it became quickly clear that the politicians' use of the words "trial" and "evidence" are very different to what they mean in the practice of medicine. My requests to the committee to involve professional independent alcohol harm prevention researchers were ignored.
Doctors demand for their patients far more rigor and reliability before drawing conclusions and taking careful action than has been displayed in this "trial". Perhaps this is because doctors must literally and figuratively deal with the consequences of their decisions face-to-face.
If Victor Dominello, Mark Latham, Tim Crakanthorp, Nuatali Nelmes and fellow Newcastle councillors had to break the news to parents, of the death or permanent disability of their child in an alcohol-related assault, would they, in all good conscience, be so quick to increase the supply of alcohol in Newcastle's 2300 postcode - with its existing high levels of alcohol-related violence at least three times the NSW average?
Should we not expect our politicians to work to improve problems, not make them worse? Does Newcastle not have the same rights to safe streets as the rest of the country?
I'm struggling to understand what the point was of being on the committee when last Wednesday Minister Dominello, Mr Latham MLC and Tim Crakanthorp MP held a press conference announcing the small bars "trial" as "an outstanding success" before the final hours of the "trial" had even concluded and before the committee had even met to review and analysis the limited data as to whether any valid conclusions could be drawn. Two-thirds of the "trial" period has taken place since the committee last met.
This media performance extolling the benefits of scrapping Newcastle's alcohol harm controls contradicted the media policy imposed on the "trial" committee membership. It forbids any members making media statements without 24 hours prior notice and circulation of the proposed releases.
The "trial's" flawed design and small scale made it entirely predictable that any problems would be few. Despite reassurances to the contrary, this low-impact "mostly-restaurants trial" has, unreasonably, been used to justify a high-impact "big pubs trial".
Initially the "trial" involved only 26 venues, a tiny 7 per cent of those eligible, electing to participate. The venues were vetted, and any previously problematic venues excluded, increasing the likelihood the "trial" would detect less problems. Only six participants were small bars, the rest were restaurants. Only the small bars received exemption to trade two hours later at night. The restaurant majority only received an exemption to sell cocktails during a previously restricted two-hour period, with no increase in trading hours. Of the venues involved, some were already closing before the existing limits of their approval hours. One participant didn't even operate at night, closing at 3pm each afternoon.
During committee meetings I heard how none of the participating venues used the extended trading hours to their fullest, several venues dropped out early and, of those that remained, a lot failed to provide the require data to measure some of the "trial" outcomes.
I'm left grappling with the question of whether to withdraw my involvement, and any appearance of legitimacy it may lend the process
Minister Dominello and Mark Latham MLC alleged the only negative during the "trial" was a single noise complaint. The fact that a patron of one of the venues was involved in an incident of alleged assault, which was discussed during committee meetings, appears to have been dismissed as irrelevant because it occurred on the street and not inside the venue. Will this new "big pub trial" also exclude the majority of alcohol related incidents that occur outside, but connected to, a licensed premise?
The recently completed "mostly-restaurant trial" and the new "big pub trial" appear to have been pre-determined political outcomes from the start.
When I first joined the committee, I was cautiously optimistic, but after the events and behaviours I've observed during "Stage 1" of this process I now hold little hope that "Stage 2" will be any more rigorous and reliable when making decisions that have the potential to seriously impact Newcastle's public safety. Consequently, I'm left grappling with the question of whether to withdraw my involvement, and any appearance of legitimacy it may lend the process, rather than let it be used further as a tokenistic facade of community involvement.