Friday, 12 February 2016

Lockout laws - an antidote to Australia's culture of drinking and violence?

Sydney's current lockout laws - which specifically target the King's Cross area and the CBD (apart from the Sky City Casino and Barangaroo precincts) - are under fire, primarily from clubs and other entertainment venues, due to lost revenue. They were brought into place after a series of incidents of alcohol fueled violence resulted in the deaths of young men from so called 'coward punches'. 
Since those laws came into being, violence in the Cross and the CBD is down. However, as posts on social media and articles in local press indicate, some of the violence has moved to areas where there are no lockout laws - specifically, the inner west suburb of Newtown - prompting the question as to the usefulness of the laws in the first place. If all imposing earlier closing hours does is move people onto another area where there aren't early closings, do the lockout laws work?

Sydney nurse, Paul Harwood, who works in intensive care at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst (near the Cross), and whose wife is an ER nurse, posted THIS VIDEO on Facebook this week. In it, he makes it very clear that in the time since the lockout laws were enacted, the number of cases he's nursed that are a result of alcohol fueled violence have lessened dramatically, and the degree of violent incidents in the ER have also lessened. Professor Gordian Fulde, Senior Australian of the Year for 2016, is a staunch supporter for the lockout laws. As head of St Vincent's ER, he described, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, his department before the lockout laws as a "war zone" and the decrease in severe head injuries since then as "spectacular and terrific". 

Whether or not the lockout laws are directly responsible for the drop in violence or not - and there are reports that argue otherwise - the fact remains that, as a society, Australia has a serious problem with both alcohol and violence. I wrote recently about the ongoing incidents perpetrated by NRL players during their off times - usually at parties, or out and about at clubs or pubs. These incidents are an ongoing problem, prompting discussions in the press about the underlying drinking culture in football. 

I watched, with no small degree of alarm, as the stepson made his way through high school and a growing social life that was centred on parties organised and advertised via social media. There was a lot of press coverage at the time about teen parties getting out of control and being raided by gatecrashers. He was at parties where this happened. There was also a lot of alcohol at the parties - and a tacit sense that that was both expected and acceptable. At the time, nearly all the legitimate (invited) party goers were well under the legal drinking age. 

I'm no prude. I drank underage - most of us did. At home, for special occasions, we were allowed wine - one glass, and watered down - at a celebratory meal, in much the same way as is common in many European cultures. Parties with school friends could sometimes feature illicit supplies of beer - but not very much, because no one had the funds to spend on it, and the consequences if we'd been caught by our parents would have been pretty severe. By the time my eldest reached teen party age, it was becoming a bit more of an issue, but I kept on top of it and denied permission to attend parties that weren't supervised. Once, and only once, I got the call to go and get him from a party where the drinking had got out of hand. He was a pretty cheap drunk, and hadn't had all that much, but he was well away, talking non-stop, and reeking of beer. The sore head and marked lack of sympathy from me the next day left him a bit to think about! He was a bit of a control freak though - still is - and tended, even when he was of age, to not drink to excess in public situations, where he could lose control, and more importantly, be seen to lose control. There were odd times when he'd gather at home or with mates at one of their homes, and get quietly blotto...which he always seemed to regret afterwards. 

In the case of the stepson though, it started earlier and much harder, with vague talks of 'gatherings' that turned out to be in the scrub bordering suburban beaches with significant quantities of illicit alcohol - and rarely beer. They started with cruisers, and moved on fairly quickly to bottles of spirits, which I found particularly worrisome. 

There were a number of parties where the police had to be called - usually because of havoc wrought by gatecrashers - and not a few brawls. And there was a hospital visit after he consumed a huge amount of vodka far too quickly to be safe. Fortunately, his mates saw sense and called an ambulance. 

The thing is, this isn't uncommon with his age group. We've had numerous conversations with him about the nature of these parties, especially since, after the event, he all to often said how boring they were, and really not any fun. That makes sense, if all they consisted of was a lot of people drinking too much and fighting...that's not fun at all. 

Currently, in the eastern suburbs, there is a gang - one of many - circulating, doing the rounds of pubs in the area, looking for trouble. He knows many of them - some of them were at his school a few years behind him. Their aim appears just to be to head to a pub, do some drinking, and then provoke a fight - and this is happening over and over again. However, it appears that the norm for many of our young people is that drinking is appropriate, and excessive drinking is entree into the 'cool club'. Queensland teen Joshua Blake wrote this article about his experience of the drinking culture of his peers, including the pressure to drink in order to fit in. They're starting early, drinking harder, and by the time they're of age to drink publicly, they're well entrenched in a culture of heavy drinking.

A lot of the social media commentary around the lockout laws is from people speaking out against the troublemakers, saying that not everyone is like that, and asking why laws have to be in place that limit the options for going out for others who aren't violent. It's a good question, but at the same time, I query the need to be out drinking at 3, 4 or 5 in the morning... Is it really necessary, in order to have a good time? Others, responding to this, have volunteered the eminently sensible (well, I think so) suggestion to head home and continue any partying there once the venues close. And seriously, is there anything wrong with that? It eliminates the walk of shame at dawn, heading home in bedraggled evening wear, for starters, not to mention ensuring that everyone is safely in a home environment where they can crash and burn without serious repercussions. 

I am in favour of the lockout laws. I have no issue at all with people heading out to clubs and bars and having a good time out with friends. I do have an issue with those public spaces turning into venues for violence and bloodshed - which is an increased risk, the longer they are open and the more intoxicated people can get in a public space that continues to serve them, regardless of how drunk they might already be. Add recreational drugs to that mix and it's a recipe for mayhem. I don't think it's necessary to be out all night in order to have had a good time, and nor do I think that dropping the amount we drink per session is going to seriously lessen the fun that can be had. Alcohol relaxes people's inhibitions, and allows latent characteristics to come to the fore, and if those latent characteristics are violent, it's a problem. 

While there may be other, more creative solutions, as touted by local politicians and police personnel - explored in this article in today's Sydney Morning Herald - the lockout laws, according to those at the coalface, have already had a significant effect. That they may need to be extended to other areas to enlarge that effect is a simple indication of the depth of the issue, and an indicator that there is more work to be done. Some of the solutions used overseas may be useful to implement at some point, but they won't deal with the underlying issues of alcohol abuse and violence in Australian culture. As Joshua Blake wrote in his article,
However, significant improvements can be made if Australia changes its drinking culture ... To make this change, Australians need to drop this sense that heavy drinking is a part of our identity. Admittedly Australia is not the only country with heavy drinking inherent in its national identity, but by that count, we are not the only country with a problem and one evil does not beget another.
Fixing the problem is not easy. The first step, however, is to admit there is a problem.
We DO have a problem - as a culture. And it's past time to admit it. 


  1. I think many cities and nations including my city and my nation the USA have this issue. I certainly drank underage (21) and used marijuana. (still illegal for any age) in the place I live. Did these laws curb use or problems in the population? Do our laws that cause bars to be closed on Sunday and after 2AM m-f and 3AM Saturday curb issues? I do not know. I know most people who want to drink find ways to do it. I know I did, to my own determent.

    But I made it through, others didn't. Either they ended up in Jail, or worse. We also know that making drugs (alcohol or otherwise) illegal does not work without significant treatment, opportunities and education (demonstrated by 1930's USA prohibition).

    Here is what else never works, 100% do as you want all bets off do as you wish. Frankly I do not know what cost society is willing to bear (prison?, death? treatment?). I do suspect however that nothing works 100% of the time for 100% of the population. Which means the best we can do is keep trying to find the right mix of education, firm lines of do not cross and yes forgiveness.

    Loved your blog and as a wise woman i know once said the answer is always yes, unless it is no.

    Thank you for caring enough to write this blog. I appreciated your thoughts and words.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Rick, and for your thoughts.
      There have been big public protests since I wrote this - in favour of DROPPING the lock out laws. However, the premier of the state hasn't done that. Personally, I think the mistake the state government made was to not roll them out across the state wholesale in the first place.
      Banning everything doesn't work, you're right. Educating people to thinking differently, to create a shift in culture - including sufficient deterrents and appropriate consequences for those who flout the laws - is where change can happen...and I hope to goodness enough people see sense and keep these laws in place, extend them, and do the work of creating those changes.