Culture of violence, not booze, to blame

PARTY’S OVER: Police make an arrest in Newcastle’s bar precinct.  Picture: Ryan Osland
PARTY’S OVER: Police make an arrest in Newcastle’s bar precinct. Picture: Ryan Osland

IT'S Friday night, it's raining and the town is dead.

Granted it is two days before one of the biggest alcohol-fuelled days in the country - Australia Day - but the scenario is becoming common.

As I make my way around the regular drinking haunts of Newcastle it seems like even the ghosts aren't bothering.

Pubs and clubs in Newcastle are struggling with decreased patronage.

They have been for a while now.

Young people who go out these days accept Newcastle nightlife for what it is but there are still those who remember what once was.

"You used to go to Customs [House] on a Wednesday and it would be overflowing," one punter told me.

"Across the road you'd have the Great Northern [Hotel] packed out."

Throw in the heydays of the Civic and CBD hotels, as well as King Street and Fannys - arguably the biggest clubs in town - and you had a thriving nightlife.

Now, five years after lockouts and early closings were introduced, we constantly hear police and government spruik the "Newcastle solution", dishing out statistics about how violence has plummeted.

Yet statistics are just statistics if context isn't provided.

Where are the studies into patronage? Where are the papers comparing the decrease in assaults with the decrease in activity?

If the aim is to reduce assaults by reducing the number of people heading out then it seems to this reporter the lockout strategy has been a raging success.

But is it really the answer to changing a culture that seems intent on fighting? And do people really feel any safer in the city after dark?

Outside the Oasis food court in Hamilton a drunk man is wrestled into the back of a police wagon.

Brittany Lomas, 21, and her sister Rachael, 19, look on and tell me they still see assaults most weekends.

"I don't think I've ever been out on a weekend where I haven't seen a fight," Brittany says.

"Yeah if a guy bumps into another guy it can just happen," Rachael chimes in.

From speaking with punters, club staff, food vendors and bouncers throughout the night, it becomes clear that not many people think alcohol is the major problem.

It's a factor, but not the source.

A worker at a Hamilton kebab shop explains he's been there for more than 10 years.

"[The lockout] hasn't made a difference," he tells me. "We still get dramas. There was a machete attack across the road once."

Reach Newcastle hands out sausage sangers to the homeless every Friday night on Beaumont Street, unavoidably catering for revellers too.

Founder Rob Dalais tells me violence is inevitable in spite of the lockout and come 3 o'clock in the morning "you've gotta watch out".

"It's going to happen. I don't think we're tackling it that well," he says.

"It's not just about alcohol. It's the mindset."

Getting tanked doesn't help of course but most people I meet agree that to get into a fight while drunk you need to have a preconceived mentality to do so, even when sober.

"It depends on your personality," Sarah Leslie says.

Her brother, Michael, agrees.

"There are people that go out there with the intent," he adds.

"It's very much a personality issue. I have seen a lot of violence out in Newcastle [since the lockout].

"The amount of times I've been out and had someone try and fight me . . ."

****************

It seems to this reporter that to put the blame solely on alcohol and on pubs and clubs is a cop-out.

It's an easy way for politicians, police and anti-alcohol campaigners to paper over the cracks and show the public that they're working on a "solution".

It's a lot harder to get to the root of the problem and accept that our culture is seemingly ingrained with a love for a blue.

This is bigger than alcohol, I reckon. Education is key.

It's not about closing down venues, forcing people to stay at home and hoping the ingrained cultural violence solves itself.

Lockouts can be part of the answer, but they should only be enforced on venues that are doing the wrong thing.

The introduction of mandatory sentencing for "one-hit" kills is a positive reform, yet questions remain.

What is the justification in handing out tougher sentences for "coward punches" thrown under the influence? That seems to be demonising alcohol and not the person.

A punch is a punch. A death is a death. And, alcohol or not, the punishments should be on par.

It may be quiet on this particular Friday, yet according to bar staff a fight can happen on any night, usually on the streets.

The lockout isn't going to stop people getting aggressive.

I believe we need more research to help us understand what makes a person go into town with a predisposition for getting in a fight.

Why are we so angry? Isn't this the lucky country? Something needs to change and it isn't late-night trading hours. It's our culture.

■ DESPITE a stringent set of restrictions being imposed on clubs and pubs in Newcastle for the past five years, alcohol-related assaults in the city haven’t decreased any more than in similar-sized cities in NSW.

The Newcastle Herald compiled figures using the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showing that assaults in licensed premises in Newcastle dropped almost 30per cent from September 2008 to September 2013.

This drop occurred after the so-called ‘‘Newcastle solution’’ was introduced following a string of late-night attacks in the city.

Yet violence has been curtailed at a higher rate in some NSW cities of similar size.

In Penrith, alcohol-related assaults in the same period were down 56.16per cent, in Wollongong they were down 30.97per cent and in the Sutherland Shire  down 47.7 per cent.

Gosford (down 28.8per cent) reduced assaults about on par with Newcastle.