Newcastle has led the world on curbing alcohol-related violence, but hotels want a review

THE NSW Government has been accused of backing a sham review of Newcastle’s nearly decade-old lockout laws without a public hearing, with a tight deadline and at the behest of the hotel industry.

The NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority confirmed the review in a statement on Tuesday, nearly six months after the Australian Hotels Association asked for reconsideration of the “Newcastle solution” conditions imposed in 2008.

Authority chair Philip Crawford said barrister Jonathan Horton, QC, would take written submissions from the public, police, businesses and other groups until December 13 on current 1am and 1.30am lockouts and 3am and 3.30am closing times applying to 15 Newcastle venues, and report to the authority by December 22.

It will also consider existing drinks restrictions after 10pm, including bans on shots and doubles and a limit of four drinks per customer.

But long-time Newcastle anti-violence campaigner Tony Brown slammed the review as “choreographed to give the appearance of consulting the community, when it’s really all about what industry wants”.

He received no response to questions in writing to Liquor and Gaming NSW on November 2 about a review, after a tip-off that one was under way.

I think it stinks. I think it looks like government trying to put something past the community at the behest of industry.

University of Newcastle Professor Kypros Kypri

Mr Brown was backed by University of Newcastle alcohol-related injury expert Professor Kypros Kypri, who criticised the lack of transparency, lack of community consultation about the terms of reference and failure to respond to Mr Brown’s questions, despite the AHA first requesting reconsideration of the “Newcastle solution” in June.

“I think it stinks. I think it looks like government trying to put something past the community at the behest of industry,” Professor Kypri said.

“The community’s not been included in the loop.”

Hunter branch of the AHA called for a review of Newcastle liquor laws in December, 2016 after a review of Sydney lockout laws only two years after they were put in place. The laws were modelled on the “Newcastle solution” and imposed after a spate of high profile assaults.

The review’s terms of reference require Mr Horton to consider NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics research, the findings of the Sydney review that led to a relaxation of “last drinks” and lockout conditions, Liquor Act amendments, police, Hunter New England Health, industry and public submissions.

The ILGA confirmed there would be no public hearing, despite the significance of the original “Newcastle solution” and its impact on national and international alcohol safety campaigns, and three “roundtables” held during the Sydney review.

“This is timely considering the conditions have been in place for nine years and Newcastle’s CBD has changed considerably in this time,” Mr Crawford said.

The review would be “guided by evidence and community feedback”, he said.

Professor Kypri, who received a prestigious Sax Institute award on Tuesday night for his work on alcohol and violence, described Newcastle as “the flagship” for communities responding to alcohol-related violence by initiating evidence-based reforms.

“Take away the flagship and you don’t have that reference anymore,” he said.

This is timely considering the conditions have been in place for nine years and Newcastle’s CBD has changed considerably in this time.

NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority chief Philip Crawford

“The evidence that underpinned the original decision to place conditions over these premises is now stronger than it was when they were put in place. Will the government stand up for public health? There’s good evidence these policies have been very effective in reducing assaults.

“It’s the hours of service of alcohol that’s the issue. For every hour after midnight that trading continues, there’s a 20 per cent increase in assaults.”

In 2008 there were an average 99 assaults per quarter in Newcastle CBD. The figure was halved by 2015.

Mr Brown said the lockout laws and last drinks restrictions had benefited the CBD economically.

“We’ve had nearly a doubling in the liquor outlets since these laws were in place, and the assaults are half what they used to be. The only thing that’s happened is that we’ve really improved out drinking culture,” Mr Brown said.

“I was a party to the original action that led to the Newcastle solution. The ILGA hasn’t been upfront in the way that it’s handled this. They should have sat down with all the parties involved once the AHA requested these changes, but that didn’t happen.

“We know just how influential the powerful AHA is, and the influence they exert on the NSW Government to the detriment of Newcastle. The master whistles and the dog barks.

“The community has been given until December 13 to put in submissions. How long has the alcohol industry had? How much head start have they had? It’s a fait accompli. It’s a real letdown for the people of Newcastle.”

In response to questions about the lack of a public hearing, the ILGA said the review gave the public and all interested parties “the chance to provide written submissions which will be carefully considered”. 

“Mr Horton will also hold face-to-face meetings with key stakeholders to get a detailed understanding of their views,” a spokesman said.

NSW Greens MP Justin Field said the snap review was “just the latest example of the undue influence of the alcohol lobby on NSW politics and policy”.

“The fact that this review has been requested by the Australian Hotels Association says all you need to know about whose interests it serves,” he said.

“By any measure the ‘Newcastle solution’ has been successful in achieving an outcome of reducing alcohol related violence. If the community wants to look at changes, they should be at the centre of driving that change, not the alcohol lobby.”