Liquor review process shows something’s amiss in city

ROUND ABOUT: The people of Newcastle have been served a questionable liquor law review process, the author says.
ROUND ABOUT: The people of Newcastle have been served a questionable liquor law review process, the author says.

There’s something not quite right in Newcastle.

The alcohol industry, not content to influence public policy, looks to be firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat, encouraged by a local city council and a pro-industry Minister for Racing.

In November last year it was clear something was amiss. Five months earlier, the Australian Hotels Association New South Wales (AHA NSW) requested that the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) vary or revoke Newcastle’s CBD Liquor Licence conditions.

Community campaigner Tony Brown had been tipped off a review was planned and wrote to Liquor and Gambling NSW on November 2 seeking confirmation. None was forthcoming. Three weeks later, ILGA announced a snap review, with the public given only 22 days to respond. Condemning the limited public consultation and the influence the AHA NSW has on the NSW government, Mr Brown told the Herald on November 21 “The master whistles and the dog barks. The community has been given until 13 December. How much head start has the alcohol industry had?”

Its timing was unfortunate. Announced just before NSW Parliament rose for the summer, and three weeks before Christmas, this liquor review, ironically enough, was looking like a ‘Clayton’s’ review. So much for  best practice community consultation; involve the public from the start, don’t let one group dominate, support marginalised participants and beware of pre-conceived results. On November 24, in response to adverse media coverage, community outrage and a request from the NSW Upper House, the submission deadline was extended by ILGA to January 24, 2018, and later to February 7 due to a procedural glitch.

On the same day the review was announced, NSW Racing Minister Paul O’Toole was delivering an up-beat outlook for the NSW alcohol industry. Speaking at the AHA NSW Awards for Excellence, and as quoted by industry mouthpiece The Shout, he said “the NSW Government has made a number of reforms in relation to this industry. And I can tell you this, we are not finished there. We have got a lot of other reforms that we are going to be announcing shortly that are going to be good for your industry”.

That O’Toole, responsible for liquor licensing, delivered an up-beat pro-industry address to an industry audience isn’t itself a hanging offence.

That he delivered those remarks on the same day the Newcastle review was publicly announced smacks of arrogance.

A Herald editorial (22/1/18) said: “There will need to be very good reasons indeed to tinker with the laws that put an end to the bloody period in our city’s history”.

That’s a well-reasoned and justified position in light of the independent scientific evidence showing the relationship between the implementation of the Newcastle conditions and the overwhelming reduction in night-time assaults. Business hasn’t suffered as a result. From March 2008 to July 2015 there has been a 140 per cent increase in the number of on-premise liquor licences in the CBD.

But the AHA NSW and Newcastle City Council seem happy to trade public safety and amenity for greater industry profit. City residents now put their trust in what to now has been a questionable review process, in the hope that their life-saving measures are not dismantled, and that corporate power does not win out over the truth.

Michael Thorn is chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education