A Punter, A Club Owner & A Band On How Sydney’s Lockout Laws Changed The City Forever

Contributor: Chloe Sargeant

H U Z Z A H! As of the 14th of January 2020, the New South Wales lockout laws that have been a topic of great controversy, discussed day and night in every Sydney’s pub beer garden, were for the most part, lifted.

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Late last year, the Berejiklian government confirmed that the strict regulations imposed on Sydney’s licensed venues in 2014 would be rolled back, with the exception of Kings Cross. The NSW Police confirmed that as of this week’s repeal, police patrols will increase around licensed venues.

The last several years have seen outrage, sadness and devastation of local businesses, as well as thousands of Sydney-siders taking to the streets in protest of the restrictive laws. Musicians alleged that their industry was being irreparably decimated, as did bars and restaurant owners across various suburbs of wider Sydney.

John Graham, a Labor member on the parliamentary inquiry into the lockout laws, told the SMH that there was a net loss of a whopping 176 venues across Sydney since the introduction of the laws.

So finally, after six long years the day has finally happened, and the laws are, for better or worse, gone. But what is left? Is the damage to Sydney’s nightlife, music industry, and once-vibrant atmosphere fixable, or has the lockout laws left behind a graveyard of a city that cannot be resurrected?

To find out, we asked a punter, a venue owner, and musician their thoughts on what the future looks like for a (almost) lockout law-less Sydney.

Mark Gerber, the founder of Darlinghurst institution the Oxford Art Factory, told us his establishment welcomes the changes to the lockout laws, and plan to work “tirelessly” to rebuild the safe and vibrant nightlife that once existed. “Prior to the lockout laws, Sydney was a city vibrant with diverse music, art, and culture. Finally, we see these days returning, and OAF can finally begin reconstructing the success it once knew some five years ago.

“We graciously invite all of Sydney to embrace these changes, and help make our collective dream a reality. We’re almost there.”

David Novak, one half of ‘the sweatiest rock band in Sydney’ Polish Club, says that in areas like Kings Cross (which is the only area that still has lockout laws placed on it), the harm caused by the laws is irreparable.

“The place is dead, the damage is done. Anyone can go there today and see that where once were bars and clubs there’s whole buildings of new apartments, which I think is less than a coincidence. You go to Candy’s Apartment or World Bar; they’re cafes now, they’re F45s. Which is all well and good, but not for the people who have lost their jobs, people who wanted to start careers – they can’t anymore.”

However, he also believes that while there is great responsibility on venues and the music industry to rebirth Sydney’s nightlife with the changes to the lockout laws, there’s also enormous responsibility on the punters.

“We all have to change our attitudes, try to be a bit more adventurous as a punter. I think if people are more open to experiencing new things and taking a risk on a new night, a new bar, a new restaurant, I think that will help a lot.”

Punter, DJ and all-around music fiend Nic Kelly tells us he is hopeful for the future, saying it’s less about trying to return to the Sydney that once was, but instead helping the city’s nightlife evolve into something creative and new.

I was 18 when the lockouts came in, so I’ve never really known a Sydney without lockouts – but I have watched it decay, I’ve watched opportunities [in the live music scene] evaporate.

I think the one positive that did come out of the lockouts was that people did get more creative. I think Sydney’s nightlife was going to evolve regardless. I don’t think it’s ever going to be what it was, the same nights with the same crowds.

I think what it’s going to take is people continuing to be creative and changing. There’s people in Sydney who know how to put amazing things on and build an audience, and I just hope that they’re the people to come to the front now.

One group who has spoken out in support of the lockout laws over the last six years are various spokespeople from St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst – particularly emergency staff who treated injuries caused by alcohol-related violence in Kings Cross. St Vincent’s submission stated that pre-lockout laws, clinicians likened the constant flow of injured from Kings Cross to the Emergency Department as a “conveyor belt of carnage”, with one nurse even stating she had been considering leaving the profession because of it.

Paul Preisz, the director of emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital, said in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry that “the lockout laws have worked”, and the NSWNMA cited in another submission that there hasn’t been one alcohol-related assault death at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst since the laws rolled out, and the serious alcohol-related facial injuries had also reduced in number.

However, a 2016 BOSCAR report definitively showed an ‘abrupt jump’ in assaults occurring at the The Star Casino (the only venue inside the lockout law zone to be exempt from the regulations) after the lockout laws came into place.

The issue of alcohol-related violence and fatality obviously isn’t something that anyone wants to return to Sydney, but many maintain it never actually left – it just spread out.

Novak says that he’s personally witnessed violent behaviour within the periods of the lockouts, just in areas outside of the lockout zones: “Of course I worry we could see violence happen, but violence has already gone up in the Inner West, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

But he says the issue of violence isn’t something that could be simply resolved by placing strict prohibitive rules on people, but instead, we should be making sure we’re properly educating people.

“[Repealing the lockout laws] was the right thing to do because it was based on misguided attempts of decreasing the violence that’s stuck inherently in our country’s culture. This [issue] requires education at a base level.”

[St Vincent’s Hospital did not respond to requests for comment.]