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Sydney’s lockout laws answered a media panic in the wake of two violent deaths on the streets. Assaults in trouble spots have since dropped, but are protests about ruining nightlife businesses misguided? By Mike Seccombe.

Lockout laws and violence in the streets

Kieran Loveridge’s night out on Saturday, July 7, 2012, was inanely brutish. It involved getting very drunk and bashing someone.

To that end, about 5pm, he and a friend bought two-dozen cans of Smirnoff Ice Double Black, advertised as an “extra strong blend of Smirnoff Vodka and tangy citrus flavoured soda”. Slab in hand, they returned to a house in Quakers Hill in Sydney’s west and started drinking.

A couple of hours later, having finished the vodka, Loveridge and a couple of mates headed for the city, first to Darling Harbour, where they drank some more, and then to Kings Cross, where they drank more at one club before being denied entry to another.

Having succeeded in getting thoroughly intoxicated, Loveridge then set about executing the other part of his plan for the evening – finding people to bash. He assaulted at least five that night.

It was the second of those assaults that made him infamous.

Just after 10pm, Thomas Kelly had the misfortune to alight from a taxi a few metres from where Loveridge was leaning against a wall in Victoria Street. Kelly, 18, was on his way to a friend’s birthday party. Without any provocation, Loveridge went up and punched him. Once. Kelly fell and cracked his head on the pavement.

He was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital, where he later died. Loveridge left the scene to seek out other innocents on whom to visit his nebulous rage. He found three more victims.

The sorry truth is that behaviour like Loveridge’s is not uncommon. According to figures from the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, there were about 2000 non-domestic assaults in what they call the Sydney CBD Entertainment District in the year Kelly died. More than 400 were in the Cross.

And the level of violence was getting ever worse, says Dr Gordian Fulde, the emergency department director at St Vincent’s Hospital, where so many of those victims ended up.

“It was, definitively and adamantly, getting worse every year. Horribly worse,” he says. “People were getting knocked down and once on the ground were getting stomped, kicked, people jumping on their heads and things. Multiple assailants on an unconscious person.

“Here in the emergency department we were seeing more and more people severely and critically injured. Drugs were a part of it, but alcohol was the main ingredient in all this.”

Media-led outrage

But apart from those people directly involved in dealing with the casualties, few were paying attention. Occasionally some notable individual, typically a football player, would briefly get some public exposure for thumping someone. But most cases made no news.

The killing of Thomas Kelly changed that. Not just because he died, but because of who he was. Kelly was no habitué of Kings Cross. Indeed, it was the first time he’d been there. He was a nice kid, a privileged kid, educated at The King’s School. He was training to be an accountant. He was sober, polite, no threat to anyone. Most importantly, his parents took their grief public and agitated for social change.

The tragedy resonated with other middle-class parents. This wasn’t a pissed bogan hitting another pissed bogan. This was a pissed bogan hitting someone who might have been their kid.

And Kieran Loveridge, at 19 just one year older than his victim, was unquestionably a nasty piece of work. At the time he killed Kelly, he was already on a good-behaviour bond as a result of an attack 18 months earlier, when he gatecrashed a party, threw bottles and punched the host in the face.

Over the succeeding weeks and months up to and including Loveridge’s trial, the media served up all the chilling details of the crime – such as his stated intention to bash someone. And his question to a friend the next day, as they watched a TV report of the assault: ‘‘Was that one of my fights? I don’t know. It fits my description ... But wouldn’t they see my tattoos? I am not athletic build. Do I look in my late 20s?’’

On November 8, 2013, Loveridge was sentenced to four years’ jail for the manslaughter of Kelly, and a total of five years and two months, including the other attacks.

There was outrage, and not just from the usual “tough-on-crime” brigade in the tabloids and talkback radio, although they led it.

“I’ve had an absolute gutful, as has everyone in the state of New South Wales,” fulminated radio 2GB shock jock Ray Hadley, immediately after the sentence was announced.

“Would it take [Attorney-General] Greg Smith’s son to be killed, [Premier] Barry O’Farrell’s son to be killed, before someone does something about it? ... We’ve got a weak-kneed attorney-general and attorney-general’s department in NSW.

“Is Barry O’Farrell going to condemn judges … or is he going to make changes to the system?”

Greg Smith immediately called on the director of public prosecutions to appeal the lightness of the sentence, which the DPP did. But that was never going to be enough to assuage the critics.

The media had now identified a “spate” of unprovoked assaults, although in reality it wasn’t a spate at all. This was no sudden flood: it was just a continuation of the tide of violence people such as Fulde had seen flowing through the emergency rooms for years. It was just that the media had not being paying close attention to them. Not even to the one-punch – now termed “coward punch” – killings, of which there had been 27 in NSW since 2000, and 24 each in Victoria and Queensland.

But they were alert to it when it happened again just a few weeks after the verdict in the Loveridge case.

Lockout laws rushed in

About 9pm on New Year’s Eve, Daniel Christie, 18, was on his way to celebrate with friends when he had the misfortune to cross paths with a huge, drunken labourer named Shaun McNeil, who had a history of violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues.

McNeil had been drinking all day and was walking with his girlfriend when three teenagers – who were not with Christie – approached him offering to sell him cocaine or ecstasy.

According to McNeil, he refused and the youths made a disparaging comment about his girlfriend. According to the drug dealers, McNeil demanded they give him drugs. Whatever the cause, a fight began. The teenagers were no match for McNeil, a bodybuilder and self-described mixed martial arts practitioner who weighed about 120 kilograms.

Police initially said the three youths ran and hid behind Daniel Christie and his brother Peter. At McNeil’s trial, one of the three, who had been knocked down by McNeil, said he heard Christie say: “Why are you hitting kids?”

In either case, McNeil hit Christie once, he fell, and his head hit the pavement. His skull was fractured. He died 11 days later. The assault took place in almost exactly the same spot as the attack on Thomas Kelly.

Now the O’Farrell government was in a state of panic. It was January, a slow time of year for news, and the stories of alcohol-fuelled violence just kept rolling out. Even their most reliable supporters in the right-wing media were attacking them, day after day, for not – as Hadley put it – doing something about it.

A plan was hastily cobbled together and announced by O’Farrell on January 21. Next week will be the second anniversary of the measures.

O’Farrell’s 16 point-plan included meat for the tough-on-crime brigade. There would be a new “one-punch law” imposing a mandatory minimum eight-year sentence where the offender was intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol, and new mandatory sentences for other violent offences where the offender was intoxicated.

And for those who held the view that it was not enough simply to punish offenders more harshly, there were measures intended to go some way to addressing the causes of the violence. The most significant was the introduction of 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks across an expanded CBD entertainment precinct, although this mysteriously excluded the environs of Sydney’s casino in Pyrmont. New statewide 10pm closing times for all bottle shops were also announced.

The new laws were rushed through parliament on January 30, 2014, with the wholehearted support of the Labor opposition. Only the Greens opposed them, on the basis the laws were unlikely to be effective because they would push the problem into other areas not subject to the lockout laws, and “will impose on the lifestyle choices of responsible venue goers”.

The new legislation, said the Greens’ John Kaye, “places onerous restrictions on revellers who are not violent, while rejecting more effective solutions that would antagonise the politically powerful alcohol industry”.

The Greens proposed other measures, among them that the government should enforce existing responsible service of alcohol measures, crack down on alcohol advertising and promotions, reduce the density of bottle shops and entertainment venues in violent areas, and reform licensing regulation.

The package of measures adopted by parliament had the desired effect of calming public outrage, but came in for some heavy criticism from legal experts.

Associate Professor Julia Quilter, of the University of Wollongong, was one of the strongest. In a long dissection of the measures, written for the International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, she criticised the fact that the new laws were rushed through without public consultation or “any apparent input from the NSW Law Reform Commission (NSWLRC) or other expert groups”. Yet they had “exceptional features: invoking for only the second time in recent NSW history the policy of mandatory sentencing and constituting the first additional offence to the law of ‘homicide’ since 1951”.

She damned the government’s actions as being “penal populist” and concluded the new legal regime “represents another example of criminal law ‘reform’ that is devoid of principle, produces a lack of coherence in the criminal law and, in its operation, is unlikely to deliver on the promise of effective crime prevention in relation to alcohol-fuelled violence”.

Assault statistics down

The great irony of Sydney’s lockout laws is that the attacks that precipitated them would not have been stopped by them.

Thomas Kelly was attacked at 10pm and Daniel Christie at only 9pm. In both cases, their assailants had “pre-loaded” themselves with alcohol during daylight hours.

As for the mandated eight-year minimum sentences for coward punch deaths – Kieran Loveridge’s sentence, imposed under the old laws, was increased on appeal to at least 10 years and two months in prison, while his maximum jail term is now 13 years and eight months.

But the facts of those two cases obscure the “bigger picture”, says Fulde. Lockout laws might not have saved Kelly and Christie, but they have undoubtedly saved lots of others in the two years they have operated, he says.

“In emergency we saw a red line at 3am. People who came in before three tended not to be as bad. The patients we saw after three were so much more severely injured.

“People had been up longer so they were more tired, had been drinking longer so they were more pissed, had not met the love of their life, so they were looking for trouble.”

Fulde analysed the hospital records, and found the law changes had brought a 25 per cent decrease in category 1 and category 2 admissions, covering immediately life-threatening and time-critical patients across the weekend. The number of seriously injured patients dropped from 140 before the laws to 106.

Other research backs him up. The most recent figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, to June 2015, show the number of non-domestic assaults has fallen dramatically in the areas of Sydney covered by the lockout laws.

For the Kings Cross area, they were down 45.1 per cent. In the larger City CBD entertainment precinct they were down 20.3 per cent.

Nor is there much evidence that the problem has simply been displaced to nearby areas not covered by the laws. Assaults in Newtown blipped up for a while but have declined since to their pre-lockout levels.

As the head of the bureau, Don Weatherburn, told ABC Radio: “The people that used to go to Kings Cross at 1 or 3 o’clock in the morning have simply scattered to wherever they came from, and they’re not bumping into the people they would have had a fight with.”

There is one exception, though. Near the casino in Pyrmont, violence is up almost 22.9 per cent since the new laws came in.

Clubs and bars closed

Not everyone is happy, either. Those whose livelihoods depend on the late-night trade, and their supporters, are very angry indeed.

Oddly enough, this includes some of the tough-on-crime mob. Ray Hadley’s shock jock stablemate at 2GB Alan Jones recently whaled on Baird, calling the lockout laws “stark raving mad”.

None has been more colourful, though, than Matt Barrie, chief executive of the company Freelancer.com. His 8400-word LinkedIn tirade against the “nanny state” and God-bothering politicians went viral a couple of weeks ago.

Barrie’s central point, at least, was well made: large numbers of businesses in the areas affected by the lockout laws have closed down in the past two years.

“Kings Cross, in particular, has been decimated so badly that it will never, ever, come back as an entertainment precinct,” he wrote.

“Walk up Bayswater Road, Oxford Street or the Golden Mile and club after club is closed; not just after 1.30am, but permanently.”

He enumerated dozens of closed entertainment venues and ancillary businesses such as restaurants and fast-food joints that had shut down.

In part, Barrie blamed Jesus – or more specifically the influence of Jesus on senior politicians including Premier Mike Baird, bureaucrats such as Baird’s chief of staff, Bay Warburton, and law enforcement officials including Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.

Barrie accused them of confusing the roles of church and state, and went on: “Christians notoriously blame the victim, whether it be rape or assault.”

Barrie also quoted statistics, apparently not realising they undermined his argument. He cited figures compiled by the City of Sydney that showed dramatic declines in late-night foot traffic in the precincts.

But the numbers showed the precipitous declines had begun well before the lockout laws came in. In a number of former hotspots for late nightlife, such as Darlinghurst and Bayswater roads, and Oxford Street, they had already fallen about 60 per cent between 2010 and 2012.

Such figures suggest we should look elsewhere for declining trade. Perhaps people were scared to go to these areas because of the threat of violence. More likely it was the rapid process of gentrification.

As another of the graphs in Barrie’s long rant showed, in 2010 some 58 per cent of people cited “socialising” when asked their reason for being in these areas. By 2015, 57 per cent said they were “returning home”.

Late-night drinkers out, early-to-bed wage slaves in.

Protests in Sydney

And this is unquestionably sad for the people whose livelihoods are disappearing, and perhaps for Sydney’s cultural life.

Clare Holland is the managing director of FBi Radio, which is devoted to promoting Sydney music, arts and culture, and she’s worried about the future.

She acknowledges Premier Baird’s argument that even though a lot of places have closed down many others, mostly small wine bars and other establishments that do not engage in late trade, have opened up, but qualifies it.

“Those small bars have a very different function. Very rarely do they have live music and if they do the capacity is very limited.

“The venues that can allow for a couple of hundred people are the ones that are dwindling. You are losing opportunities for those entry-level artists or those who have niche audiences.”

This weekend, the denizens of Sydney’s late-night scene, blinking in the midday sun, are planning a protest. They plan to force the government – and the inquiry now under way into the consequences of the two-year-old laws – to hear their voices.

Baird has so far been strong in defence of the current regime. Is it because he’s a Christian wowser who is intent on forcing, in Matt Barrie’s words, an unannounced “religious social reform across an entire society”?

Possibly. Far more likely it’s that he’s a politician who knows the great mass of the public are untroubled by what’s happened. For better or worse, lockout laws are popular.

The Queensland government is now in the final stages of negotiating through parliament changes similar to those of NSW, although they will be slightly less strict and far better thought out.

In Brisbane, the people demanded it. On January 5, another good kid, Cole Miller, 18, died in hospital after being randomly attacked in the early hours of January 3 in Fortitude Valley.

It was a coward punch.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2016 as "Punch drunk". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.