Sydney’s casinos escape lockout laws, smoking bans and more
The people poured into Belmore Park from Sydney’s Central Station. There were young adults, the elderly, even families with infant children. All were here for one reason: to protest against New South Wales’ lockout laws which, they claimed, were hacking away at the cultural and musical identity of Australia’s largest city.
There was a common theme to many of the demonstrators’ placards. Designed as a casino chip, one had written in the black and red outer rim, “Unlock Sydney”. In the circular gold centre was the smiling face of NSW Premier Mike Baird, above the words “Casino Mike”. Another sign superimposed Premier Baird’s face onto the joker playing card. Yet another read: “I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY...(AND NOT AT THE CASINO...).” They elicited chuckles among the crowd. However, the suggestion these signs made was serious: that The Star casino, and Crown’s soon-to-be-opened venue at Barangaroo, receive preferential treatment from the NSW government. Indeed, there are many legislative examples to cite as evidence.
The Star is not subject to the statewide violent venues list scheme introduced by the NSW government in 2008. The scheme aims to make the public, for their own safety, aware of venues with high levels of assault, as well as to manage and reduce the number of violent incidents. The venue that topped the list in 2015 was The Plantation Hotel in Coffs Harbour, with 21 incidents of assault. Coming in a close second was Home Nightclub in Darling Harbour, with 19.
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) confirmed to The Saturday Paper that there were 74 incidents of alcohol-related, non-domestic assault inside The Star casino between April 2014 and March 2015. The venue, however, doesn’t garner a mention on the list.
Asked why the casino is not officially recognised as the most violent venue in the state, a spokesman for Liquor and Gaming NSW – the authority that replaced the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing in February, and incorporates the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority – said: “The Star is licensed and regulated by the Casino Control Act, and as such The Star is not subject to the Schedule 4 violent venues list scheme in the Liquor Act.” The spokesman added that, “The Star operates to the strictest requirements to ensure it is properly managed. It is subject to strict monitoring in a unique regulatory environment controlled by the Casino Control Act and faces stricter requirements than any other licensed venue in the state.”
A spokesman for The Star questioned the validity of the crime bureau figures. “We believe,” the spokesman said, “the BOCSAR statistics are not a true or accurate reflection of incidents at The Star, in that a number of assaults recorded against The Star have occurred away from the property and involved individuals or groups who had not attended the property.”
The crime bureau also has figures for non-domestic assaults that occurred around the Pyrmont area. From September 2014 to September 2015, there were 161 assaults, up 22.9 per cent from the year prior.
“Three Strikes” scheme
NSW has in place a “Three Strikes” disciplinary scheme to target licensees who wilfully and continually breach their liquor licence. Supplying liquor outside approved trading hours, supplying liquor to a minor, permitting intoxication and supplying liquor to an intoxicated person are some of the strike-worthy offences. Venues subject to this scheme that violate licensing regulations have their offences listed on a public register. Three strikes can result in penalties including licence suspensions and cancellations.
The 2013-14 annual report of the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority reports that The Star casino faced disciplinary action for a total of 12 offences under the Casino Control Act. Three of these were for “permitting intoxication”, a strike-worthy offence. In 2014-15, one of four offences at the casino also related to intoxication. Yet The Star is not subject to the government’s Three Strikes scheme.
“The Star is licensed and regulated by the Casino Control Act,” the Liquor and Gaming NSW spokesman said, “and as such The Star was not made subject to the Three Strikes scheme in the Liquor Act by the parliament.”
Asked about these exemptions, The Star’s spokesman said the casino was a tourist attraction “surpassed in NSW only by the Sydney Opera House”. He said the casino faced greater oversight than any other licensed venue in the state. “The safety and comfort of guests,” he said, “is of paramount importance… Our safety record is strong.”
But it’s not just violence and liquor licensing. Smoking laws are also applied differently to casinos. The Smoke-free Environment Act 2000, introduced under a Labor government, made it illegal for anyone to smoke indoors in public places, anywhere in the state, after July 2, 2007. There was one exception to this – VIP gaming rooms at what was then called Star City Casino. That was true until legislation relating to Sydney’s second casino – Crown Sydney at Barangaroo – was passed in 2013 and granted a second exception to the law. A new piece of legislation, the Casino Control Amendment (Barangaroo Restricted Gaming Facility) Bill 2013, states that, “The Smoke-free Environment Act 2000 does not apply to or in respect of the Barangaroo restricted gaming facility on and from 15 November 2019”.
More extensive smoke-free legislation was passed in 2012, banning smoking in outdoor public settings such as bus stops, taxi ranks and commercial outdoor dining areas. Again, The Star managed to avoid it. An attempt was made by the Labor opposition and the Greens to have included in this legislation amendments that would remove the exemption granted to the casino. It was unsuccessful, voted against by the Liberal government as well as the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, Reverend Fred Nile.
The government conducts an annual review of the smoke-free exemption granted to private gaming rooms. Its report is annually a facsimile of years previous. It reads like this: The Star calls for the exemption to be granted for another 12 months because of continuing exemptions for private gaming areas of the casinos in Victoria and Queensland, which are The Star’s main economic competitors; United Voice – the union for hospitality workers – calls for the exemption to be removed in order to protect workers’ health. The review’s conclusion is also always the same each year: the exemption applying to The Star casino’s private gaming areas should be retained for the next 12 months.
The 2015 report explains the reasoning thus: “Having regard to the single term of reference for the statutory review being maintaining parity with provisions applying in other Australian states and territories, the exemption for private gaming areas provided under the Smoke-free Environment Act 2000 continues to be justified on this basis.”
While “maintaining parity” implies a consistency in regulations across jurisdictions, there is none. Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Victoria and Queensland allow smoking in VIP gaming rooms at casinos, but the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Tasmania have no-exception bans on indoor smoking. It remains debatable as to why parity is maintained with those states and territories that allow for a degree of indoor smoking instead of with those that have banned it entirely.
Lockout zones skirt casinos
Then there is the issue of lockout laws. Opponents to the laws protest that The Star was granted an exclusive exemption to the 1.30am lockout in NSW. This claim, however, is misleading: the lockout zone ends at the eastern side of Darling Harbour and doesn’t include any venue in Pyrmont, separated by water from the CBD. Whether or not the zone should be extended to include Pyrmont and other surrounding suburbs is currently being assessed by an independent statutory review, conducted by former High Court justice Ian Callinan, which will release its report in August.
The case of Barangaroo, given its immediate proximity to the lockout zone, is different. On the map of the lockout zone produced by the NSW government, Barangaroo resembles a skirting board in a freshly painted room, as if masking tape had been placed over it to protect it from any drips of colour. The zone takes in The Rocks but ends at Hickson Road, the eastern edge of Barangaroo, instead of extending to the water’s edge, which would include the new casino precinct. Immediately adjacent to the south is King Street Wharf, also within the lockout zone.
As Professor Alex Steele, the associate dean of the University of New South Wales Law School, asks: “If King Street Wharf is inside, then why is Barangaroo out?”
“Barangaroo was a construction site when the Sydney CBD entertainment precinct was created in February 2014,” the spokesman for Liquor and Gaming NSW said. The “restricted gaming facility” is expected to begin operations in 2021, when it will be subject to the requirements of the Casino Control Act, the spokesman said. The upcoming review of lockout laws will consider the scheme’s impact in potential displacement areas such as Barangaroo.
“All relevant aspects of the laws, including the geographical areas to which they apply, will be examined,” the deputy premier of NSW, Troy Grant, told The Saturday Paper. “Everyone will have the opportunity to have a say and there are no foregone conclusions.”
Jenny Leong of the NSW Greens suggests a different answer to Alex Steele’s question, one that many residents agree with. “The NSW government has shown repeatedly that they’re happy to court the casino industry, and those that profit from them,” she says. “Whether it’s planning laws or liquor licensing or reducing harm, casinos do not operate under the same rules as everybody else in NSW.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "The house always wins". Subscribe here.