Proposed changes to liquor licensing laws in Queensland are ruffling the feathers of venue owners and drinkers alike, but data following strict changes in NSW correlate with a sharp fall in assault rates. By Andrew McMillen.

Queensland plans crackdown on alcohol-fuelled violence

For bouncers in pubs and nightclubs, the turn happens about 1am. After that, there is very little good to come. “Most of the positive interactions happen by then, in terms of people finding partners,” says Peter Miller. “After that point, the night starts to take a different direction: the later it gets, the uglier people get.” Miller knows a bit about this, having spent a decade working security in Melbourne and Geelong. Now a 50-year-old associate professor of psychology at Deakin University, he still spends a fair amount of time in bars, but he has traded his walkie-talkie for an iPhone app, which he and his team use to conduct in-the-field academic research in the form of “unobtrusive observations” of bar-room behaviour and interviews with pub patrons. “I’m not an ivory tower researcher,” he says with a chuckle. “I worked in the industry for a decade, and I’ve spent the last five years on the street.” The bouncers’ maxim Miller relays, that ugly behaviour sees a sharp rise after 1am, is particularly pertinent given that the Labor-led Queensland government plans to follow through with its pre-election commitment to curb alcohol-related violence by introducing a raft of statewide changes to liquor licensing. The laws follow similar regulation in New South Wales. “We will be bringing legislation before this house to stop pubs and clubs serving alcohol after 3am, and introducing a 1am lockout,” the Queensland attorney-general, Yvette D’Ath, said in state parliament on March 26. “We will be giving police the power to breathalyse drunk or disorderly patrons so they have the evidence they need to prosecute licensees, managers and patrons who breach the Liquor Act.” Also on the agenda was preventing the sale of “high-alcohol-content drinks” – including shots – after midnight. The thought of breathalysing patrons to prosecute venues seemed wild and open to police abuse. Drunkenness is not an unknown quantity in any bar at closing time. The Gold Coast Bulletin seized on the claims, running a front-page story headlined “D’Ath Vader”, complete with a Photoshopped image of the minister dressed as the Star Wars villain. The strapline: “Attorney-General using the force to keep the peace … and keep you sober”. “Allowing police to breathalyse drunken patrons will help them to build cases for prosecution for court,” D’Ath told the Bulletin. “For example, police consider a [blood-alcohol] reading of 0.15 to be highly intoxicated.” Strangely, D’Ath’s office issued a clarifying statement the same day, which noted, “There is no plan to random breath-test drinkers and there never has been.” The proposed changes to Queensland’s liquor licensing laws are set to be introduced to state parliament later this year, and have been influenced by the strong measures that Newcastle introduced following a steep rise in violent assaults in 2008. More recently, the inner-city Sydney suburb of Kings Cross introduced 1.30am lockouts and 3am “cease trading” legislation in late 2012, after the high-profile one-punch death of 18-year-old Thomas Kelly. Between the bluster of a newly elected state government with a mandate to curb alcohol-related violence and the vested interests of Queensland venue owners who’d rather let the market decide when they should stop serving booze, it can be difficult to sort signal from noise. Miller, the bouncer-turned-professor, is well placed to call it as he sees it. “I’m not making money either way on this,” he says. “My interest is how do people get home? I’m a professor of violence prevention. That’s my job: to try to get people home safely.” The data that surrounds the licensing changes in Newcastle and Sydney are compelling. “Newcastle saw a 37 per cent reduction in assaults within an 18-month period when pubs shut at 3.30am, compared to 5.30am,” Miller says. “In Sydney, they’ve seen a 20 per cent reduction in sexual assaults. These numbers mean there are thousands fewer people whose lives are being destroyed for the sake of a bit of late-night profit.” Brisbane venue owners, particularly those clustered in the established inner-city entertainment precinct of Fortitude Valley, are clamouring to fight the proposed changes. An industry-led lobbying body named Our Nightlife Queensland was established in April to combat the licensing amendments. “We don’t have the issues that are manifesting down south,” says its secretary, Nick Braban. “It’s a reaction to a problem that doesn’t exist here, and it’s going a bit too far, we think.” In addition to chairing the Valley Liquor Accord, Braban also manages The Wickham hotel. “Comparing those two areas to anywhere in Queensland is a bit hard for us to understand,” he says. “Newcastle had a serious problem with violence on their streets: an assault rate that was twice what Brisbane or the Gold Coast had ever seen, so an interventionist policy might have been good for their area. Kings Cross also had assault rates far in excess of what we see in Fortitude Valley or Surfers Paradise.” Rates of assault have dropped sharply since the Kings Cross lockout and closure laws were put in place: 474 total incidents were recorded by local police between April 2014 and March 2015, down 28 per cent from 658 in the previous year. It’s not a perfect solution, however, as punters changed their behaviour to avoid being restricted by the Cross lockout. “The problem there is they drew a line around central Sydney, and then said, ‘Outside that line, you can trade ’til whenever’,” says Miller. “So places like Bondi and Newtown are getting these weird flow-on effects very late at night.” Those who rely upon Fortitude Valley patrons for their livelihood are preparing for the worst-case scenario: that despite the best efforts of lobby groups such as Our Nightlife, the Labor government will push ahead with its planned three-prong attack of 1am lockouts, 3am closures (except for those nightclubs that apply for a 5am licence) and a statewide ban on shots after midnight. Jesse Barbera, co-owner of live music venue The Brightside, isn’t so bothered by the forced closing time. “The bulk of my business happens before midnight,” he says. Barbera, 34, almost shares Miller’s bouncers’ maxim, albeit delayed by a couple of hours. “Nothing really good happens after 3am,” he says. “Nothing bad, necessarily, but most of the people in there, they’re not really drinking anymore. They’re trying to sober up before they go home, or they’re sitting around doing nothing - 3am is fine, it’s still a very cosmopolitan time to close.” What Barbera can’t abide, however, is the 12am ban on “high-alcohol-content drinks”. “To say that you can’t serve straight spirits of any kind after midnight is borderline impinging on my civil liberties, as an adult who enjoys fine scotch whiskies and the occasional martini,” he says. “But you’re saying I can go and drink a bourbon and rum, and I’ll be fine?” The Brightside reaches its capacity of 325 patrons about five times a month. Among its best earners behind the bar are high-end spirits, such as Johnny Walker Blue, which sells for about $35 a nip. If the government’s plans proceed, says Barbera, “It’s done; nobody’s going to buy that after midnight from now on. Scotch is an end-of-the-evening drink. That’s going to affect me simply by dint of the fact that it’s a high-margin product.” Troubling for venue owners is there seems to be no scope for stakeholder conversations on the matter. “If they are having public consultations, they’re behind closed doors with some big dick-swinging mother-fuckers who have nothing to do with the rest of us who make up the majority of the establishments in the city and the Valley,” says Barbera. Data shows that the longer a night out drags on, the greater the potential for harm to visit upon those immersed in the nightlife, whether in licensed venues or locked out on the street. “You’ll never stop all of the violence; when you put people and alcohol together, you get violence,” Miller notes. “But you can massively reduce how much it happens.” Significant legislative changes such as these, he says, are partly about people perpetrating violence. “But it’s much more about people becoming victims, by walking into situations they’d never walk into when they were sober. The later the pubs go, the more victims they’re creating.” As to the threat of randomly breathalysing patrons, irrespective of their intention to drive, it will not be until the legislation is formally introduced that D’Ath’s intentions will be properly known.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2015 as "Sobering proposals".

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Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist, author and host of the podcast Penmanship.

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