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As Sydney equates declining assault rates with late-night lockout laws, Melbourne is eager to become a 24-hour city. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inner-city lockout laws versus a 24-hour environment

It is difficult to consider Thomas Kelly’s death without feelings of revulsion. In 2012, the 18-year-old was having a night out in Sydney’s Kings Cross. It was his first time on the nightclub strip. He was with his girlfriend. Also out that night was Kieran Loveridge, a young man with a record of random assaults. Before he crossed paths with Kelly, Loveridge had already smashed the faces of other strangers, seemingly for entertainment. As anyone who has been to the Cross at night will know, Darlinghurst Road was a catastrophe of masculinity. And so it was that the two young men – then unknown to each other, now tragically synonymous – met. Unprovoked, Loveridge felled Kelly with a single punch. Kelly’s collision with the pavement was fatal. That wasn’t it for Loveridge, though. Forty-five minutes later, he randomly punched another man. 

As is well known, Kelly’s death generated powerful public nausea, and an attendant urgency to lessen random street violence. First, there was a lexical change – the phrase “king hit” was replaced by general consensus with “coward’s punch”. The next change was more substantial, and it was partially led by Kelly’s grieving parents – to replicate Newcastle’s lockout laws in Sydney.

In 2008, distressed by high numbers of assaults in its CBD, Newcastle’s council implemented lockout laws – one couldn’t enter a venue after 1am, and all licensed venues had to shut at 3am. The same year, Melbourne trialled similar lockout laws. It quickly abandoned them. Current Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle, who was elected to office not long after the trial’s abandonment, tells me: “They didn’t work for us. There were too many exclusions, it wasn’t the culture of the city, it was too hard to enforce. It just didn’t work.”

But Newcastle’s laws did. They prevail eight years on, and assaults are down. Sydney contentiously adopted them in 2014, and ever since they have been at the centre of passionate debates about urban policy and possibility. Again, assaults are down. In February, the New South Wales premier, Mike Baird, proudly wrote: “Let’s start with a statistic about Sydney’s nightlife that matters: alcohol-related assaults have decreased by 42.2 per cent in the CBD since we introduced the ‘lock-out laws’. And they’re down by over 60 per cent in Kings Cross.”

Except that assaults were already trending downwards before the introduction of the lockout laws. The laws merely “accelerated” the trend, according to Don Weatherburn, the director of NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. A similar phenomenon was occurring with the “spate” of one-punch deaths – the prominence awarded to the stories by the media suggested to the public that a diabolical new phenomenon was emerging. Media prominence equated, in the public’s mind, with incidence. But assaults in the CBD had long been declining. I contacted Weatherburn for this story, but he told me that speaking would mean pre-empting his report on the lockout laws due next week. 

Professor Kim Dovey, an expert in urban design, tells me the issue is one of determinism. “We often fall into determinism. We fall back upon a simple answer,” he says. “The public does this also. It’s often spurious. Cities are extremely complex, but we have what is called environmental determinism. That is, you have a problem and you look at where it happens – social housing, for instance – and you shut that.”

Dovey also says that balancing the dynamism of cities with its security is an ancient question, but that “24-hour cities are generally a good thing. And there have always been 24-hour cities. Much determinism is plain wrong. And there’s something about cities that’s just a bit hedonistic. This goes back to Babylon. Cities are places where people come to experience an intensity of life.”

An intensity of life is precisely what’s being lessened, argue the law’s detractors. Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore displays greater equanimity but expresses doubts to me: “The lockouts are likely to have accelerated the ongoing decline of alcohol-related harm in Kings Cross and the CBD – and that’s improved safety and improved the amenity for residents. But they’ve also had a disproportionate impact on the city’s night-time culture, especially live music venues, small bars and restaurants – and that’s led to an overall reduction in night-time activity. Anecdotal evidence also suggests parts of the community feel less safe as a result of the decreased night-time activity.”

There is a fascinating counterpoint to Sydney’s policy – the city of Melbourne. There, the lord mayor is selling his vision for a 24-hour city. “I want 2am to be the new midnight,” he tells me. 

Danger on the streets

For years I lived in Northbridge, Perth, a suburb officially designated as the city’s “entertainment district” but recognised as a loathsome concentration of iniquity. Blighted by the city’s highest rate of assaults, backpackers and suburban teenagers pinballed violently between nightclubs. Smeared across this was the film of organised crime. Bikie venues, cavernous and vulgar, enjoyed a monopolistic grasp upon the sale of drugs on the dance floor. 

Their commercial advantage was ruthlessly enforced, as was the larger, legal hold of investors in pubs and clubs in the precinct. It was more efficient to own a few joints that watered a thousand thirsty kids than it was to invest in a portfolio of niche bars, just as it was more profitable to maintain licensing laws that prevented the disruption of that cosy status by young entrepreneurs. A handful of nightclub owners – both straight and crooked – enjoyed a fruitful kingdom of squalor. 

Liquor licensing applications were routinely rejected on the grounds that there was already a cluster of venues that served booze. The fact that there was also a toxic cluster of owners, outlook and culture was apparently irrelevant. Diversity and competition didn’t matter, and small bars were almost unheard of. 

Despite this, my friends and I insisted upon living on the residential fringe of Northbridge. As far as Perth went, this was dynamism, good food, proximity to the city. There were parks and crumbling terraces. We formed communities around music and arts. Among us there was the ambition to reform the place. To open it up. To claim space. And there was progress, even if it was stymied by an official insistence upon the status quo. But on weekends, when the precinct was horrifically enlivened, we often avoided its centre. 

One evening in 2002, I walked to Perth’s central train station to meet a housemate. I was chaperoning her home, offering my meagre frame as hopeful assurance against assault. I had a bag of books in one hand and, after picking up some pizza, our dinner in the other. A few blocks from home, we passed a group of five young men. They expressed some vulgar denunciation of my housemate, who instinctively spun around and confronted them. Indignantly asked to repeat their slander, they obliged, and I dropped my bags and placed my body between my aggrieved housemate and one leering thug. Then, facing my housemate and urging restraint, I separated them with my arms. 

Cartoon stars followed. I’d been punched, hard, in the back of my head. My housemate responded by kicking the offender in the groin. His retaliation was severe. As I stumbled, confused, I watched the thug smash my housemate’s face. She fell, her nose disjointed, and cracked her head on the concrete kerb. 

Late-night activation

The penny dropped, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle tells me, when he visited a Salvador Dali exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. “On the final day, the show was open 24-hours. And there was a queue of people all down St Kilda Road. It was fun and it was safe. No trouble. And a light bulb went on for me. So I thought about late-night activation in the city. There was a lot of co-operation with festivals, and other stakeholders and councillors to get it going.” 

Doyle’s light bulb came in 2009, his second year in office and the year after the failed lockout trial. Assaults were high, and Doyle believed the city was experiencing the consequences of being “too laissez faire”. Which might sound surprising from a man who now envisages a city that never sleeps. Much has happened in the intervening seven years. “It’s a mix of hard and soft policies. So, you do need a police presence. The best urban design can’t protect you against someone on ice: you need a police response, probably a health response. And we have increased CCTV, and they’re manned by experts. People think they’re only useful as evidence during trials – and they are – but our operators are watching these, and our audits show hundreds of crimes that have been prevented.

“But we’ve got other things. Offbeat solutions. We have 24-hour buskers. We put flowers at the front of city hall. That sounds like a small thing – it’s the softest policy – but we want to create an environment that is pleasant. That means making sure we empty all the bins, that we clean up graffiti quickly. Beer barns have disappeared. We lifted the freeze on licences, and we’re getting more and more of these Melbourne laneway bars. The state government introduced all-night transport. And all of this has been great for our economy. A cafe, bar or restaurant has opened every week for the past 10 years.”

Melbourne offers a contradiction to Sydney’s approach. Never before have more people visited the city from the suburbs – on a busy day, it can be a million – and yet crime continues to decline. And unlike other jurisdictions, Victoria Police is welcoming of the city’s openness. Inspector Simon Stevens, the city’s local area commander, tells me: “Our approach to policing in the city has changed over the years. The growing night-time economy, infrastructure, residential and visitor population sees a transition towards a 24-hour environment.”

A spokesperson for Victoria Police tells me that since 24-hour transport was introduced on January 1, the force has detected no increase in crime. 

Wanting to brawl

My housemate, who lay prostrate on the footpath, had a frail heart. Fearing cardiac arrest, I bent over her body to check her condition. She was barely conscious, but as I shouted her name more blows fell upon me. Not one fist, but a volley of four. All but one of the group were now determinedly beating me. Reluctantly, but necessarily, I was drawn away from my housemate, who lay – as far as I knew, fatally – on the side of the road. I yelled that she needed help, but these boys wanted to brawl. 

What follows is a blur. Strangers watched from across the road, stiff and mute. In the end, I picked up my bag of books – the hard coffee-table book of photography the most useful – and swung it hard into the head of the most enthusiastic thug. That finished it. They dispersed quickly. 

Except for one. He was the fifth man, the awkward pacifist, the one who had stood pathetically behind his mates. I like to think he was paralysed by shame. I grabbed him. “Who the fuck are your friends?” I asked. “What are their names?” 

“I don’t really know them,” he said, and I abandoned my interrogation to check on my housemate who was now, remarkably, springing to her feet, blood pouring from her nose. 

An ideal Sydney

When I ask Clover Moore what an ideal Sydney might look like, she says: “Certainly having a night-time culture that’s safe, sophisticated and diverse is a part of it. Not just for young people, but people of all ages, to do that they need to feel they will be safe going out and returning home. It would be a city where it’s possible to get a bite to eat after seeing a show or movie. A city where all of our theatres are busy and attracting full houses, or nearly full houses. Though I would say, it would be a city that’s easily criss-crossed whether on foot, bike or in a vehicle, with accessible parklands and affordable places to live. A city that takes action on global warming, takes cultural diversity seriously and supports our most vulnerable. All part of an ideal Sydney.”

It might – dare I say it – resemble Melbourne. “Many of Melbourne’s excellent initiatives reflect the recommendations of our OPEN Sydney strategy,” Moore tells me. “However, many of the key levers for action in Sydney are controlled by the state government rather than the city council.” 

And that state government currently enjoys the faith of the people. The lockout laws are popular. 

Bloody and battered

We got home, my housemate dazed but thankfully cogent, and were met by shocked friends. We wanted to call an ambulance but my housemate called it off. Icepacks were applied to her face, and the police were called. I went out the back, shaking a little, and lit a cigarette. Someone brought me a wet towel. I didn’t understand why. After I removed it from my face, I saw it was sodden with blood. I went to a mirror, and found myself almost unrecognisable. But I felt no pain then: I was still immersed in the tide of adrenalin. The police arrived more than an hour-and-a-half later. I was still smoking, nursing a beer and fantasising about vengeance. “We’re sorry we’re late,” they said, “we were almost here but a brawl broke out just around the corner.” 

More police

The official police response to the problem of Northbridge was to have more police, though one might have been forgiven for believing that the precinct had previously been allowed to degenerate in order to quarantine troublesome youth. In the mid-2000s, West Australian police made a point of flooding Northbridge’s streets with officers. The arrest rate increased and, with the new Northbridge police station incomplete, temporary lock-ups sprung up in one of its parks. As residents, we weren’t entirely ungrateful, but it profoundly missed the point about what was sick with the place. The symptom was being confronted, not the cause, and police saturation and parks filled with holding cells was unlikely to persuade those fearful of Northbridge to visit it. Cinema Paradiso remained deserted. 

Despite what happened, my housemate and I didn’t want less booze or fewer people in our neighbourhood – we wanted more life, not less. But what was possible in our community had been cynically quelled. In the crude public autopsies of our neighbourhood, booze and generational malaise were fingered as culprits, but my suburb had been cynically designed this way by people much older and much richer than ourselves. The devil wasn’t booze – it was monopolistic ownership. We desired a place that thawed regulatory and cultural constraints and attracted a democratic stream of investors and punters. It was our belief that it would subsequently became a safer, more civil and dynamic place.

In 2006, the WA state Labor government introduced a bill that would liberalise liquor licensing laws. Specifically, it was designed to make it much easier to apply for a small bar licence. “There was organised opposition at the time,” Alannah MacTiernan tells me. MacTiernan is the outgoing federal member for Perth, and at the time was a senior minister in the state Labor government.

The bill passed in 2007. We cannot ascribe the subsequent trend to the flourishing of small bars, but the level of assaults has trended determinedly downwards – even before you factor in population increases. The disintegration promised by lobbyists – and feared by some police – never eventuated. Last month, WA Premier Colin Barnett said: “People and families are coming to Northbridge in droves thanks to the state government’s investment in policing, activating public space and encouraging a fantastic range of restaurants and bars to open up in the area.” 

Barnett exaggerated his influence – the “encouragement” of bars and restaurants began under the preceding government – but the point stands. As MacTiernan tells me, liberalising liquor licensing laws has been “a fantastic thing for WA”.

But the prevailing wisdom of WA police then was “more booze, more trouble”. Simple. And there was a gratifying sense to that. If you removed all liquor in Northbridge, you’d have satisfactory assault numbers. But cities are far more complicated.

Alannah MacTiernan expressed frustration to me about WA police’s approach to alcohol. She herself is the landlord of a small bar, Swallow, whose liquor licence was opposed by police on the grounds there were sufficient places that served alcohol in the area. 

 “If the police are to have any credibility,” she tells me, “they’ve got to have proper analysis. We need to move beyond Mr Plod stuff. Now, we’re herd animals – social creatures – and we’re going to continue to drink. So what’s the best way to configure that? But in WA, police have not developed a sophisticated analysis. One thing about small bars, for instance, is that they tend to generate less aggression. They lower the temperature.” 

What was repeated to me often – by politicians, academics and punters – was belief in the relatively civilising effect of small bars. “When I proposed my private member’s bill in parliament to change the law to allow small bars in NSW,” Clover Moore says, “my aim was to encourage more live music, to give people an alternative to the big beer barns and to encourage a more sophisticated, interesting late-night culture. Common sense and the anecdotal evidence says small bar staff are in a much better position to ensure responsible service of alcohol, compared to the huge beer barns that used to dominate in Sydney.”

Certainly, the Northbridge beer barns were not made with love or care, and the crassness of the venture could be felt inside. Nothing about these places induced a sense of responsibility or community. Happily, they are becoming unfashionable. In Northbridge, some are shutting. “Built form affects behaviour,” Dovey tells me. “And small bars are easier to manage. You can see everyone. You get to know them. You can make eye contact. This touches upon theories of self-organisation.”

Feverish debate

Sydney’s lockout laws have inspired feverish debate – much of it unedifying. Some opponents of the laws have sent abusive or threatening messages to Thomas Kelly’s parents. A shrine to the young man has been destroyed. Seeking to dispel hopelessness, the Kellys have rightly attempted to transform their grief into a public benefit. Much of the public agrees. 

But there is also among that public an appetite for quick fixes. Because there are people, and no doubt a faction of police, who will never care for a city’s dynamism, who will sneer at its messy, blessed beatings of desire. It is a failure of imagination, perhaps. And there are those who are touched by determinism, who confuse cause and effect, who ignore the creative, positive, thoughtful solutions because they are so much harder. The lockout laws are about much more than getting pissed. This isn’t about juvenile entitlement; it’s about how we conceive of ourselves, our cities, our possibilities – and how swiftly we’ll apply limitations to all of them. 

We have at the moment two cities going in two very different directions. Despite a parochialism that suggests otherwise, it’s difficult to believe Sydney’s culture is so different from Melbourne’s that it might not accommodate similar policies. “There’s a fair bit at stake here,” Dovey told me. “Dynamism’s at risk. You can’t erase that without erasing creativity. I mean, we could have a city like Singapore – but would you want to live there?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "Behind the closed doors". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.