Sydney Lockout Laws. What’s Happening?

Currently, in Sydney Australia, the bar industry is fighting a major battle with a local government that threatens to destroy one of the world’s best nightlife scenes. Here BarLifeUK take a look at what is happening and how it potentially effects the UK.

The ongoing issues in Sydney are not simply explained so we have called in help from two BarLifeUK friends in Australia, Sven Almenning owner of award winning bars Eau de Vie and John Gakuru, ex-pat, now working for Think Spirits. Both are based in Sydney and have been very vocal in their opposition to the Lockout Laws.keep-sydney-open

Before we have a closer look at how these laws are affecting Sydney bars, and how this could impact on the UK, we will take a look at what these laws are all about, and how they came to pass.

In February 2014 the NSW State Government imposed a group of restrictions on the Sydney inner city (otherwise known as the CBD) in response to some high-profile violent incidents in the cities Kings Cross area. Due to the way Australia is run this applied only to Sydney, and indeed only a certain part of it. These restrictions included:

  • Lock outs (a lockout means no customers are allowed in your venue after the stated time, this includes anyone going out for a cigarette or to make a phone call, they will not be allowed back in) and last drinks: 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks. Small bars (maximum 60 people), restaurants and tourism accommodation establishments are exempt.
  • Temporary bans: of 48 hours for troublemakers.
  • Takeaway alcohol sales: stop at 10pm for bottle shops, hotels and clubs.
  • Liquor licenses: two year freeze on approvals for new and existing licenses.
  • Revoking of Competency cards and disqualifications: (up to 12 months) for bar staff breaching responsible service of alcohol requirements.
  • Licensee fines: of up to $11,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 12 months, as well as strikes under the Government’s Three Strikes disciplinary scheme for failure to comply with the new laws.

Later the same year, as the city’s hospitality industry was still reeling from these restrictions, an announcement came which really dealt a body blow. No shots, doubles or pre-mixed drinks would be allowed after midnight. No-one could buy more than four drinks at a time after midnight, or more than two after 2am (in an attempt to stop ‘stockpiling’ of drinks before the 3am cut off). Also, the worryingly vague rule, that ‘high risk drinks’ could also not be promoted.

The high-profile incidents in Kings Cross were, and no-one is denying this, terrible violent attacks that sadly left two young men dead. The newspapers jumped on these stories and immediately blamed the drinking culture of Sydney and in particular ‘The Cross’.

The NSW Premier at that time (think of a Boris Johnson type role but with a whole lot more power), Barry O’Farrell, reacted to these incidents and the subsequent press coverage, implementing the laws mentioned above. The claim was that this was to reduce the so-called ‘violent epidemic’ that was sweeping the city, but as Sven points out this wasn’t the case:

‘The lock out laws were never about “doing the right thing”. They were never about “reducing alcohol fuelled violence”… The lock out laws were about being seen to be doing something. More specifically, they were about being seen to be doing something about an issue that had gathered a massive amount of hype in the media.’

A few weeks after imposing the laws Barry O’Farrell was forced to resign after a non-related scandal, and was replaced with Mike Baird. It is Mike Baird who has become the face and voice of the Lockout Laws. He has also become the focal point of the campaign against the laws, named Keep Sydney Open, due to his stance despite overwhelming public opposition to the laws.

What Have The Lockout Laws Meant?

As the Lockout Laws were designed to combat violence in the city, it is the facts and figures surrounding violence that have become the focal point of the opposing factions arguments.

The area of Sydney affected
The area of Sydney affected

The NSW government have repeatedly pointed to the reduction in violent incidents in the CBD and Cross as proof that their plans are working. However the thing about statistics is they are never that simple, as John Gakuru explains:

‘Having read almost everything there is to read on the topic, my personal opinion is that the statistics that Mike Baird used were skewed and misleading. If the streets are empty (84% drop in foot traffic in King’s Cross) then violence will drop. The most misleading reality is that alcohol fuelled incidents had been trending down since 2008. All that the lockout laws did was fast track a further drop.’ *

No you didn’t read that wrong, there really has been an 84% drop in foot traffic in the King’s Cross area since the laws were introduced (according to a survey carried out by the City of Sydney), a mind-blowing amount. We bumped into Zdeneck Kastanek recently who had just returned from a trip back to his old home of Sydney. When we asked him how it was he quietly shook his head and explained how devastating it was to see such a previously vibrant part of the city turned into a ghost town.

To put King’s Cross into perspective for those of you who haven’t had the joy of visiting Sydney, it is, sorry was, the closest Sydney had to Soho. A vibrant, buzzing area of town full of some of the cities best bars, nightclubs, live music venues and restaurants packed with locals and visitors alike. Just imagine Soho or indeed Manchester’s Northern Quarter (probably a slightly better comparison) with a footfall drop of 84%.

With a drop in potential customers, alongside the new regulations, you won’t be surprised to hear it has hit the bars in the area hard. Arguably the biggest shock was when Hugo’s Bar Pizza closed it’s doors.

Hugo’s had been a Sydney institution for 15 years, it has housed some of the countries best bartenders, held many of the biggest parties and won numerous awards including Best Nightclub in Australia 6 times and Best Pizza in the World. Now the doors are permanently closed. With owner Dave Evans citing a 60% drop in revenue after the restrictions (numbering 36 according to Evans) were enforced.

Hugo’s is not, by far, the only venue to close it’s doors. Other notable sites no longer able to survive include Jimmy Liks restaurant & bar which had been around for 14 years and hugely popular nightclub Goldfish. In the CBD even McDonalds has shut two venues….. when does that happen?

Matt Barrie in his excellent article ‘Would the last person in Sydney please turn the lights out’ claims that the Cross ‘…has been decimated so badly that it will never, ever, come back as an entertainment precinct.’. From what we have heard it would be hard to argue.

At the end of the day it is the bar owners and tenders that are the ones left suffering. Consumers are leaving the CBD in droves and heading out to areas of Sydney that are not effected by the same laws. Unfortunately these are areas that are not used to having so many people and are not set up do deal with such an influx in all areas from policing to public transport.

This has not only led to CBD bars closing but those that stay, defiant and hopeful, are having to reduce staff hours to compensate for lack of numbers through the doors. Bartenders are not only getting less hours, but with less customers, significantly less tips.

During prohibition bartenders left the US so they could continue their craft and make ends meet. According to John ‘Here they talk of moving to Melbourne! It’s astounding that Sydney and Melbourne are even in the same country!’.

What Next?

This is obviously a huge issue for a city that is so reliant on its 20 million people strong annual tourist trade. There is certainly no lack of support for the Keep Sydney Open campaign with an estimated 15,000 people taking to Sydney’s streets recently to show their displeasure with Mike Baird. Numerous polls back this up, showing around 80-90% of people opposed to the laws including one by the Australian version of The Daily Telegraph (there are of course one or two showing the reverse opinion but these are very much in the minority).Keep-Sydney-Open-March

However the worry is it will make no difference, Sven certainly thinks so:

‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and to be honest I also hope I am very wrong about this, but I have no faith in the lock out laws being revoked. At least not when the next review is due. If indeed they are, I promise to throw a massive night of free drinks for all at both my Sydney venues… It would definitely be worth the celebration!’

John is equally worried:

‘I’m not as optimistic as I am normally. Australia is not renowned for going back on decisions. Our best hope is the head of the lockout review, Ian Callinan. He’s an ex High Court judge who has vowed to bring all concerned to the table for constructive debate on the issues. Sydney’s cultural identity is in tatters in less than 2 years. It’ll take a lot longer to repair it. A vibrant global city needs a vibrant night time economy. Sydney’s has been eroded beyond recognition.’

You may think that common sense will prevail but alas common sense is not, it seems, something that Mike Baird’s office seems to be keen on. The best example for this is that there is an exception in all of these laws, which were, remember aimed at reducing alcohol fuelled violence, in the form of the city’s Star Casino.

The line demarcating the lockout area stops just before the casino. However the problem comes with the statistics surrounding violent incidents there.

According to a recent report by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research looking into the effect of the lockout laws on violence, the number of assaults occurring in and around the Star Casino between February and September 2014 averaged 6.3 per month. That is an increase from 3.5 the corresponding period in 2013 or an 80% increase. In one year.

Surely with these figures in mind the casino would have to be included in the lockout area. However there is an issue, the issue is politics and money. Last year the casino paid AUS$320 million in taxes to the NSW Government. It is this issue that has resulted in Mr Baird being given the nickname and hashtag #casinomike.

The widely reported counter argument, for the record, is that the rise in violence is due to the rise in numbers at the casino due to the lockout laws. However surely all this proves is the lockout laws are not solving the issues but just moving them around the city. All the while encouraging people to gamble if they do want a late night drink.

It is this exemption that is the biggest worry for John, in respect to the longterm issues facing Sydney:

‘If the casinos weren’t exempt I think the night time economy would find its own equilibrium over time. With the casinos exempt and the blatant corruption that sits behind those decisions, these lockout laws will never stimulate recovery in affected city zones. The long term implications are frightening!’

Why Should We Worry In The UK?

Firstly we should worry because they are all part of our international bar community. Seeing bars suffering in Australia should be as worrying as seeing them suffering in the next town down the road. When your family is in trouble you do all you can to help.Sydney-sign

Closer to home it is hard to see a similar restrictions coming into law nationwide but can you honestly say the following scenario is impossible?

A couple of tragic deaths occur in an area of a city or smaller town. These events occur when alcohol is involved. The press gets carried away with it’s coverage building a frenzy around the issues. A weak minded local politician takes a look at Sydney, at the government friendly figures and decides to try it out.

The laws you have seen above may not seem too bad to you. 1:30am and 3am are probably after, or at the end of, your license anyway but in Sydney they go out a lot later than in the UK. In the UK the laws would have to be changed slightly, so let’s say they go for 11:30pm and 1:30am.

Now no-one can come to your venue after 11:30pm, no-one can pop outside for a cigarette (well not if they want to come back in). Oh and no shots can be served after 10:30pm. Not only that, but no serves over ice either, no drink can be served after 10:30pm that doesn’t have at least 60ml of water or mixer in it.

‘Want a nice single malt over ice before you go home sir? I’m afraid I’m not allowed to serve that to you.’ or perhaps you work in a nightclub ‘Hi there, 4 sambuca’s and 4 Bacardi Breezers? I’m afraid not. However can I offer you 4 sambuca lemonades and 4 Mojitos.’

Can you honestly say that wouldn’t have any effect on your bar or those around you? Oh and just as a final kick in the nuts if your customers wanted to go back home to carry on drinking they would have to leave before 10pm as all off-trade alcohol sales are banned after then.

It’s a scary world isn’t it? That is the world that Sydney bar owners currently live in. We need to do all that we can to help our neighbours far away. The best way you can do this is to understand their struggles and support their various social media posts and campaigns.

For The Record

I lived in Sydney for 6 years, just before I left, after years of fighting the Small Bar License was introduced. The excitement and optimism that filled the city was a joy to see, within a couple of years the Sydney bar landscape was unrecognisable to the one I left behind, with a series of exciting, bartender owned, internationally acclaimed venues opening.

To think that all of that work, all of that optimism, all of that change is becoming for nothing is truly depressing.

The simple fact is that it wasn’t alcohol that so unfairly ended the lives of the two men who started this whole campaign. It was the stupidity of two individuals who attacked them.

Normally in an article like this it is the done thing to look fairly at each side of the argument, to give the other side the chance to put their point across, but at no point during my research did I find anything that made me believe that Mike Baird deserved this right, or would have anything constructive to say. It is also the case that the press in Australia have largely not given that courtesy to the Keep Sydney Open campaign so, quite frankly, fuck them.

I do want to make one thing clear, no matter what you think of this piece and no matter what you read elsewhere do not, for one second, let this put you off visiting Sydney if you get the chance. I was over there last year and had an amazing time. There are numerous amazing bars, and bartenders, who have survived and a lot of the issues are only truly noticeable if you live in Sydney.

John agrees ‘Don’t be put off by what’s going on online. We, who live here, must continue to put pressure on lawmakers to hammer home our dissatisfaction and fight for a seat at the review table in order to have our voice of reason heard. Come visit! You’ll have a blast! I’ll even show you around Sydney’s bar scene. Just know that our nights out start at 6pm now!’

There are many excellent articles out there on the subject of the Lockout Laws and Keep Sydney Open. If you want to know more I urge you to read Matt Barrie’s piece linked above, Mike Baird’s Facebook page is worth a look if you want proof about the level of opposition to the laws look for his post starting ‘Let’s start with a statistic…’ and have a look at the comments. Finally, below is Sven’s superb Facebook ‘rant’ in all its glory and well worth a read from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Sydney bars, the UK are behind you. #KeepSydneyOpen

*Both the facts covered in John’s quote are backed up by the City of Sydney’s owned research which can be found in full here.


Taken from Sven Almenning’s Facebook post:

Rant warning…

Why the lock-outs won’t change

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and to be honest I also hope I am very wrong about this, but I have no faith in the lock out laws being revoked. At least not when the next review is due. If indeed they are, I promise to throw a massive night of free drinks for all at both my Sydney venues… It would definitely be worth the celebration! But alas, I strongly believe I am right, and this is why:

The lock out laws were never about “doing the right thing”. They were never about “reducing alcohol fuelled violence”, nor were they about lining the casinos pockets. The latter was just a really handy bonus, that not doubt was negotiated along the way.

The lock out laws were about being seen to be doing something. More specifically, they were about being seen to be doing something about an issue that had gathered a massive amount of hype in the media.

After the two deaths, the media went crazy. All of a sudden there was an epidemic of violent drunks raging in the streets. Except, if you worked and lived in Kings Cross you would have no idea. In fact to those of us who worked in the area it honestly felt like the trend was that there was less trouble and less violence compared to say the Cross I first witnessed in 1996 and when I moved here permanently in 1999. At the time when the first “Coward Punch” happened I, in addition to running my three bars, also ran an agency specializing in consulting to the alcohol industries, and all the numbers I saw described a downward trajectory of alcohol consumption. There was a definitive trend towards drinking less. “People are drinking less, but better” was the common phrase that was thrown around. According to the data I was privy to, we are consuming less booze, and being more discerning about our choice of drinks when we do indulge. This change in attitude towards drinking was in many ways the primary sentiment and drive for the small bar culture: Intimate bars where you can enjoy a few quiet drinks with friends, new or old.

With the media stirring up a frenzy, and with various religious groups and of course local hospital and police adding fuel to the fire, our elected representatives felt the need to be seen to be doing something. And though I have no confessions or quotes to back this previous statement up, I believe the measures that were taken are evidence enough. Introducing laws that stop bars from allowing new guests after 1:30am, that cease the sale of alcohol at 3am or that doesn’t allow shots or even neat whisky or cognac after midnight, and that force bars to use plastic glassware after midnight, if applied retrospectively would not have changed the fate of Thomas Kelly or Daniel Christie, both of whom passed away hours before any of these laws would have had any effect… Ask yourself, say we introduced new speeding laws were you’d lose your license if you were speeding between the hours of 1am and 6am… would these have a beneficial effect in reducing car accident caused by speeding during the day?

The fact that the laws would have had zero impact on the lives of Daniel Christie and Thomas Kelly is of course irrelevant. The thing is with politicians, as long as they can claim what they are doing has purpose, and as long as they can manipulate the facts and stats to make it seem like they are achieving something, that’s all they need. Cynical I know – but there is a reason why we use the words ‘politics’ mostly as a negatively loaded word used to describe backstabbing, dishonesty and people jostling for position…

Although I believe the motivation for these laws had nothing to do with trying to solve a problem, but rather to be seen to be doing something about an issue that had been created by the media, we’ll never really know why the laws were introduced in the form they were, unless of course, Barry ’59 Grange’ O’Farrel steps in and confesses under a lie detector… However, we know the following:

  • They did not take into account the fact that violence has been dropping in the Kings Cross area for years
  • They did not try to introduce a law that would have saved the lives of Christie and Kelly (as explained above)
  • They did not consult the industry at all
  • They believe that alcohol fuelled violence is bound by very strict geographical boundaries (randomly drawn of course). Why else only introduce the laws to a small area – and say exclude the casino? Does the location where you drink make you violent?

Fast forward a few years and we’ve witnessed Sydney’s nightlife take a massive dive. Gone are the nightlcubs and gone are the music venues. Barely a month goes by without the announcement of another bar or licensed premise closing down. The once vibrant Kings Cross, the home of artists, bohemians, the creative and the clectic, is all but dead. My venues are luckily still busy, but not nearly as busy as they once were. I feel for the many others who have lost their businesses, and as a result, their homes, their parents’ homes and I am sure in some cases even their families as the stress and pressure have led to divorce and alienation from their friends and families.

And then to read Mike Baird’s claim that Sydney is more vibrant than ever? WTF dude? Get in touch with reality man.

I thank Matt Barrie for finally pushing the media to putting the lock-out laws and the damage they have been doing to our once vibrant city into the spot light. But I must admit I also feel a bit ashamed and sad that we as an industry were not able to stand up together and have our voices heard. That we were not able to bring enough attention to the issue ourselves. However fact is, most of us are too scared to raise our voice against the city of Sydney and OLGR in fear of being pursued and unjustly fined. (Yes, I can barely believe that in 2015 Sydney business operators like myself are scared of voicing our opinions, using our freedom of speech, in fear of unjust retaliation and witch hunting by police and politicians, but alas that is the unfortunate case). Instead it was a tech entrepreneur who was sick and tired of watching his city lose its soul and vibrancy thanks to a knee jerk reaction from politicians who are more concerned about collecting votes from a small percentage of swing voters than they are in governing for the majority and in the best interest of the people of NSW.

Based on the current sentiment in Sydney, the huge support amongst commentators for cancelling the lock out laws I would feel very comfortable betting my money on the majority of Sydney’s voters being in favour of scrapping the out out laws. Which in truth is all we should need in our current form of democracy. Our local politicians are voted in to represent us, not to lord over us; and most certainly not to push their personal agendas and views over those of their electorate.

So, although there is enough evidence to support the premier revoking the current lock-out laws I simply don’t believe it will happen. It’s easy to bang your chest and claim you are doing something in the public’s best interest. It’s a very different story to admit that you were wrong, that your party was wrong, and that the former premier was wrong and to remove a policy your party has introduced, and that you have publicly backed and supported… And though I know this is hard, we ask it of our kids, we ask it of our friends and we ask it out ourselves every day. Admitting you were wrong, or that you acted prematurely and owning up to it, is something we expect all grown ups to be able to do. Except our poiticians of course. They only run the country and stuff. So why expect them to be mature about it? How can we expect them to consider the facts?

Mike Baird – please prove me wrong and fix this mess.

As far as I can see there’s only really two logical next steps in this mess:

1. Revoke the lockout laws (and ideally compensate the many businesses that have been devastated by these over reactionary laws )

2. Impose lock out laws state wide (you can’t honestly claim that only people in the CBD and Kings Cross are unable to handle their booze)

But again, I don’t hold our politicians in high enough esteem to believe they will apply common sense or event rational thinking on this subject. The main consideration will always be: “What impact will this have on my swing voters?”

Reading Mike Baird’s ridiculous twitter response the other day I was simply flabbergasted by his complete disregard for facts; not to mention how completely out of step he is with the community and industry at large.

Baird talks about “eliminating drinking ghettos”, but fails to acknowledge that Kings Cross was not created by gangsters, thugs and dodgy operators, but by the City of Sydney. The purpose of Kings Cross and Oxford Street were to create nightlife precincts where you concentrated licenses and night life and thus making the area easier to police. Similarly to say Amsterdam’s red light district if you like. However, the government completely failed to police it. They failed to provide enough cops on the street failed to provide transport, and failed to manage the taxi providers.

So the bars in the area were made to blame for two deaths on the street. Try that on in a courtroom… That’s the beauty of politics though. No court room needed. No judge required. Not even a vote on the matter required, because once you elect someone, they are free to do as they like, regardless of whether it has merit, or whether it is in the best interest of the people.

I could go on, but my whisky bottle is nearing half empty – which must mean it’s bed time and so I’ve got to sign off.

In closing however – on the very tiny off chance that this post might reach #CasinoMike I would like to say a few things:

  • So you think that staying up late and drinking is a sin? A flippant thing. Something that society may be better without? Well, this is simply not your call old man. It’s rather rare that I stay up past 11pm these days as well, however that doesn’t mean I don’t remember what it was like to dance till the early hours and then cab it to Bondi to (smoke a joint and) watch the sun rise before crawling into bed. And Fuck me those were the glory days dude. You have NO RIGHT to take that away from the youth of today
  • You should be ashamed of your twitter post and your self righteous stand on this matter. Shame on you for twisting the truth and lying about statistics. As an elected official you are chosen based on your word. And your word is an unwritten contract with the people of NSW. When you lie, when you obfuscate the truth, you are breaking your contract with the people who voted you in, and in truth I believe you should be punished for it.
  • And finally I’d like to flip you the bird for belittling the debate by reducing it to complaints about “not being able to drink till dawn and not being able to impulse buy a bottle of wine after 10pm”. That’s not the point at all my man. We are adults, and we want to be treated like it. We are upset about you taking our rights away, and about punishing the many for the sins of a few. We’re also mad because you’re addressing the symptoms, not the real problem.

You want an alternative?

Well, be a true liberal, and allow bars and restaurants to operate as they please. Open and close as they please. And let each business decide what’s the most commercial viable option for them – just like any other LEGAL industry. And then increase the punishments for violence and drunken disorder, and for venues who breach the law. But for Christ sakes dude, be transparent and honest about this.

Mike Baird – you can still make this right. Please prove me wrong. #KeepSydneyOpen