Nightlife is key to cultural development and the genesis of exciting new thought. It’s key to making friends, meeting lovers, and sustaining friendships. In dark corners and strobed-out dance-floors there is harmony struck upon by the mutual desire to have a good time. The party culture represents a time-out from work and stress. To party is to seize a touch of freedom. It’s a safe space for expression and a space where intolerance is unwelcome. Or it should be. In Sydney, over the last two years, this gateway to individual liberty has been molested by ineffective and ill informed legislation. If we don’t acknowledge this and act now, our capacity to party, our touch of freedom, will vanish.
The Imperial Hotel in Erskineville is known for being super rad. However, after a targeted police operation, which found workers and patrons openly taking drugs and selling them on the premises, it closed its doors for 72 hours. It subsequently created ‘self-imposed’ lockout laws. To what extent these unique lock-out laws are truly self-imposed and how effective they will be is uncertain. What is certain though is the state sanctioned reactionary crackdown on the venue serves as a tourniquet to the area’s cultural lifeblood.
On that Saturday night at 11:30 there were five policemen, three bouncers, and a private sniffer dog patrolling the entrance to the Imperial.
“Line up single file against the wall” is not the invite into the Impy I’m used to. Nor am I used to a sniffer dog sitting in front of me or being directed to the police.
“Do you have any drugs on you?”
“Alright, we just need you to turn out all your pockets.”
After his quick search –
“We need to take your details now.”
If you want to kill a vibe, set up an environment where you line patrons up against a wall and take their personal information before they enter the venue. The atmosphere inside after being searched was drab – predictably so after such an overbearingly invasive entrance. It was closer to keno at an RSL than the cultural centre it had been. We left two minutes later after being told by more security staff to move on in or out.
The mixture of lockouts, increased security and a saturation of police officers, in my opinion, were enough to staunch the Impy’s good vibes; was it enough to stop the supposed offences though?
One month on and the Imperial has just shut its doors again for 72 hours due to repeated offences. Perhaps this is the wont of a particularly nefarious crowd, or of the Imperial’s influence on its clientele. Perhaps the community is ill and needs a nanny to coddle it. Perhaps. But this scenario conclusively indicates only one thing: nanny-state regulations will not change people’s behaviour regarding the consumption of illicit substances. Why would this same method change violent behaviours? Lockout laws do not produce the desired results, and they sport unarticulated side-effects that are corrupting Sydney’s nightlife. We need to address what the government isn’t.
Since the lockout laws were introduced in February 2014, iconic Sydney venues have fallen. The Flinders and Q Bar are among the casualties of 42 small business closures in the Kings Cross area. The City of Sydney says that in this same area there has been an 84% reduction in foot traffic. Offensive conduct has been reduced significantly, and Sydney apparently whistles a dulcet tune of peace. Offensive conduct has reduced by 31.6% in the CBD, 49.3% in Potts Point and 27% in Darlinghurst. But these reductions are disproportionate to the people that have left. Violence is still prevalent. And what of the perpetrators that have moved along? They have not turned to God or decided to spend Saturday nights watching Netflix. Sydney party-goers have not stopped partying; they have moved elsewhere.
The Inner West has stood for freedom of expression and freedom from violence for innumerable years. It was the hidey-hole of recluses and alternatives that needed to retreat from the CBD’s culture of violence and intolerance. It’s been a base for people whose colour doesn’t match their white polo’s, whose sexuality isn’t defined by their gender, and who don’t necessarily equate a property portfolio with a successful life. This alternative base is threatened by violence and by a dilution of tolerant pluralism by those same aggressors that the CBD’s lockouts attempted to exclude.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that there has been an 18% increase in alcohol related crime in Newtown and that “neighbouring suburbs Petersham and Glebe have also experienced a rise in violence.” Don Weatherburn, Director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, concluded that the emerging numbers concerning increased alcohol related violence in Newtown were “too low for reliable statistical analysis.” While these statistics are difficult to interpret conclusively, anecdotal reports suggest that lockout laws have directly affected Sydney’s counter-cultural areas. Stephanie McCarthy, a trans woman, was recently the victim of an unprovoked assault at the Townie. Newtown is famous for protecting the safety of minority groups otherwise at greater risk amongst mainstream Australian society. Stephanie herself identified this event as “one in a long line” of assaults on her LGBTIQ friends that have increased since the introduction of the lockout laws. The one-punch fatalities are a blight on Sydney’s nightlife, but the regulative measures the state has reacted with only facilitate the movement of violent crime to previously safer areas.
The stats and anecdotes are at odds. At best, the Inner West is stable and free from the CBD’s violent run-off. At worse, it’s suffering increased violence as a direct result of the lockouts. Despite this ambiguity, though, the NSW police are urging the state to sanction “State-wide closing times of “no later than 3am” for all “extended hours venues”, and a “state-wide roll-out of lockout laws to problem areas.” Newtown and Erskineville are cited among these.
My anxiety is evidently more than fanatical conjecture of a leftist NIMBY. The current pattern and police recommendation dictates that the ‘solution’ will entail even tighter regulations. Similarly ineffective sanctions on closing times and alcohol service will follow. And of what is this action indicative? Without conclusive statistics on the success of lockouts or of a rise in violence in Newtown, it is motivated purely by a lust for control.
Tighter controls will not staunch violent tendencies. A state-wide closing time of 3am, state-wide lockouts to problem areas, and the existing prohibition of takeaway alcohol sales after 10pm will morph our vibrant nightlife into a geography of teetotalers. It will undermine Sydney’s cultural ebb and flow. It will force youth to look for unregulated alternatives.
Our youthful nightlife and bastions of free expression are suffering an unprovoked assault. The opportunity to party the way we want is rapidly dissolving.
Sydney is currently facing an epidemic of nanny-state regulations that are, for me, causing more problems than they solve. For a 22-year-old who likes to boogie they have polluted my local alternatives. The Beastie Boys said we gotta fight for our right. Sydney Youth, Sydney Inner West, NSW – our right to party is at risk of being patronisingly reduced to a ‘privilege’ accorded to us when it suits parliamentarians and misinterpreted statistics. The issue here is safety, smart regulations, and the facilitation of a lifestyle that is precious to youthful development. Those areas that facilitate that lifestyle are being subjected to targeted police operations. The state-wide regulations are only moving the violence that exists out of sight. It moved from the CBD to Newtown and more overbearing controls will see it move elsewhere. Tighter regulations in more areas will be similarly ineffective to eliminate violence.
Sydney’s nightlife is at a turning point and we need to enter the debate ourselves. Demonstrate that these sanctions will not stop us from seizing that freedom that the night offers. Be respectful of others, avoid violent crime, and stay out well past 3am. Maintain a vivid public image that these regulations are dysfunctional and that the state exists to serve our well-being; a well-being that includes a right to party, a right to the freedom of expression that creates, and a right to freedom from harm. Recognise that the night is valuable and demand that our indulgence in it may continue.