February 24, 2017 marks the three-year anniversary of Sydney’s controversial lockout laws. 

In that time, Sydney has seen venues close, the streets empty and protest movements like Keep Sydney Open blossom. But after three years of lockouts, what comes next? JOSEPH EARP reports for The Brag.

Locked Out For Good: Sydney’s Dying Businesses

“In moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure.”
– Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

“This town is coming like a ghost town / All the clubs have been closed down.” – The Specials

On July 29, 2015, after over a decade of high-profile events and consistent trade, Hugo’s Lounge in Kings Cross announced its closure. Understandably, the venue’s demise hit its owner, Dave Evans, hard. Speaking to the press, he sounded like a man robbed, and his tone was one of anger, not regret or despair. “This is like the last dance for us,” Evans said. “For 15 years Hugo’s has been at the forefront of Sydney entertainment. People knew they were going to have a great time here in a safe environment. That was our culture.”

But as distressed as Evans might have been, the news hit the venue’s 70 employees even harder. After all, Evans, the brother of the decorated chef Pete Evans and a minor celebrity unto himself, had the resources and backing to bounce back: Hugo’s’ sister venues, including a successful outlet in Manly, remained open, and though the entrepreneur’s empire wobbled, it did not fall. But for Evans’ staff – a number of whom had been working at the venue since it opened way back in 2000 – the future was not so certain.

Some of them threatened to sue, to take back even a relatively small portion of the revenue and security they claimed had been stolen from them. Others went to the press, ready to slander a catastrophically ‘one size fits all’ set of lockout laws that applied tremendous pressure to Sydney’s already threatened live music scene; legislation that was already proving ineffective in addressing a problem that years of studies had proved was as cultural as it was criminal.

The lawsuit never went ahead. The committed Hugo’s staff looked for work elsewhere. Evans focused on his other enterprises. And the venue itself sat dormant, while other clubs and pubs around Sydney – Soho, The Flinders, Q Bar – followed suit, shutting their doors and laying off their staff. Controversial senator David Leyonhjelm, a firebrand better known for his crudity than his prescience, put it well: “Nobody seems to care,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time.

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And nobody on a governmental level has really ever pretended to care since. No matter how furious the opposition to the lockout laws has become – no matter how many protests have been organised or anthems have been released or petitions have been signed – the response from the New South Wales State Government has been vicious, sustained indifference.

The laws have outlived two Premiers, Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird, not to mention a host of venues and businesses dotted throughout the city. And in all that time – three long years in which Sydney’s cultural life has been directly and repeatedly threatened – the laws have shifted in only the most minor of ways.

Indeed, as Sydney’s live music scene has weathered blow after blow – as thousands have become unemployed, as streets have emptied and livelihoods have been threatened – the laws have remained ever-present, standing as a stunning testament to the stubbornness of a government committed to waging nothing less than a cultural war.

In The Beginning: How The Lockouts Came About

“From the outset, these laws have been about fixing a serious problem. Violence had spiralled out of control, people were literally being punched to death in the city, and there were city streets too dangerous to stroll down on a Friday night.” – Mike Baird

 

On January 20, 2014, fresh from one of his many holidays, and with his mechanical, media-trained hands flicking in and out to underscore all the right beats of his speech, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell addressed the outbreak of “coward punch” incidents that had led to the deaths of two young men, Daniel Christie and Thomas Kelly.

It was a typically lifeless lecture, mumbled out in O’Farrell’s dry, dreary tones. Indeed, it would barely be worth remembering were it not for a conclusion in which the Premier accidentally criticised the measures his government was weeks away from unleashing: the lockout laws that were set to enforce a 1:30am shut-out time for all venues in the CBD, a 3am deadline for last drinks, and a restriction on the sale of all takeaway alcohol after 10pm.

“I make the point again: there is no simple, single solution to tackle effectively the problem of alcohol and drug-fuelled violence,” said O’Farrell, a man who was ready to offer a single solution to the problem of alcohol-fuelled violence while remaining deaf to all other options.

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That O’Farrell revealed himself as a hypocrite should come as no surprise – history has already selected him to play the role of a wine-swilling Nixon type, and his legacy is one marked by corruption and a systematic neglect of Sydney’s needs. But it is nonetheless curious that he so accurately nailed the lockout laws’ most glaring flaw – even if the line was more likely born out of his desire to secure himself a ‘get out of jail free’ card than any kind of foresight.

At the time, O’Farrell was a politician under incredible pressure, both from a public searching for easy answers and an unsteady, Tony Abbott-led Liberal Party hierarchy that was struggling with likeability issues even at that nascent stage. And there were facts concerning the Christie and Kelly deaths that made them particularly distressing to Australians.

Two young, middle class men – society’s most visible and scrutinised demographic – had been killed in a manner both senseless and inherently public, and television sets across the country were awash with images of the victims’ grieving parents. “Breathing is almost impossible,” said Michael Christie, father of 18-year-old coward punch victim Daniel, in a series of quotes that were widely reported by the media. “Sometimes you wish you would just stop breathing.”

Even though Australians were still statistically more at risk from domestic violence, or car accidents, or any of the other much more commonplace tragedies available for the general public to meet, the randomness of the Christie and Kelly crimes made them all the more terrifying. These young men had died without rhyme or reason – marked for death simply because of where they happened to be standing; simply because they’d decided to grab a quick drink – and Australians at large became obsessed with the tragic nature of the crimes.

For months, that obsession manifested itself as wall-to-wall media coverage, and the endless lecturing and catastrophizing of politicians. It seemed to be of no matter to such people that for decades a range of academic reports had argued that the true cause of violence in Australia is a range of cultural issues, or that framing a complicated issue in narrower terms was a dangerous oversimplification. Nor did anyone seem to take much time to reflect on the precedent of somewhere like Germany, a nation with much greater levels of alcohol consumption but a lower rate of alcohol-fuelled violence.

No. Instead of viewing violence as a complex problem – one fixable through awareness-raising programs, better support for mental health services, a reduction in the wage gap and a generally improved treatment of women – the commentators clamoured for one, fix-all solution; a single piece of legislation that could be applied to a range of issues disguised as one.

And when they got it – when the lockout laws were introduced to the NSW Parliament on January 31, 2014 – they celebrated a restriction as though it were a breakthrough; a great tragedy as though it were an act of grace.

The Politics Of Avoiding Blame: O’Farrell, Baird And Beyond

 

“Sydney, once the best city in the world, has become an international joke thanks to the NSW Liberal Government.” – Matt Barrie

 

“This is the greatest city in the world and it is now safer and more vibrant than ever.” – Mike Baird

 

Sydney’s lockout laws and the state-wide restrictions on takeaway alcohol came into effect on February 24, 2014. Some three years since, the casualties of the laws are still growing. It is hard not to succumb to hyperbole when describing the pall that has fallen over Sydney – such is the catastrophic impact of the laws that even the most measured description of its effects sounds hysterical.

Not even facts and figures are free from frenzy. A City of Sydney report released in 2015 reads like a terminal cancer diagnosis, and the staggering 84 per cent decrease in Kings Cross foot traffic is so drastic as to be hard to believe. 800 nightly visitors to the area have been lost, while the CBD’s south has similarly been deprived of some 720 punters every evening. And that’s not even to mention the sudden drying up of venues and businesses: as the SMH reported, “over 30 shops” have emptied out of a 300-metre area in the city, while “as many as ten well-known late night venues within the lockout zone have closed”.

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The facts are what they are, and the bottom line is this: Sydney is quieter now. Its streets are emptier, its lights are out. As Matt Barrie so memorably noted in his striking essay on the lockout laws, ‘Would The Last Person In Sydney Please Turn The Lights Out?’, it feels like every day comes with the news of a new venue closure, and businesses are suffering hard from the knock-on effects of the mass exodus plaguing the CBD.

Yet in brazen defiance of the facts, the State Government has spent three long years determinedly holding up the lockout laws as nothing but a success. When pressed to justify the legislation, O’Farrell’s successor Mike Baird claimed without a shred of irony that the move had “saved lives”, proving unwilling to take into account the thousands of business owners, musicians, publicans and even taxi drivers whose jobs and livelihoods had been lost.

All the while, the government brazenly cherry-picked data, rifling through statistics and choosing facts to fit the story it had so haphazardly written. Entire reports were composed based on false equivalence, and Baird and his peers determinedly defended a decision that soon proved akin to cutting the head off a victim of the flu in order to stop their nose from dripping.

Because although it is certainly true that incidences of antisocial behaviour have continued to fall across the CBD following the introduction of the laws, such outbreaks of violence have actually increased in regularity when compared to the per capita population. There are fewer people in Kings Cross each night, but people aren’t committing fewer antisocial acts, and while the lockout laws might have practically emptied our streets, they haven’t changed the behaviour of the people who still walk them.

For example, the upturn in violence and antisocial behaviour that occurs around closing time – the so-called ‘danger hour’ that has long been considered the least safe period to be out in public – is still there, and all the lockout laws have managed to do is move this window of aggression earlier into the night. “Kings Cross continues to have the highest proportion of serious ASB [antisocial behaviour] incidents in the City of Sydney LGA, and their peak coincides with last drinks and closing time for many venues at 3am on Saturday,” read the 2015 council report.

TheStar courtesy Wikimedia Commons

That’s not even to mention the underreported cases of violence that occur at The Star casino [above], a hub of aggression that falls curiously and worryingly outside the lockout laws’ reach. “[The Star] paints an inaccurate picture of the level of violence at the casino,” found a confidential governmental report late last year, as reported by the ABC. “Of concern is the fact that violent incidents are not being reported to police in many instances, irrespective of the apparent severity of the incident.”

Claiming any kind of success from statistics that don’t actually support such an optimistic attitude is deluded – or worse, a deliberate attempt to distort the truth. Indeed, the Baird premiership was long characterised by an attempt to skew the data surrounding the lockout laws, and his need to categorically deny Sydney’s cultural dearth was almost compulsive.

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As the months ticked on and more and more venues continued to close, Baird proved he was willing to do whatever it took to dodge the onus of blame – even going so far as to claim responsibility for a pre-existing slump in antisocial behaviour.

“The problem with that is assaults have been coming down in NSW since 2008, so you had this pre-existing downward trend,” statistician Dr. Don Weatherburn told the ABC in early 2016, refuting a host of misleading statistics Baird had quoted in a Facebook post in which he characterised the lockout laws’ effects as merely meaning punters couldn’t “impulse-buy a bottle of white wine after 10pm”.

Weatherburn was not alone in his opposition to Baird’s reading of the numbers. As the SMH pointed out in February 2016, even those who penned the 2015 City of Sydney report were uncertain that the legislation had contributed in any meaningful way to a decrease in violence. “There does not appear to be a direct relationship between the concentration of licensed premises and the incidence of antisocial behaviour,” the report found.

But such data has never once seemed to sway the politicians involved with the case; those officials convinced they are taking the only reasonable course of action even as experts tell them otherwise. In the face of facts, politicians like Baird and his successor Gladys Berejiklian have chosen denial. And when confronted with the death of a culture they have been elected to protect, they have fallen curiously and determinedly quiet.

Of course, it would be wrong to imply that the laws have only been defended by politicians. There are others still who have celebrated the lockouts, not least of all doctors and nurses employed at hospitals across the CBD, many of whom have characterised the legislation as literally life-saving. In a widely shared piece written for the SMH, Toby Hall of St Vincent’s Hospital claimed the lockouts had almost completely thinned out emergency wards around Sydney.

“Talk to any of the doctors and nurses who witnessed the tsunami of mostly young people affected by alcohol-fuelled violence prior to the lockout and they’ll tell you the past 12 months have been like working at a different hospital,” ran a particularly praiseworthy quote.

But in a manner similar to the defence mounted by politicians, such an account falls victim to a confusion between correlation and causation. First-hand, eyewitness stories might seem especially convincing to audiences swayed by ‘honest’ narrators and emotionally delivered ‘facts’, but in a purely empirical sense, they provide nothing like hard enough evidence.

These kinds of untested assumptions and claims that one variable has had a direct impact upon the other – that the lockout laws have definitively halted alcohol-fuelled violence in the CBD – are well-known to statisticians and scientists. Such haphazardly concocted results even have a name: they’re called spurious correlations, and they represent the kind of unscientific assumptions that are poked fun of by pranksters who can plot a near-perfect rise and fall between the number of films Nicholas Cage has appeared in and the number of people who have drowned in pools.

“Correlation does not imply causation,” explains Professor Richard Kemp, a lecturer, psychologist and statistician at the University of New South Wales. “For example, as the temperature increases, the number of ice creams sold increases. But that doesn’t mean that ice cream sales cause the temperature change. There is not a causal relationship in that direction.

“Sometimes things can co-occur that do not result in causation. Sometimes it’s not even clear what the direction of causality is: whether ‘A’ is causing ‘B’ or ‘B’ is causing ‘A’. Or it could be that there is a third interrelated variable, or even a fourth and a fifth. All these things are possible, but you don’t know by measuring two variables and seeing that they change at the same time.”

As a result, as striking as accounts like Hall’s might be, and as endlessly as politicians and medical professions claim a direct relationship between a decrease in violent behaviour and the lockout laws, such claims should viewed with a sceptical eye. “The only way to properly measure the effect of [the lockout laws] in a strictly statistical sense would be if they did an experiment where they replicated the laws in a number of different cities to factor out statistical ‘noise’,” says Kemp.

The Sound Of Silence: Culture Behind Bars

 

“You’re going to tell me when I have to go to bed? Who the fuck are you?”  – Jameel Majam, The Lockhearts

 

Of all Sydney’s local industries, perhaps none has been hit harder by the lockouts than its music scene. Mid-level venues have been obliterated, and the standard range of opportunities once available for musicians hoping to make it big are steadily shrinking by the day.

“The thing that we find the saddest is that the smaller venues, the ones that support the emerging artists and give brand new musicians a go, are suffering and closing their doors at a scary rate,” says Sophie McComish, lead singer of the rising local band Body Type and publicist for indie record label Inertia.

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“Obviously alcohol-fuelled violence is [a] public problem, but you can’t blame the cultural sector for that,” she says. “Especially when other big cities around the world have a thriving 24-hour culture without needing to instigate these outrageous, restrictive laws. These venues are where communities are formed, where underground culture is born. How can a music scene flourish if there’s no support at the formative level?”

Simply put, the answer is that it can’t – or at least, not without a range of hopeful creatives first giving up the hope of making music full-time and thinning out the pack of dreamers. Venues struggling to make ends meet now have to consider the cost of booking bands, and the laws have seen publicans carefully weigh up the merit of supporting the live scene while never once being able to ignore the cost of such backing.

As a result, a striking number of Sydney’s creative types have looked to emigrate, and Melbourne – once viewed by a bulk of Sydneysiders as a slightly poncey, expensive holiday destination – is now being considered as a serious place to resettle. “It’s almost a little bit masochistic to try and make it in Sydney as a creative person,” says another musician, who asked to remain anonymous. “You just don’t really see the point, when it’s so easy to move to a different city that seems to actually care whether you can make money.”

Needless to say, such mass migration has its own dangerous domino effect. The more creatives that evacuate the Sydney scene, the less people there are to support its at-risk cultural community, and the snowballing number of patrons choosing to stay at home is a disturbing trend in itself.

“Venues will continue to be shut down, emerging artists will continue to move away, and there will be less opportunities for music to exist in the heart of the city,” says McComish of Sydney’s future.

The laws are also having their own equally dangerous impact on the touring capabilities of international acts. For promoters and managers, visiting Sydney is now considered a financial risk – merely a complicated and costly way of fulfilling the word of those bands that promise a truly national Australian tour. “You know you’re going to lose money when you book a Sydney show,” one anonymous tour promoter tells the BRAG. “You just kind of have to accept that.”

And all these factors don’t just hurt your typical three-piece rock band. Sydney’s EDM and club scene has been equally harmed. Goodgod Small Club, once a cultural mecca for the burgeoning electronic community in Australia, was put up for sale in September 2015, and though the venue has reopened under different names since, its heyday has never quite been replicated.

“So many of us individually felt the change and how much the lockout laws had affected small businesses and the nightlife community,” DJ Nina Las Vegas told Billboard last year. “We’re not an antisocial community, which is what the government called us initially. We’re a very social, caring, creating, and understanding community. We were never part of the problem.”

Flume at the ARIA Awards 2016

Furthermore, while our country’s electronic scene has been so attacked at home, its heroes are simultaneously putting Australia on the cultural map internationally – an irony that has not gone unnoticed. Flume [above], the alias of Sydney-born musician Harley Streten, won a Grammy this month for Best Dance/Electronic Album; Bag Raiders, an Australian electro two-piece, continue to sell out tours in America; and a range of mid-level bands such as The Preatures are drawing massive commercial attention to the antipodean musical scene.

“You’d have to be an idiot to deny what [those artists have] done for the Australian music scene internationally,” says Jameel Majam of The Lockhearts. “We’ve seen some artists on social media coming out in defiance saying we’re protesting a very first world problem. But we’re not just whining because our playtime has been cut short – it’s about the cultural economy, the vibrancy and heartbeat of our city.

“It’s about corruption and it’s about our civil fucking liberties. You’re going to tell me when I have to go to bed? Who the fuck are you? It starts somewhere. I don’t care that people are only paying attention now that it affects them directly – at least they’re fucking paying attention.”

Rebellion And Resurrection: What Happens Next?

 

“You gotta fight for your right to party.” – Beastie Boys

 

During the production of this article, the BRAG reached out to a number of Australian musicians. Some wrote lengthy, eloquent responses to our questions; some cut straight to the point. Some used their real names; others preferred to protect themselves with anonymity. But of all the replies, the one that struck closest to home was delivered by a band that ignored the BRAG’s set of questions and responded with a brief, five-word statement. “I feel kind of useless,” said the anonymous artist.

And after three years of lockouts, giving up seems like a viable option for some. It is too difficult to battle such an unforgiving amount of governmentally directed pressure every single day; too hopeless to keep on performing when faced with a music-going public that often chooses to stay in, rather than venturing out into a deserted city to catch bands in an embattled pub.

And yet for every artist willing to give up, there is another still willing to fight. The NSW Government may long have decided to uphold sustained indifference as its default response, but that hasn’t stopped sprawling, crowd-funded institutions like Keep Sydney Open from organising protests. Even when faced with Supreme Court-ordered directives to shut down its gatherings, its founder Tyson Koh has remained defiant, and the organisation has become a rallying point for all those who hold the arts community in this country dear.

“I think there are some positives on the horizon,” says Majam, a vocal protester against those willing to characterise Sydney’s music scene as dead and gone. “For example, the laws have brought camaraderie between artists. [They’re] banding together. We feel like we actually have a voice thanks to movements like Keep Sydney Open. It’s nice to see so many people caring so deeply about this issue.”

It’s a defiant attitude echoed by McComish. “We have a lot of faith in the underground scene here,” she says. “Communities are forming to actively challenge the laws that they feel are unjust. Sydney is still an amazing city, and there are so many people pushing to make a change and keep the culture alive: Paradise Daily, Dinosaur City, Bad Day Out, Coven, Black Wire Records are so important at this time.”

There are even some who believe that the lockout laws have had an unintended positive impact on Sydney’s cultural scene. You only truly value something when it’s at risk, after all, and the threat of closure has reinvigorated a range of cultural institutions. Bands as high-profile as Thundamentals have released videos and statements defending the city’s heartbeat, and Flume used his time in the ARIA Awards spotlight last year to rail against those who would threaten the institutions that helped him find his voice.

“I want to say a big thank you to the venues, especially the small venues and the small parties that are doing what they’re doing, because that’s where music evolves, that’s where all the exciting stuff happens, and that’s what’s getting shut down right now,” he said, his ARIA trophy held tight in his hands.

And still more are talking to the press about the laws. Artists as diverse as Wu-Tang Clan, Hannibal Buress, Danny Brown and Flight Facilities have all taken the time to put pressure on NSW’s politicians; to force them into doing their job to protect the city they have been elected to serve.

The prevailing thought process is one of cautious optimism. It is no use pretending that the lockout laws haven’t decimated industries; that venues across the city aren’t at risk. But neither is it worth arguing that our culture is dead.

“Barry O’Farrell, Baird and that corrupt bunch of wankers tried to do their best to make Sydney a clean place or whatever is good for residential market value,” Majam says. “But they forget that the human race is a living, thriving beast. When faced with adversity, we evolve.”

This feature originally appeared in Brag Magazine. For more long-form reads like this, sign up to The Brag newsletter.