Terry Slevin, PHAA CEO
In September 2015, then NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said very publicly that Sydney’s lockout laws should never be changed and should, in fact, be made permanent.
Scipione said backing down on the tough lockout laws would be a betrayal of the death of one-punch victim, Thomas Kelly.
Next Monday, 8 March will see the last of Sydney’s lockout laws lifted, just seven years after they were introduced. At the time there was widespread community and media outcry over the increased levels of violence and anti-social behaviour in the heart of Sydney, culminating in several deaths (including Thomas Kelly’s) and many, many serious injuries. At the time the laws were introduced there seemed to be an understanding that you should never trade healthy lives for a so-called healthy night-time economy.
The impact of the new laws was unprecedented in curbing violence on Sydney’s streets, and the laws were welcomed by those whose job it was to keep the peace, or pick up the pieces of the injured or maimed.
A year after the laws took effect, Director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), Dr Don Weatherburn, said ‘it is certainly one of the most dramatic effects I’ve seen in my time of policy intervention to reduce crime.’
Police Commissioner Scipione, said he was ‘ecstatic’ about the ‘stunning’ drop in violent assaults near Sydney’s pubs and clubs which he said had definitely saved lives.
The response of the NSW Government in removing the restrictions on late-night alcohol sales flies in the face of all the evidence which shows how effective they’ve been in reducing alcohol-fuelled violence on the streets of Sydney.
The former police chief was right. These laws have saved lives. All of the available evidence shows that Sydney is a much safer place than it was before the lockout laws were introduced. Two years ago, a BOCSAR report showed that assaults dropped by 53% in Kings Cross across a five-year period after the laws were introduced.
The effects of the lockout laws have been extensively reviewed and the evidence shows conclusively that Sydney is a safer place as a result. Robberies are down 57%, assaults by 50%, sexual assaults by 20%, as well as reductions is other serious crimes, and with no increase in assaults in adjacent areas.
Why ignore the evidence? Why risk a return to the bad old days and the inevitability that Sydney’s streets will again see increased levels of violence, resulting in serious injuries, or worse, and putting pressure back on our already-stretched police and hospital system?
It’s a huge risk for a government to put its economy ahead of the health and safety of its citizens. This conundrum has played out for all to see over the past year, in how different Australian governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s ironic that the same NSW Government that has listened to the experts in public health and the medical community in responding to the pandemic has chosen to ignore many of those same experts on the issue of lockout laws.
With the removal of the protections that the lockout laws have provided to the community it is not a matter of if, but when assaults and injuries begin to rise again, and we see more tragedies such as the case of Thomas Kelly.
It is essential that the NSW Government closely monitors the impact of the removal of the lockout laws: the number of hospitalisations, the number of arrests, levels of inner-city crime and anti-social behaviour on the streets of Sydney. And should there be a return to the bad old days, it has a policy readily available which has demonstrated how best to clean up the mess.
We all get the argument that Sydney would like to re-establish itself as ‘party-central’ again. The question is, at what cost?
Terry Slevin is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, and is also Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology at Curtin University and Adjunct Professor in the College of Health and Medicine at the Australian National University.