Alcohol policy halved street crime

TONY BROWN
Last updated 08:42 11/06/2013

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OPINION: The Christchurch City Council has proposed a one-way door policy after 1am for Christchurch bars in some parts of the city and 1am closing in others. Tony Brown, who campaigned for a similar policy in Newcastle, New South Wales, says it has worked for his city and public safety must be put before pub profits.

I commend Christchurch City Council, police and health authorities for their courage and wisdom in seeking a 1am closure or 3am closure with 1am lockout to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harm.

In 2007, Australia's sixth largest city, Newcastle, with a regional population of more than 620,000, had the highest rate of alcohol-fuelled street violence, associated with its deregulated night economy where on average 20,000 younger patrons were allowed to drink themselves stupid to 5am every weekend.

Unsurprisingly, our inner city also had the ignominious distinction of the highest drink-driving rate and one of New South Wales' highest rates of drunken assaults on police and other emergency workers, including ambulance officers, nurses and doctors.

From around 2000, when the New South Wales government, under the influence of the powerful liquor industry, gave the green light to Newcastle pubs and clubs to extend their late trading, the number of alcohol-related admissions to our large hospital emergency department skyrocketed.

Local residents became hostage to the appalling levels of alcohol-fuelled violence, vandalism and vomit. It cost Newcastle City Council ratepayers around $1 million a year just to clean up this so called "vibrancy".

Compliance with Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) legal obligations by our liquor lords was simply non-existent.

While all this was occurring, the local liquor accord (backed by the NSW government) promotional material was headed "fun city - safe city".

Following protracted legal proceedings initiated by the local police with the support of over 150 local residents and small businesses, an independent Liquor Administration Board (shortly thereafter abolished) in March 2008 imposed a precinct-wide and enforceable 3am closure, 1am lockout and a package of other controls impacting on the availability and strength of alcohol sold.

The public and politicians were, and still are, subjected to hysteria and spin from the powerful and very well-connected Australian Hotel Association (AHA). They falsely claim these modest and sensible alcohol-supply controls have "devastated" Newcastle and created a "wowser" or "nanny state", ruled by the "fun police" for a "retirement village". They ignore the ongoing significant investment in licensed premises.

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It appears Christchurch's "sky fallers" owe Newcastle's liquor lords and the AHA a debt for borrowing their rhetorical nonsense. You can expect them next to disingenuously blame all Christchurch violence and anti- social behaviour on the "drugs" and lack of "individual [patron] responsibility".

It appears they share a pathological incapability to accept any real responsibility for their own alcohol supply and promotion practices, and being held accountable for the conduct of their heavily intoxicated patrons once they leave the premises - when most assaults occur.

As one senior experienced officer once warned me: "Tony, when you deal with the liquor industry you must realise, they make it big, they make it bold, and they make it up."

Some more responsible Newcastle nightclub owners will, however, privately admit four years on that the small reduction in late trading hours has been of disproportionate benefit in reducing costs and deterring troublemakers.

So what does the independent scientific evidence say about the real effects of the Newcastle 2008 modest public health intervention? What sustainable benefits, including cuts in enforcement costs, can an informed Christchurch community expect and demand from a 3am closing?

A 2012 study by Professor John Wiggers, of Hunter New England Population Health and the University of Newcastle found:

A sustained 35 per cent reduction in night-time alcohol- fuelled (non-domestic) assaults.

We estimate this may have prevented over 2500 brutal bashings of our predominantly younger people on our city streets late at night.

A 50 per cent reduction in night-time street crime.

A 26 per cent reduction in alcohol-related night time ED admissions.

About 80 per cent community support for the harm prevention measures.

A recent Deakin University study found the benefits of the 2008 Newcastle intervention have surpassed any other Australian city's attempts to reduce alcohol-related harm.

The others have primarily relied upon costly but ineffective measures reacting or responding to the violence once it has occurred. No surprise these latter "band aid" measures are funded not by the industry, but taxpayers.

Like Christchurch, a proud Newcastle has had its fair share of natural disasters including an earthquake - smaller than Christchurch's - in 1989.

Alcohol-fuelled violence and associated harms are however, a man-made phenomenon and thereby inherently capable of prevention and minimisation.

All that stands in the way in the rest of Australia is a lack of political will, courage and statesmanship.

Our Christchurch Kiwi cousins have deservedly raised the bar. Public safety must be put before pub profits.

Tony Brown, a solicitor, is a long-standing voluntary community campaigner for earlier closing times in Newcastle.

- The Press

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