On the same day that thousands of predominately young Sydneysiders rallied to oppose controversial lockout laws a new poll showed that the measures were supported by more than two-thirds of NSW residents.
Despite the growing campaign against the laws, the poll reflected a political trend. Both major parties in NSW have recently restated their support for the legislation and lockouts have recently been rolled out across Queensland.
So are the youth of Australia fighting a losing battle? And is the fight over lockout laws about crime statistics or something more intangible, like the value of a vibrant late-night culture?
Both sides of the debate are trading blows over the statistics. Proponents of the law point to numbers that show the lockouts have led to a decrease in alcohol-related assaults in Sydney’s CBD. Campaigners opposing the lockouts claim that violence is only decreasing because fewer people are going out. The media debate is dominated by facts and figures.
The debate is ultimately less about numbers and more about competing values and rights: the right to a safe environment versus the right to live in a city with late-night cultural activities.
The only thing everyone agrees on is that the fewer people there are out on the streets, the lower the likelihood of violence. But this isn’t some groundbreaking bit of research – it’s self evident. If there were fewer cars on the road, the rate of car accidents would decline too.
Those who support the lockouts are happy to accept a city with less late-night activity if it means fewer violent incidents. This is why the current debate is ultimately less about numbers and more about competing values and rights: the right to a safe environment versus the right to live in a city with late-night cultural activities.
A key part of the anti-lockout campaign is rejecting the idea that these two things are mutually exclusive. But with politicians, police, doctors and nurses all on one side claiming the lockout laws are the best way to reduce violence, are young partygoers really going to convince most NSW residents, who don’t go out on Friday and Saturday nights, that there is another way?
I think it’s time we focused less on statistics and crime rates and instead built a broader narrative about cultural expression and the right of young people to enjoy themselves when they want. It’s not going to be easy, but I don’t think the current war over numbers is the right way to win a fight about values.
It’s time we focused less on statistics and crime rates and instead built a broader narrative about cultural expression and the right of young people to enjoy themselves when they want.
The current laws aren’t based on evidence and stats. Contrary to media campaigns suggesting alcohol-related violence was spiralling out of control before the lockout measures were in place, figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showed that assaults were actually already on a long-term downward trend. The main catalyst for the lockout laws, the “one-punch” death of Thomas Kelly in Kings Cross occurred at 9.30pm – something that would not have been impacted by 1.30am lockouts and 3am closing times.
Even in the word’s of Mike Baird, the issue is a “moral” one, not one predicated on objective statistics.
Most of the speaker’s at last Sunday’s rally emphasised the view that the evidential basis for the laws was lacking, and argued that there were better ways to reduce assault. But it was pretty clear that the majority of protestors weren’t there to argue about crime stats, they were fighting for something more difficult to quantify – a vibrant live music scene, a flourishing night-time culture and the right of people to party when they want and where they want.
One protestor, Courtney, tells me that she attended the rally to resuscitate the idea of "Sydney as a thriving hub of activity '[where] you could go out at any time and something would be open'".
But she also says the use of facts and figures hadn’t been particularly useful in the campaign. She suggests a broader review of the laws involving key people from the live music scene was needed.
“From what I heard spoken by musicians and DJs at the rally, the lockouts are making it so much harder for young DJs and bands to make that break in the Sydney live music scene.”
Simon, another rally attendee, similarly emphasises the loss of music and culture as his main motivation for attending.
“I think there are other policies the government could introduce to improve safety, but if tens of thousands of people go out on a Friday night, it’s impossible to stop any violence from occurring,” he tells me.
“The biggest thing the lockout laws have done is ruin Sydney’s live music scene and the whole atmosphere of going out. So many venues have shut down.”
Safety and vibrancy aren’t exclusive.
The vast majority of rally attendees were young people passionate about a creative, vibrant city where they had the right to enjoy themselves around the clock. But they’re up against a populace that currently doesn’t value their right to enjoy themselves, listen to and create live music, and just have fun.
Safety and vibrancy aren’t exclusive. The rally’s main organiser, Tyson Koh, talked about the importance of late-night transport and other amenities as a way of reducing alcohol-related violence while allowing late-night partying. But the fact that the laws are politically popular, despite lacking a clear evidence base for their need or their success, shows how complex the issue is.
Rather than feeling embarrassed or too cautious to articulate the main problems with lockout laws – such as its impact on live music, a decline in venue diversity or even just the basic right to party and have fun, we should embrace them.
The lockout issue isn’t just about street violence. It’s about the kind of city we want to live in and the rights we have as individuals to enjoy ourselves. If we want to win that fight, we’re going to have to use emotion, not just numbers. Judging by the passion displayed by thousands of protestors over the weekend, I’m confident it’s a fight we can win.
Get both sides of the debate on Australia’s lockout laws on The Feed Forum: Lockout Laws, Tue 22 March, 7.30pm on SBS 2.
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